3 generations, 8 families: What the condo collapse took from a church

The Rev Juan J Sosa was on his early morning walk not far from the beach when he heard the wail of sirens. He assumed there had been a traffic accident. But when he walked toward what had been a familiar landmark on his route, he saw only a great void, a gutted tower and a pile of mangled steel and concrete.

>> Audra D S BurchThe New York Times
Published : 20 July 2021, 07:59 AM
Updated : 20 July 2021, 07:59 AM

A terrifying reality set in. The Champlain Towers South, just blocks from the parish Sosa has overseen for almost 11 years, was home to a number of his parishioners. The Guaras, whose oldest daughter he had helped with the sacrament of first communion; the Moras, whom he had dined with in their high-rise condo; the Velasquez and Torres families.

As Americans awoke to news of one of the deadliest structural collapses in the nation’s history, Sosa rushed back to the church to check registration records. He and the parish’s secretary began calling those they knew inside the building. No one answered.

Nearly four weeks after the collapse claimed the lives of 97 people, the immensity of the loss has settled into Surfside, Florida, a beachfront community home to a mix of retirees and young professionals. As the horror has unfolded, the church’s deep connections to the disaster have been fully revealed.

Just three blocks away, in neighbouring Miami Beach, St Joseph Catholic Church is the closest church to the beachside tower — which was once visible from its parking lot. Condo residents routinely walked to Mass. When rescue workers frantically scoured the wreckage for signs of life, heartbroken parishioners and strangers alike streamed into the sanctuary to pray and reflect and hold tight to hope that their loved ones had somehow survived.

But the closest tie was the St. Joseph’s congregation itself: Eight families who were members of the parish were killed, spanning three generations and about 20 lives, from a 4-year-old who had been baptized at the church to a 92-year-old matriarch who was remembered as the “heart and soul” of her family.

Nothing could have prepared Sosa or the parishioners for a tragedy of this scale.

“Like so many others, I have moved through different feelings, from shock to grief,” Sosa, 74, said. “And now, I want to help the community remember our families and help them feel some kind of closure.”

The reminders of loss are everywhere. Emergency workers chip away at the dust-coated ruins. Trucks carry loads of concrete and steel intermingled with personal items. Notes and flowers and photos of victims, their smiles frozen in time, adorn the makeshift memorial fence near the site. A row of blue wooden hearts with the names of the dead form a row in front of the memorial. Day after day, people come to pay their respects.

Photographs of the Guaras, one of St. Joseph’s 1,300 parish families, were left near a church entrance when they were still missing. Inside, near the altar, is a binder where people wrote the names of missing family and friends — filling four full pages. Sosa recently read the names aloud during Mass, a small gesture that underscored their shared mourning.

“There were just so many families that had a connection to our church,” said Hope Sadowski, 74, a longtime member who had four friends killed in the collapse. “These were people that you saw at Mass and who you chatted with. They were people who you had prayed with.”

Days before the June 24 collapse, Sadowski and Ana Mora had done precisely that. The two mothers, whose friendship was born in the church, embraced after a Saturday Mass. Mora told Sadowski that she would continue to pray for Sadowski’s grandson, who has paediatric cancer.

“It was the last time I saw her,” Sadowski, an administrative assistant at the Archdiocese of Miami’s Office of Catholic Schools, said tearfully. “It has been such a difficult time for our church and our community. But out of this tragedy, something good has happened. And that has been we have come together, regardless of skin colour or religion or politics, to grieve together.”

Over the past month, Sosa has helped guide his parishioners through the crisis, from counselling those with missing relatives to leading funeral Masses. The church, too, was transformed in those early weeks into a community centre of sorts, with both rescue workers and media representatives using the parking lot.

“I saw my role as being a bridge, connecting our community in the middle of an emergency,” said Sosa, who was born in Cuba and pastored at two other parishes before arriving at St Joseph’s. “We saw a kind of unity that I hope we can hold on to.”

In all, 12 families who had lived in the building — about 25 people — were registered at the parish. But it turned out that two families had sold their units. And Cesar and Carla Guerrero, who lived on the fifth floor, were not in the building at the time of the collapse. One floor up, Alfredo and Marian Lopez, plus their son, Michael, were able to escape, leaving eight families among the dead.

On that first Sunday, Sosa led his usual morning Mass — but with many empty pews. “When our father read out their names, it broke my heart,” Nury Lopez, 51, a parishioner of two decades, said of the list. “These people were here last Sunday.”

Sosa, too, struggled to process the dozens of deaths. A few days later, in an essay he titled “A Pastor’s Dilemma,” he posed this question: How do you deal with a group of the faithful who reside at a building that collapses unexpectedly in the middle of the night?

The answer, he wrote at the time, emerged from the tragedy: “You must be present and available, hopeful that God will restore what is broken and will bring peace to those who wait for news of their relatives and friends.”

Not since he was a young priest, when he led a funeral Mass for an older couple who died within 24 hours of each other, had Sosa faced so much familial — and congregational — grief.

But two weeks ago, three caskets stood before him, holding the bodies of Marcus Guara, his wife, Anaely Rodriguez, and their small daughters, Lucia and Emma, who were buried together in a single white coffin. Hours before, he was part of the funeral Mass at another nearby church for another collapse victim and St. Joseph’s parishioner, Hilda Noriega.

At those funerals, Sosa prayed for and affirmed the strength of family bonds. He has offered comforting words and has asked the loved ones left behind, those unmoored by a collective and compounded anguish, to try to find God within the depths of their devastation. Despite unfathomable loss and darkness, he has told them, they must see light, they must forge ahead.

That next chapter, he said, is healing and remembrance. St. Joseph’s plans to honor the parish families who were killed with a church memorial. And as the weeks eventually give way to months, mending the hearts of parishioners, he said, will require leaning into their faith, listening to one another and “pointing to the goodness in what others who now live have done for those who died.”

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Editor-in-Chief and Publisher