By: Arva Moore Parks & Kara Franker
Although some may think of Miami as a city built on nightlife and entertainment, the city’s founders established many historical churches along the coastline to serve communities with strong faiths and belief systems.
Henry Flagler donated land to build the first Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic and Methodist Episcopal churches. But because Flagler was Presbyterian, his congregation had the finest church in town. The original building cost $75,000 and opened on the on the corner of what is now Flagler Street and S.E. 3rd Avenue. The 1st Presbyterian Church was torn down in 1940 and a new building was built on Brickell Avenue that incorporated a chapel reminiscent of the original Flagler Street building.
Julia Tuttle, “the Mother of Miami,” built the first Episcopal church. She and Bishop William Crane Gray held the first services in her home in the late nineteenth century. In May 1896, she gave the land for the Episcopal church on the corner of what is now N.E. 2nd Avenue and 2nd Street. Considered the first official church building in Miami (services were previously held in either homes or tents), the church had no glass windows. Cheesecloth covered the openings to keep out the mosquitos and parishioners of the church called themselves the “Church of the Holy Cheesecloth.” In the mid-1920s, Trinity Episcopalian sold its 2nd Avenue property and built a new church at what is now 16th Street and North Bayshore Drive. The new Trinity Church was completed in 1926 and contained a rose window dedicated to Julia Tuttle. In 1970, it became Trinity Cathedral. It has recently been restored.
The Church That Was Born in a Washtub
In 1898, The Reverend James O.S. Huntington, Father Superior of the Order of the Holy Cross, was a houseguest of John Sewell. During his visit, he heard Sewell’s washerwoman, Louis Newbold, singing “Our Church Is One Foundation” while she was washing the family clothes. When he asked her about her church affiliation, he discovered that she was of the Anglican Communion, but since arriving in Miami, she and a score of other Bahamian Anglicans had no place to worship after their pattern of worship.
At Father Huntington’s request, Mrs. Newbold gathered about 30 people who met in a private residence on N.W. 3rd Avenue. They organized the first Black Episcopal Church in Miami. Thus, &aldquo;an idea born in a washtub” became Saint Agnes’ Church, named after Saint Agnes’ Church in Nassau, Bahamas. Most of the members were black Bahamians who had been members of the Church of England. The men of the community found a rough, “hall,” whitewashed it and put in benches to accommodate 100 people. More than 80 people came to the first service; more than two-thirds were men.
Miami’s Jewish Heritage
Before Miami had a synagogue, Isidor Cohen, sent his children to Sunday School at the Trinity Methodist Church when they studied the Old Testament. Miami’s first Jewish congregation was established in 1913 as B’nai Zion.
Philip A. Ullendorf was another prominent Jew who helped build Beth David. His gentile wife, Jennie, belonged to the Methodist Church. He often donated meat from his meat market to help her church raise funds.
In 1920, Beth David purchased a church building from the Christian (Disciples of Christ) Church on what is now N.W. 3rd Avenue and 2nd Street. The site had formerly been occupied by the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The new First Christian Church opened on N.E. 4th Street just west of the Boulevard in 1922, but has since been torn down.
Tour these historic churches throughout Miami-Dade County
Coconut Grove/Village West
Odd Fellows Hall/United Christian Church of Christ
3288 Charles Ave.
Although drastically altered with the second floor removed, this circa 1897 building housed the first Black library, literary and fraternal society in South Florida and for many years was the community gathering place.
St. James Baptist Church
3500 Charles Ave.
This historic church was formerly the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church (St. Agnes), which was founded by Rev. Samuel Sampson in 1895. Today. the 1922 church building it is the home of St. James Baptist Church.
Christ Episcopal Church
3481 Hibiscus St.
Founded in 1901, it was the church home of Father Theodore R. Gibson, priest, community activist, civil rights leader and former City of Miami commissioner. It is the oldest Coconut Grove church in its original location.
Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church
3515 Douglas Road
Originally known as St. Agnes Missionary Baptist Church, it is the oldest church in the Village West and the first Baptist Church in the Miami area. Its first home, built in 1895, was on Charles Avenue. The present edifice dates from 1948.
Greater St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church
3680 Thomas Ave.
In 1896, 12 settlers gathered in the living room of Mariah Brown’s house to form St. Paul AME Church. The first AME Church on this site was built in 1934, although the congregation once had a building on Charles Avenue that, in 1900, housed the first school for Black children prior to the opening of the public school in 1901.
Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ
3429 Devon Road
This church traces its roots to Isabella Peacock’s Sunday School that began in 1887. Four years later, the men in the community built the Union Chapel, which became Union Congregational Church in 1897. Through the financial commitment of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Curtiss James and the efforts of Rev. George Spalding and George E. Merrick, whose father had been the church’s second minister, the congregation moved into the beautiful Clinton McKenzie-designed mission-style “coral rock” church in 1917. The stonemason was Spaniard Felix Rabon, who used only a hatchet, trowel, T-square and plumb line. In 1928, Harriet James purchased a 300-year-old door from the Spanish monastery in the Pyrenees that now graces the church. The campus contains several other notable rock buildings once part of the William Matheson estate.
Bryan Memorial Methodist Church/Bet-Ovadia Chabad of the Grove
3713 Main Highway
This church was dedicated on Easter Sunday, 1928. It was built on land donated by William Jennings Bryan, the famous three-time presidential candidate, theologian and orator. His former home, Marymount, sits behind the church. He participated in the design, which included an outdoor pulpit where he planned to conduct Bible classes. He died before it was completed, just weeks after the conclusion of the famous “Scopes Trial,” in which he participated in the prosecution. Designed by the renowned architectural firm of Kiehnel & Elliott, it is an outstanding example of masonry vernacular design with Byzantine detailing. It is now the home of the Bet-Ovadia Chabad of the Grove.
Coral Gables Congregational United Church of Christ
3010 De Soto Blvd.
Designed by Kiehnel & Elliott and patterned after a cathedral in Mexico, it was the first church built in the city. It was dedicated on Palm Sunday, April 5, 1925 and included an outdoor pulpit. George Merrick, whose father was a Congregational minister, donated land for the church and dedicated the building to him. He and his wife also donated the Spanish sanctuary sconces. The church’s interior—with polychrome beams and massive chandeliers—is the best remaining example of pristine Coral Gables style.
Church of the Little Flower
1270 Anastasia Ave.
Located in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Miami, the church was established in 1926 at the request of a small group of Catholics in Coral Gables. Reverend Patrick J. Barry, Bishop of St. Augustine, named the perish in honor of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, also known as "The Little Flower."
First United Methodist Church of Coral Gables
536 Coral Way
Chartered in 1926, the first permanent sanctuary was constructed in 1933 (now Founder’s Hall on the corner of Coral Way and Segovia). The present sanctuary was dedicated in 1955.
Central Baptist Church (Christ Fellowship Downtown)
500 NE 1st Ave.
Central Baptist Church is one of the city’s centennial churches, having been established on July 27, 1896, the day before Miami’s incorporation as a city. This structure is the third home for the church. Built in 1927, the building is a magnificent evocation of Neo-Classical style and now houses Christ Fellowship.
137 NE 19th St.
Founded in 1922 as the first reform synagogue in Miami, Temple Israel has been in the same location since 1928. The temple’s first home was on what is now Biscayne Blvd. and N.E. 13th Street. The Adrienne Arsht Performing Arts Center, four blocks away, is located, on the site of Temple Israel’s home from 1922 to 1926.
118 NE 2nd St.
Gesu Church is the oldest institution still standing on its original site, a nine-lot area provided by Henry M. Flagler, Miami’s “Godfather,” in 1896. The original wood frame church opened there in 1897. It was replaced in 1924 with the present structure designed by Owen Williams of Palm Beach and built at a cost of more than $450,000. Since the Jesuit priests who staff it are noted for their stirring oratory, the architect was instructed to design an interior without posts or pillars so that there would be nothing to obstruct the view of the congregation from the pulpit. The church’s singular stained-glass windows were made by Franz Mayer in Munich, Germany.
St. Jude Melkite Catholic Church (Chapel of Our Lady of Assumption)
1501 Brickell Ave.
It was designed in Romanesque-Gothic style in 1946 by noted architects Henry D. Dagit and Sons as the Chapel of the Lady of Assumption. It served as the chapel for a girls school run by the Sisters of Assumption. The school later housed many Cuban Pedro Pan refugee children. In 1977, a one-acre parcel was sold to the Melkite Catholic Church.
Overtown & Liberty City
Greater Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church
245 NW 8th St.
Founded in March 1896, several months before the city was incorporated, it is one of the oldest churches in Miami. The first structure was simple, with a dirt floor. The present edifice is in Mediterranean style. Its scale, façade and stained-glass windows make it one of the most imposing structures in Overtown.
Historic Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church
301 NW 9th St.
Founded on September 18, 1896, D.A. Dorsey served as one of its founders. Mt. Zion was one of the first meeting places for the Boy and Girl Scouts, as well as for Dr. Martin Luther King and others involved in the Civil Rights Movement.
St. John’s Baptist Church — The New St. John Institutional Missionary Baptist Church
1328 NW 3rd Ave.
This popular church was organized by a small group at the turn of the 20th century. In 1940, the congregation built the existing structure. A rare example of the Art Deco Moderne architectural style with Gothic massing, it was designed by McKissack and McKissack, a Black architectural firm from Nashville, Tennessee.
Historic St. Agnes Episcopal Church
1750 NW 3rd Ave.
Organized in 1898 by a group of mostly Black Bahamian Anglicans searching for a place to worship, it has served the religious and humanitarian needs of Miami’s Black community for more than 100 years. Built in the 1940s, the church is an eclectic blend of architectural styles, including elements of Gothic Revival and Mission.
A.M. Cohen Temple
1747 NW 3rd Ave.
A.M. Cohen, a Black native of South Carolina who relocated to Miami to work on the railroad, organized the church in 1918. He stood for the incorporation of the City of Miami. His descendants continue his service.
Masjid Al-Ansar — Muslim Mosque
5245 NW 7th Ave.
This Mosque has been in Liberty City for more than 30 years and also includes the Sister Clara’s school. Its presence demonstrates the diversity in religion in one of Miami’s predominantly Black residential communities.
First Baptist Church
240 N. Krome Ave.
This impressive building is the former home of the First Baptist Church of Homestead. It replaced the church that was built in 1914. The groundbreaking was held in June 1940 but it was not completed until January 1944 due to World War II. The former Sunday School building in the rear was built in 1926. Today it is the bustling home of ArtSouth, a not-for-profit art campus and performing arts center that offers living, teaching, exhibiting and sales space for juried and emerging artists.
First United Methodist Church
622 N. Krome Ave.
This beautiful Mediterranean-style building was built in 1949, but the congregation had its beginnings in 1909. The sanctuary was renovated in 1974 and included the placement of a round stained-glass window on the east wall that was salvaged from the 1761 North Street Chapel in Brighton, England — John Wesley’s home church.
Little Haiti/Lemon City
Notre Dame D’Haiti — Pierre Toussaint Haitian Catholic Center
Northeast 2nd Avenue and 62nd Street
This church and neighborhood social service center bears the name of a recently canonized Haitian saint. It was formerly known as Notre Dame Academy, a Catholic high school for girls. Today, it is a place of worship for Haitian Catholics and is a significant religious, social and cultural focus point for Miami-Dade County’s Haitian-American community.
Grace United Haitian Methodist Church
6501 N. Miami Ave.
Grace United Methodist Church, formerly Lemon City Methodist, was organized in 1893 and is one of the oldest churches in continuous service in Miami-Dade County. The present sanctuary, built in 1959, is the church’s third building. The second building, built in 1905, was torn down and is now Little Haiti Park. Both Grace Methodist and the Bethany Baptist Mission, which occupies the former Grace Methodist church building on 2nd Avenue, serve the Haitian community with services in Creole.
St. Mary’s Cathedral
7525 NW 2nd Ave.
With its beginnings traced to a simple wooden church built for the St. Mary’s parish in the late 1920s, today’s St. Mary’s is the Cathedral of the Archdiocese of Miami and home to 1.2 million Catholics in 110 parishes. The main portion of the cathedral was designed by the Chicago firm of Barry & Kay in 1957 as St. Mary’s parish church. After the Diocese of Miami was created in 1958, the church became a cathedral and underwent a major renovation in 1965 that included the addition of the bell tower and the beautiful “Blessed Sacrament Chapel.”
Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church
1411 SW 11th St.
Mayor John Bernard Reilly and his wife Marie built this stately home in 1927. Reilly died a year later but his wife lived in the house until her death in 1935. In 1954, the building was converted into Saints Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox Church. A statue of the Virgin Mary that Marie Reilly, a devout Catholic, put over the front door remains today—a symbol of enduring faith.
Riverside United Methodist Church
985 NW 1st St.
In 1938, renowned architects Kiehnel & Elliot designed a beautiful addition to the original mid-1920s church. Today, the services are conducted in Spanish and the church houses several social service agencies.
Calvary Baptist Church
226 SW 17th Ave.
Calvary Baptist Church organized in 1922 and the present sanctuary was built in 1925. In 1959, when the first Cuban refugees arrived, Calvary became one of Miami’s first churches to offer services in Spanish. In 1967, the congregation switched to the Spanish language, making it the first of Little Havana’s historic churches to do so.
Shenandoah Presbyterian Church
2150 SW 8th St.
The original 1930 barn-like church burned down in 1948 and the present building, designed by Robert Fitch Smith, rose from its ashes in 1949. Shenandoah Presbyterian closed its doors in 1997 but allowed the Iglesia Evangelica de la Calle Ocho to take over the building.
Iglesia Baptista Renacer
1101 SW 12th Ave.
This church was originally a synagogue built in the 1940s for the Miami Hebrew Congregation, later known as Beth-Kodesh. It merged with Beth David after the neighborhood’s demographics changed. The former synagogue then became a Spanish-language Baptist church.
Tamiami Temple United Methodist
1401 SW 8th St.
Tamiami Temple was organized in 1925 and the present Mission-style building was built in 1928. Although the church has been altered, it continues as a presence on Calle Ocho.
Miami Beach Community Church United Church of Christ
1620 Drexel Ave.
Miami Beach’s oldest church, it was dedicated in 1921 on land donated by Carl Fisher for his wife Jane. Designed by noted architect Walter DeGarmo in Spanish Mission Style, it strongly influenced later Spanish and Mediterranean style architecture in South Florida.
St. Patrick Catholic Church 3716 Garden Ave.
Miami Beach developer, Carl G. Fisher, a non-Catholic, donated five polo stables to Father William Barry for use as a church and school for St. Patrick’s. The church was founded in 1926 and first held serves at the Miami Beach Gardens Theater on 41st Street and Alton Road. The church still stands today.
North Miami Beach
Ancient Spanish Monastery (St. Bernard de Clairvaux Church)
16711 W. Dixie Highway
Built in Segovia, Spain in 1141 and reconstructed in North Miami Beach in 1952-1953, the Monastery Cloister is the oldest building in the Western Hemisphere. Purchased by William Randolph Hearst in 1925, it was reconstructed by Allen Carswell, who built the Cloisters in New York.
The beginning of this story includes historical information adapted from “Miami Memoirs: A New Pictorial Edition of John Sewell's Own Story” by Arva Moore Parks. Additionally, the list of churches includes research and content compiled from a number of writers and historians, including: Dr. Paul George, Larry Wiggins, Timothy A. Barber, Gepsie M. Mettellus, Leslie Pantin, Jr., Carole Ann Taylor, Warren Bittner and Beth Dunlop.
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