National News

A Week After Building Collapse, Miami Clergy Still Comforting Families

A couple at the beach in Surfside, Fla., are seen near the partially collapsed condo building June 26, 2021. (Photo: CNS/Marco Bello, Reuters)

NEW YORK — Father Juan Sosa on Wednesday, June 30, spent time with the relative of a missing family from the collapse of the Champlain Towers condominium in Surfside, Florida. She was in tears. The family was supposed to be celebrating one of the children’s birthdays.

It was one of the many moments that Father Sosa, the pastor of St. Joseph Church — about a block-and-a-half from the condominium — has had over the past week with family members whose loved ones are missing. More than a week after the collapse, the outlook is grim.

[Related: Youth at Florida Catholic Parish Help Lead Prayers, Vigil Following Tragedy]

“I have moved from shock to sadness,” Father Sosa told The Tablet.

The collapse of the 12-story condominium killed at least 18 people with 145 people still missing as of Thursday afternoon. Despite the tireless efforts of hundreds of search-and-rescue personnel, no one has been rescued since the first hours after the collapse last week.

The exact cause of the disaster is still under investigation.

The bodies of two children were found on Wednesday. The children, 10-year-old Lucia Guara and her 4-year-old sister Emma Guara were a part of the St. Joseph parish family, Father Sosa said. Other St. Joseph parishioners are among those missing.

Speaking with The Tablet Thursday, Archbishop Thomas Wenski said the population of the condominium tower mirrors that of south Florida with a variety of ethnicities and religions.

“People from Latin America. Snowbirds from up north. Young people. Old people. It’s quite a microcosm of our south Florida society in that one condo,” Archbishop Wenski said. “I think that also explains why this tragedy has affected so many people so deeply on a visceral level.”

This week, Archbishop Wenski has spoken with people that have lost loved ones and friends, and pastors that have lost parishioners. He noted that Epiphany Catholic Church in Coral Gables was another archdiocesan church that possibly lost parishioners.

“It’s touched everybody,” Archbishop Wenski said. “It’s back to that perennial question that the Book of Job raises: Why do bad things happen to good people, and there are no easy answers.”

From the start, the archdiocese has been on the frontlines offering spiritual support to families, first responders, and even the media.

Father Sosa and other Catholic clerics, as well as other chaplains and rabbis, spend part of each day at what’s being called the reunification center. It’s the place where family members gather, and where they are being notified if a loved one has been found.

“We make ourselves available. We simply go and walk around, and we want to be respectful of the privacy of these relatives,” Father Sosa said. “We’re not there imposing ourselves and then just by being there a number of people approach us.”

Mary Ross Agosta, the Archdiocese of Miami’s communications director, told The Tablet she’s seen people every day approach the priests, hold their hands and say, “Please pray for me, please pray for my family, please pray for my mother who’s missing.”

Agosta said non-profit agencies — Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army, the Federal Emergency Management Agency — are also available in the reunification center, and the governor’s office helps provide services like grief counseling and temporary housing.

The archdiocese also has priests in place at the rubble serving as chaplains to the fire and police departments as they work twelve-hour shifts.

“Our chaplains are there to comfort them, to emotionally support them, pray for them, pray with them,” Agosta said. “(Wednesday) they found two children and days before they had found toys and so forth so many of these firefighters are young and have their own families so it’s devastating for them.”

St. Joseph parking lot is where many of the national and international media have set up, so there are priests that rotate through to offer them support. On Wednesday, Agosta got credentials for three priests to get into the main media area to offer people here pastoral support as well.

“It’s pouring rain and the priests just walked through the mud slowly talking to them,” Agosta said. “Three reporters came up in tears when they saw the priests. Some are asking for prayers. Some are asking for blessings. Some just want to hold the priest’s hand and say this is so awful.”

If there is a ray of hope amid all of the sadness and tragedy, Archbishop Wenski said it’s the resiliency of civil society and willingness to come together.

He points to Thursday’s meeting between Democratic President Joe Biden, Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and Democratic Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava. At the meeting, DeSantis thanked the president for recognizing the severity of the collapse since day one.

“We have the federal government, state government, local county municipal governments working together and working together very harmoniously despite their rather sharp political differences,” Archbishop Wenski said. “That’s a hopeful sign that Americans are resilient enough that we can still come together to advance the common good.”