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“White Elephant.” “St. Costco.” “An eyesore.” “Out of context.” A “min-strosity”.

These are just some criticisms on social media and elsewhere of St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church’s  grand renovation project. The church’s makeover has become a lightning rod for those who fear redevelopment in Key Biscayne

The pastor, the Rev. Juan Carlos Paguaga, has heard it all. 

In an interview on June 6, he seems a bit weary. It’s the look of anyone who has ever overseen a renovation – be it parish or kitchen. These days, he often adds a construction hat and yellow vest to his priestly attire.

“We are building to leave a legacy for the future,” Paguaga said, noting the expansion is a compromise given the growing congregation.  

 “It is also still too small for the capacity that we really needed,” Paguaga said. There are four Sunday worship services. 

He explains there are 500 students, faculty and staff and families of all of the above. The congregation may still be spilling out the door in a new church that will sit 600. There are four Sunday worship services currently.

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In this file photo, the Rev. Juan Carlos Paguaga, pastor of St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church, speaks before the Key Biscayne Village Council, July 2, 2019. A renovation and expansion of the church has drawn some public criticism, but Paguaga says the church is trying to keep up with an increasing demand from the community. (KBI Photo/Tony Winton)

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The new church, new gymnasium, two-story classroom and new parking lot configuration are being built through an estimated $18 million in donations, according to the church’s website. A pre-K and religious studies building were completed pre-pandemic, and the Mary M. and Sash A Spencer Multipurpose Building has been dedicated. The church and plaza are still under construction.

The church’s website tries to answer all the questions, including the size and scope of the renovation.

“Why is it that the Lord cannot deserve something that  is decent, and in good shape so the people can congregate, to listen to his word, and to celebrate a funeral or a wedding, a baptism?” asked  Paguaga, noting some homes on Key Biscayne are worth $50 million.

With large mounds of dirt hovering over Harbor Drive, construction vehicles apparently living at the round-about, and the large white buildings reaching to the heavens, St. Agnes remains mid-metamorphosis with completion expected by the end of this year.

Critics of the Strategic Vision Plan, a non-binding document that spells out the future of Key Biscayne, pointed to St. Agnes.

“To be honest, St. Agnes took us by surprise. I don’t like that,” said longtime resident Ceci Sanchez at an April 17 public hearing on the Vision Plan. “That’s what Key Biscayne allows by code?”

Then at a May 9 Council Meeting where the Vision Plan was approved, resident Diana Garmendia said she feared a future Key Biscayne as “a wall of impenetrable St. Agneses along Crandon Boulevard.”

St. Agnes is the preview of things to come, because it received seven variances from the Council in April 2020 to achieve its “spectacular size,” she said.

One variance allowed the church to exceed height restrictions to 42 feet from 35 feet. Other exceptions were made for the height of the belfry and cross and to allow for more floor space in the constructed buildings. Three others dealt with the new parking configuration. Paguaga said those variances will help alleviate traffic congestion on Harbor Drive when Mass has ended.

Sanchez, in an interview last week, said she is generally against variances but understands that sometimes they are justified. Still, she fears, “We are cementing paradise.”

The St. Agnes project  is a frequent piñata on social media. One Next Door post had 142 comments. Besides the aforementioned name calling, there were comments such as, “We are ants next to the opulent monstrosity!!”

“I think everybody has the right to express their ideas, their feelings,” Paguaga said.  “We’re doing what is right for us and for the community. At the very end of the day St. Agnes is going to be serving everybody.”

He said initially the idea was to renovate the original church – really a converted auditorium built in 1954 – but it was infeasible. There was consideration of building the church face-forward on the soccer field – but that green space is also leased by the Village. 

Marcela Zamora Eraña, the church’s “Building with Joy” capital coordinator, said critics are criticizing an unfinished project.  Landscaping will soften the look of St. Agnes, Zamora Eraña said, adding, “You have to remember it is not dressed yet.”

“Right now it looks like a big cement thing,” she said. “Once it has landscaping, and everything is coming in, it won’t look like that and people will get used to seeing it.”

Council Member Oscar Sardiñas said he understands that some residents might be upset driving down Harbor Drive and seeing the looming construction of the new church.

“I do think that in a couple of years from now people will learn to see it as part of the landscape of Key Biscayne,” he said.

John Pacenti

JOHN PACENTI is a correspondent of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.

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JOHN PACENTI is a correspondent of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.