Modesto Jimenez had never been part of a congregation nor did he know
the rituals of Catholic worship until he met Clodobaldo Gonzalez.
Jimenez, 77, attended a Catholic church in his native Cuba and
came to the United States in the late 1960s and settled in Broward
County. He moved to Opa-locka in 1978, when he met Gonzalez.Jimenez
lived a block from Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, where
Gonzalez, as the Hispanic liaison, was looking to expand the
congregation beyond its predominantly white membership.
Jimenez was among the new members.
``I did not have a lot of knowledge of the church or the
religion,'' Jimenez said, ``but I had a place to start.''
Like Jimenez, Harriet Francis, 70, joined the congregation in the
``When I started, there were few Hispanics and blacks,'' Francis
said, ``but the founders, who were all white, have all passed away.
Although there's been change, there's still the same warm feeling.''
Jimenez and Francis represent the diversity of Our Lady of
Perpetual Help, 13401 NW 28th Ave. in Opa-locka.
Today, they will be among 600 current and former members of the
congregation who will celebrate the church's 50th anniversary with a
bilingual mass at 11:30 a.m. led by Monsignor Agustin Roman.
The church expects to see members from more than 40 to 50 years
ago, said Iris Santos, secretary of the parish for 28 years. Members
who have attended the church-related school are also expected for the
The Rev. Marcos Somarriba, pastor for the last three years, said
the church was once run by the Redemptorists, a religious order, and
began changing after it was handed over to the Archdiocese of Miami
and the demographics of Opa-locka shifted in the 1970s.
``It's exciting to have a celebration for 50 years of serving the
neighborhood of Opa-locka,'' Somarriba said. ``It's a blessing for us
to have the parish turn 50 years old where it went through different
times for different people but they worshipped the same God.''
To underscore the congregation's diversity, the church will
display the flags of 24 nations. Worshipers will receive pamphlets of
the history of the church and an explanation of the church's name,
Lady of Perpetual Help - the Virgin Mary.
After mass, guests will dine on chicken and rice paella and cake
at the baseball field along the Northwest 135th Street side of the
church. Hawaiian and Middle Eastern-themed dancing and music will
The congregation has come a long way since it was was founded in
1954 by Father James F. Nelan as a mission of the parish of St. John
in Hialeah. The lower level of a newly constructed church school
served as the temporary sanctuary. The upper floor contained
classrooms staffed by four nuns of the Sisters of the Holy Name
In 1957, Archbishop Joseph P. Hurley of St. Augustine offered the
church to the Redemptorist Fathers, whose mission is to bring the
message of salvation to all people. Father Thomas Wright, the first
Redemptorist priest of the church, renovated the building in 1959 and
named it Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church after the
official symbol of the Redemptorists.
In the early 1980s, the congregation underwent a demographic
shift after refugees from the Mariel Boatlift from Cuba began to
settle in the Opa-locka area. One-third of the parish and school
Church officials said African Americans comprised about 10
percent of the congregation in the 1970s and their number has grown
to about 25 in a city that became majority black. By 1978, the church
experienced a decline in attendance, with about 500 worshipers going
to the five masses weekly down from about 800.
Harriet Francis, president of the church's Lady's Guild and
director of the English mass, has been a member of the congregation
nearly 25 years. She helped start the school's day care and free
lunch program in the early 1980s. Even though the demographics began
changing from the time she first attended the church, members never
have had trouble communicating, she said.
``There are two masses so if you miss one you can go to the
other,'' Francis said. ``It's the same thing and there is nothing to
do with language. You can always tell by someone's face what they
hold in their hearts.''
Although the congregation established a child-care program,
Santos said funding was scarce and regular worshipers moved to other
areas because of a high crime rate in the city. The church closed its
school due to lack of funding and low attendance.
``I was saddened by the closing of the school,'' Francis said.
``A lot of kids came out of that school and went on to do a lot of
good things. But the church struggled a lot to keep it going.''
But in 1995, Father Oscar F. Castaneda became pastor and he began
what church leaders call the ``Restoration'' stage. The Religious
Education Program was expanded and the church building was repainted.
The church also began offering services in Spanish and in Creole. The
``Restoration'' continued three years ago with the arrival of
Somarriba to head the parish.
``The change was tremendous at the point of the restoration,''
Jimenez said. ``The different groups in the community were finally
Although Opa-locka is still a poor area and funding is scarce,
Somarriba sees the church bouncing back from the decline of the
1980s. Since he became pastor, the church has undergone more
renovations and a Head Start program was started.
``We're just not celebrating the Golden Jubilee of the church,''
Somarriba said. ``We are celebrating how many people have been
baptized here, how many people have received the sacraments, how many
people have gotten married here. Our members have made their
sacrifices to this church, even the poor.''