Neighbors mourn pending loss of church

South Middle River residents say they can feel their soul slipping away.

The Church of the Intercession, a half-century fixture of activity and outreach with a dwindling congregation, is one rezoning request away from being sold to make way for 60 townhouses on its 4.2-acre property.

If that happens, the neighborhood will lose a decades-old food pantry that now provides sustenance to more than 20,000 people a year — many from the neighborhood — who count on its twice-a-month distributions.

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Gone, too, will be the community garden, a patch of nature in the urban landscape, flush with peacocks and hawks, snakes and butterflies, cardinals and orioles.

The Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida says the church, at 501 NW 17th St., has been a drain on its other parishes, and numerous efforts have failed to increase its membership. The diocese has four other churches in the city for members to attend.

"When you come to a point where you're not self-sustainable, then you have to make changes," said Roland Joseph, the church's senior warden.

The neighborhood's civic association opposes the move.

"Intercession has always had its doors wide open," said association president Lawrence Jackson-Rosen.

It used to host back-to-school backpack give-aways, neighborhood picnics, Nights Out Against Crime and other community events. It's a polling place on election days and — up until this month — was where the neighborhood's civic association held its monthly meetings.

The diocese says it doesn't make economic sense to hold onto the mission church, which has been served by a visiting priest the past three years and been struggling for 20. The food pantry will be relocated, officials said.

"There's no way we can continue like we are with a part-time priest. There would be no growth if you do that," said Joseph.

Some in the neighborhood understand the diocese could use the $1.3-million asking price to help its other churches. But others say there is still life in Intercession and on a shoestring budget it could continue to be a force for good in the neighborhood.

The situation has created friction between the diocese and some parishioners.

"It's very hard to get new people in here when the talk on the street is this place is living on borrowed time," said junior warden Steve Kantner.

Supporters also don't want to give up on the community garden, formed with help from the civic association in 2000.

"We should change the name of the church to St. Francis, because it's certainly loaded with wildlife and animals," said JoAnn Smith, a church member for 15 years. "It's beyond my comprehension why we would want to get rid of this sanctuary."

Two years ago, city commissioners approved a law that would have allowed urban farming as a developer had proposed. That plan would have included lease payments to the church for use of the property. But after the law was enacted, developer Gerry Scanlon and the diocese couldn't reach an agreement.

Residents fear the latest proposal will pack too many homes onto the property and rumors are flying that the townhouses will be low-income housing, which the community says it already has in abundance. Calls to developers Jay Clark and Jay Fertig were not returned on Friday.

"I am perfectly fine if they do the townhouses and sell them for $240,000, which is what they told us," said resident Vivian Dempsey, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1953.

The project's rezoning request comes up again before the Planning and Zoning Board on May 21.

The Rev. Thomas Bruttell, archdeacon for the diocese, said Intercession will be the third church — after previous ones in Belle Glade and Pahokee — to be sold by the diocese.

"Churches don't leave the community. The community often leaves the church," Bruttell said.

Intercession's Sunday services attract maybe 15 to 30 people. That doesn't produce a lot of money to cover church costs and the larger capital maintenance expenses, he said

"Even though each church is separate from the whole, when you have a mission church status, that means all of them are helping to pay for that spot," Bruttell said. "There's no money that comes from heaven." or 954-356-4556