Printer Friendly

Amid much trouble, a 'miracle' raises hopes in Overton.

OVERTOWN, Fla. -- When I first drove into Overtown this past summer, one of Miami's roughest and poorest neighborhoods, I said to myself, "This can't be a ghetto."

I'm from New York City. I spent a semester at City College in Harlem. Now I live in Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere.

Overtown, the site of two deadly race riots in the 1980s, looked like a middle-class suburb: single-family homes; cars parked in driveways; few potholes; clean water in the municipal swimming pool.

There are, however, deeper signs of urban poverty in Overtown: cardboard huts built under highway ramps; people idling on street corners or in front of buildings and homes, looking for a reason to keep on living; the absence of shopping plazas, adequate public transportation and other conveniences found in the suburbs. other conveniences found in the suburbs.

Twelve years ago, 18 people were killed in Overtown and nearby Liberty City, including eight whites who were dragged from their cars and beaten or burned to death. The cause of the violence and looting: an all-white jury acquitted five white police officers in the beating death of a black insurance salesman.

I visited Overtown to report on Father Joe Ferraioli and Sister Dana Hollis, who run the St. Francis Xavier School, the first Catholic school built in a Miami ghetto. The adjoining church was the area's first Catholic parish for blacks.

St. Francis Xavier School caught the attention, and grabbed the hearts, of southern Florida this year after the archdiocese announced its closure in June.

"In January 1992, we were down to 77 kids. We were covered in red ink," said Father Ferraioli, who said declining enrollment and a 20 percent cut in diocesan funding forced him to padlock the school's doors.

After the riots in Los Angeles in April, two pillars of the Miami power elite -- Mayor Xavier Suarez, Cuban-born and a Harvard Law School graduate, and David Lawrence Jr., publisher of The Miami Herald -- started a campaign to save the school.

Lawrence launched his campaign on the pages of the Herald, asking readers for $96,000, enough for 78 school scholarships. By mid-June, $247,348 had been raised.

Suarez got the Latin Builders Association to provide $150,000 in badly needed repairs. Herald employees painted the school. This fall St. Francis Xavier School reopened. It was also reorganized. It now educates children in kindergarten through fifth grade.

"We feel like we have been living in the midst of a miracle," Ferraioli said.

Later I asked Father Ferraioli if I could meet his parishioners. He introduced me to Samuel G. Jones. Although 77, Jones, large and muscular, looks like he could play professional football. He directs the Office of Black Catholics for the archdiocese and has a desk at the pastoral center in affluent Miami Shores.

We walked into his church, where a handful of elderly parishioners were preparing for the next day's 10 a.m. Mass. The school was a topic of conversation.

"I think it's miraculous. This little school started out in a converted storefront. With all the problems we've had -- the riots -- it has been blessed," said Eleanor Shell.

Jones later said, "Overtown used to a vibrant black commercial area. On weekends it became a mecca."

Many say Overtown was to the South what Harlem once was to the East Nightspots like the St. John Nightclub Hotel and Dew Drop Inn made Overtown buzz, Jones said.

Overtown got its name, he told me, because touring black performers playing in Miami Beach could not sleep in the hotels they sang in that night.

"They were forced to go over, over town" Jones said.

Jones also recalled segregated pews in Miami churches and knows blacks who were refused communion during Mass. They received the sacraments in church rectories after the service ended.

"It was the law" he said. "They enforced it."

When Jones moved to Miami to begin a career with the Customs Service more than 40 years ago, white landlords in Overtown refused to give him a lease. "They would say the reason was because you blacks move so fast. I told them, Give me a lease, then I won't move.'"

The construction of Interstate 95 in the 1960s destroyed many residential homes in Overtown, forcing many St. Francis Xavier parishioners to move out of the neighborhood. Mr. Jones was forced to move, too. "That highway destroyed this neighborhood," he said. He continues, however, to worship at St. Francis Xavier.

He sees a need for unity among minorities in the Miami area.

"Miami needs to be more sensitive," he said. "We're too separated. Each ethnic group has its own section: Little Havana. Little Haiti. Each group is not fighting against each other, but that's the way others perceive it."
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Catholic Reporter
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Miami, Florida - St. Francis Xavier School
Author:Slavin, J.P.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jan 15, 1993
Previous Article:Shrine a giant tribute to bishop and his devout Cuban parishioners.
Next Article:Loretto Sisters to meet at Colorado resort.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters