Historic Overtown building destroyed

Site was original home of 112-year old Greater Israel Bethel Primitive Baptist Church

Erick Johnson | 6/5/2014, 9 a.m.
It has existed since Woodrow Wilson was president. One of few historic structures in Overtown, the church building had held ...

It has existed since Woodrow Wilson was president. One of few historic structures in Overtown, the church building had held numerous weddings, baptisms and Sunday services and had stood years before Booker T. Washington opened as Miami-Dade’s second-oldest public school in 1926.

Today, the church building, the original home of the 112-year-old Greater Israel Bethel Primitive Baptist Church remains mainly rubble after a fire last Friday ripped through the structure. Nearby, residents watched and bemoaned another loss of a historical building on the same street, where two century-old buildings both would be destroyed within four days of each other. A daycare attached to the church building was also destroyed.

The building was the current home of The Christ Church of the Living God.

Fire officials said the church building was engulfed in flames from a raging fire that started in a house behind it. The blaze spread before it burned down another house that was located on the west side of the church. Witnesses say an elderly man who occupied that house was safely led out of the building before it was destroyed.

Police are still investigating the origins of the fire.

The fire swept through the church’s sanctuary, destroying the roof and all of its belongings, including its band equipment. About 40 firefighters worked throughout the evening to extinguish the blaze as large puffs of smoke billowed in the downtown sky.

Saturday morning, firefighters returned to extinguish small pockets of flames that were still simmering underneath charred ruins. The church’s facade and outer walls remain but the damage may be still too costly to save the 100-year-old building.

“It doesn’t seem real,” said Rose Barnes, a 20-year church member who learned of the fire after a phone call from her husband who’s also a member. “I feel I can just get up and go to church tomorrow.”

Charles Haynes, who lives next door, said he was watching the Miami Heat play in the NBA Eastern Finals on 8th street when he heard about the fire. There were early reports that Haynes house was on fire, but those turned out to be false. Haynes joined many residents who were forced to watch outside a cordoned off area as firefighters battled the blaze.

“At first I thought it was my place, so I ran home,” Haynes said. “But when I saw it wasn’t my house, I was so relieved.”

Greater Israel Bethel Primitive Church held services there until 1953 before moving to NW 1st Place and 18th Street across from Phyllis Wheatley Elementary, according to Essie Annette William, a member of Greater Israel since 1945. Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church, which today is located on NW 17th Avenue and 79 Street, occupied the building until Christ Church of the Living God bought the building in 1971. Bishop Errol James is the church’s current pastor.

James was unable to estimate the costs of the damage.

James led an outside worship service church Sunday at an empty lot that’s several hundred yards away from the church. A sister church in North Miami loaned him drums, tambourines, guitars and other equipment for the service. About 14 members attended the service, vowing to keep their faith in God.

“I don’t know what comes next, only God knows,” said James. “But we have to rebuild. There’s no other choice.”

“The church is not a building, it’s the people,” said one worshipper who wished not to be identified.

“That building has been there a long, long time since I can remember,” said Benjamin Brown, the 80-year-old resident who relocated to Liberty City after his family home of 97 years was demolished by the state. “My mother would be so angry because there would be many cars blocking her in that she couldn’t get to her own church on Sundays.”

With Brown and other residents gone, Haynes and his roommate, Elijah Mack are the only residents living on the street. Their Bahamian-style house is believed to be older than both Brown’s and the church.