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The history of Miami’s Shenandoah Presbyterian Church

Shenandoah Presbyterian Church

Sadly, the historic Shenandoah Presbyterian Church is being demolished. The congregation that worshiped within its walls and under its soaring roof occupied a prominent place on S.W. Eighth Street/the Tamiami Trail/ Calle Ocho since the late 1920s.  Further, the building now under demolition, which is the second church on that site, was iconic for its soaring spire, seen throughout the neighborhood, as well as its neo-Colonial design. This design was the work of Robert Fitch Smith, a master architect in mid-20th century Miami. 

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The demise of the Shenandoah Presbyterian Church is still another example of the City of Miami’s lack of appreciation for historic structures, and the failure of city officials, the Historic and Environmental Preservation Board (HEPB), and even neighborhood associations to get out ahead of developers by carefully inventorying historic buildings, pushing for effective ordinances to preserve them, and maintaining a careful vigilance for their well-being. The church building is also a victim of the frenzied pace of development in the Magic City, especially, in recent years, of its rejuvenated center city neighborhoods.  

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In 1927, Miami and other parts of Florida were in a financial malaise following the collapse of the great real estate boom of the mid-1920s. The boom had resulted in a much larger population than just a few years earlier. Among the new residents was the Reverend Daniel Iverson and his family who arrived in the Magic City from North Carolina, in 1926, with the express purpose of organizing a new Presbyterian congregation for the rapidly growing neighborhoods of Shenandoah and Riverside, which straddled both sides of S.W. Eighth Street. 

The Reverend Iverson’s Shenandoah Presbyterian Church was formally organized on May 1, 1927 with forty-seven charter members.  Its early worship services took place in an open-air theater near the present church. A few years later, the fledgling congregation rented Trotter’s Dance Hall, featuring a band shell for a background and standing at S.W. Twentieth Avenue and Eighth Street, for Sunday church services.  The band shell hosted the congregation’s pulpit and choir. The son of missionaries, Iverson displayed the fervor and missionary spirit of his parents in building a strong congregation.  

In 1930, the growing congregation built its first sanctuary, or house of worship, in just twenty days. It served the congregation until it was destroyed by fire in 1948.  In the following year, the present church began to arise on the site of the first house of worship. Its membership totals now exceeded 1,000, with many of its congregants’ influential members of the south Florida community. As late as 1972, President Richard Nixon, his daughter Julie Nixon Eisenhower, and best friend Bebe Rebozo attended a worship service in the church.

Shenandoah Presbyterian Church was a stalwart member of the community.  The Reverend Iverson, his family and congregation assisted, in various ways, the nearby schools of Shenandoah Elementary and Junior High, both founded in the mid-1920s. Further, the Reverend Iverson was instrumental in the creation of many other Presbyterian congregations in southeast Florida and extant congregations grow stronger.  The Iverson’s lived just around the corner from the church in a two-story home on S.W. Tenth Street. 

The Iverson children could point to their own illustrious accomplishments. Daniel Iverson, a son, was a World War II hero, piloting a dive bomber that destroyed a Japanese aircraft carrier under a hail of enemy fire in the Pacific in June 1942, the month most historians believe was the turning point in the fortunes of the U.S. in that faraway theater of combat.  Later in the war, young Dan Iverson lost his life in an airplane crash. Daughter Dr. Lalla Iverson, a Johns Hopkins –trained physician and pathologist served for decades as a medical missionary in south Asia. Another son, the Reverend William Iverson, became pastor of a remarkably different Shenandoah Presbyterian Church in the late 1980s, many years after his father had retired in 1951.  By then, the neighborhood had become heavily Hispanic and the congregation’s active members had shrunk to 125. 

Under William Iverson’s leadership in the late 1980s, the church was welcoming newly arrived Nicaraguan refugees into its fold, providing many with medical care, clothes, schooling, employment and a place to live. As Pablo Canton, assistant director for community development for the City of Miami noted in early 1989, “No other church helped like they did.” Specifically, the church received scores of refugees from Bobby Maduro/Miami Stadium.  When they were brought to the church or came on their own after learning of the institution’s benevolence, they were housed and fed until apartments could be found for them.  In a brief period in 1989, the church provided 2,800 hot meals, and found jobs and donated clothes and furniture for these new visitors. The congregation also contributed money while soliciting donations from restaurants and businesses.  Iverson also turned to other Protestant churches for further assistance. 

The stories of the compassion and assistance of Shenandoah Presbyterian Church in that era are plentiful. “I came here at night, at 11 p.m. looking for a place for me and my four children to stay,” explained Rosario Chamorro. “I found Rev. Iverson.  He gave me help. He took us to his home. In those days, I was crying, I was discouraged. But now I feel a great change in my life.” She noted how the church helped her find employment as a security guard, as well as a two-bedroom apartment. The church also provided her and many others with a social life centering on parish cookouts. The Reverend Iverson explained the congregation’s mission: “When you see it (poverty, dislocation, desperation) firsthand, it’s not easy to turn your back.”   

From the late twentieth century till the recent past, when it closed preparatory to demolition, the church was a Hispanic congregation, recording some of its most important contributions to humanity during a nearly century-long history of ministering to the children of God.  

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