United States Department of the Interior
National Park Service
National Register of Historic Places
27 June 1974
Mary C. Dorsey, Dade Heritage Trust. Reviewed and Revised by J. Rodney Little, Florida Department of State
Gesu Church is situated on a corner lot in the central business district of Miami. In general, the building is a large rectangle that rises to approximately a four-story height; this main mass is fronted on the west by an arcaded entrance portico, and a stepped tower complex ascends directly over the narthex. Exterior details and articulation suggest a basillican plan, but it is only minimally carried through on the interior. Of stuccoed masonry construction, its ornamentation is eclectic, combining several classic orders, and elements of both the Spanish and Italian Renaissance; however, the overall suggestion is that of the Venetian style.
An arcaded portico projects from the west facade of the church, fully covering the entrance steps and forming an outer narthex. It is divided by four massive piers into three bays, is one bay deep, and rises to a full four-story height. The piers, and the pilasters on the opposite wall rest on cubical pedestals approximately 9 feet high. A chamfered molding serves as a capital for each pier and is repeated, at the same level, as a course running completely around the building. Semi-circular arches spring from the capitals and are supported below the molding by corbels. The central bay of the portico projects slightly and its arch springs from two semi-engaged Doric columns, thus framing the main entrance of the church. There is a wide architrave above the arches with indented medallions bearing the symbols for “alpha” and “omega”; an indented rectangular panel directly above the central arch contains the letters “GESU”. A deep cornice occurs above the architrave and keys into the cornice of the main roof. A parapet with dividing piers crowns the portico; it contains a band of cartouches and is capped by a heavy coping.
Seven risers of masonry steps ascend to the porch; separate flights, six risers high, lead from the porch and up to each of the three entrances to the church. Articulation of the front wall echoes the tripartite divisions of the portico with semi-circular arched portals at each bay. Each portal has heavy, masonry surrounds and a hood molding which connects to all three; this molding also springs to cover two arched, concave niches on either side of the central entrance. Double doors of wood and glass are recessed within the portals and have dentilled transoms and cartouches above. A continuous molding runs at the sill level of the second story windows. The openings at either side are arched windows springing from slender columns and pilasters; a large stained-glass rose window is located above the central entrance.
The side elevations display an elevated basement story from which piers rise to the architrave above. Indented panels between the piers contain tall, semi-circular arched windows. The windows are stained glass with short sash openings in the lower portion and a heavy transom and arched mullions in the upper. The capital molding which occurs on the front portico continues down each side and defines the level of the window transoms. The repetitive scheme of the side elevations is interrupted by two slightly raised pavilions: one occurs at and defines the area of the narthex, the other defines the sanctuary. Both are capped by small cross gables of moderate pitch.
The main roof of the structure is moderately pitched and largely masked from the street level; it and all subsidiary roofs are covered in red barrel tile. The major point of interest at the roofline is the tripartite tower complex which rises above the narthex. Its central tower is square in plan and rises in a series of steps. The base and belfry are clasped at each corner by large octagonal piers which protrude above the belfry roof. Each side of the belfry has three arched windows springing from spiral columns and pilasters, and it is crowned by a gable end roof. An almost cubical block surmounts the belfry and is decorated with cartouches and a statue of Jesus on the main facade. A smaller rectangular block finishes off the tower and is crowned by a masonry cross. Two hipped-roofed towers flank the central tower and rise to the upper level of its base. They both have arched openings springing from spiral columns and a blind lattice infill above.
The interior of the church is one large rectangle interrupted by only a small recessed area behind the central portion of the altar. The nave and narthex are covered by a vaulted ceiling; the ceiling is flat and dropped over the altar with a domical opening directly over the altar area. Nave and aisle divisions occur, but are defined merely by the placement of pews. A shallow balcony occurs over the narthex to house the organ and pipes, and is sheathed in panelled and carved wood. The major decorative features are the altar furnishings and the stained glass windows. The chancel and altar areas are decorated with painted murals, statuary, and intricately carved Carrara marble. There are 16 German stained glass windows depicting Biblical scenes, each 6 by 18 feet.
A separate rectory is located at the apse end of the church and faces N.E. Second Street. The Gesu School is located east of the rectory, also on N.E. Second Street. Although the school is somewhat more classical and ornate than the other buildings, all harmonize as an architectural grouping.
Gesu Church celebrated a triple anniversary in 1972; the 100th anniversary of the first Catholic service in Miami; the 75th year of the founding of Gesu Church and the 50th anniversary of the present Gesu Church building.
In January, 1872, Father Dufau, sent by Bishop Verot of St. Augustine, Florida, landed at the pier in Miami. The first people he met were the pioneer family of William J. Wagner, for whom he conducted the first services. At the urging of the Bishop, the Wagner family erected a wooden church on their homestead. This was the first house of worship in Miami and served the community until it burned in 1892.
Joseph A. McDonald, a well-known pioneer, and John B. Reilly, first mayor of Miami, together with Father A.J. Fontan, who came to Miami in 1896, organized the Holy Name of Jesus Parish (now Gesu). Henry J. Flagler, who brought the railroad to Miami, donated the land on which the new church was begun in 1897 and completed in January, 1898, at a cost of $3,534.
As the congregation expanded, need for a larger church was realized. A $25,000 donation from the famous Smith Brothers helped fill the need. The 1897 Holy Name structure was moved aside and the corner stone for the new church was laid on the original site on December 10, 1922. On February 1, 1925 the present Gesu Church was dedicated at a grand ceremony by Archbishop Funasoni-Biondi, assisted by Rev. James McLaughlin. The church cost $50,000 and the land in the heart of downtown Miami had increased in value to $500,000.
The 51-year old church is one of downtown Miami’s finest landmarks and one of the few remaining in a changing area. The institution has served the religious and humanitarian needs of the community for a century. At the present time, the congregation is undertaking restoration of the church to bring it back to its original beauty and to update the adjoining facilities to better serve a revitalized inner-city area.
Brief History of the Churches of the Diocese of St. Augustine, Florida, Part Ten. Abbey Press, St. Leo, Florida, 1940, pp. 265-275
Catholic Directory of 1898, Gesu Church, Miami, Florida.
Catholic Directory of 1899, Gesu Church, Miami, Florida.
“Church to Mark Diamond Jubilee,” Miami Herald, November 25, 1972.
Dade County Court House, Miami, Florida. Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court. Dade County Records. (Subgroup: deeds).
“Dedication Ceremony of Gesu Church,” Miami News, February 1, 1925.
Diary of Father A. J. Fontan, Tampa, Florida, 1896; 1898. Gesu Church, Miami, Florida.
Fabacher, Father Ignatius and Mr. Thomas Rosetti. Personal Interview (by Mrs. A. C. McIntyre and Mrs. Mary C. Dorsey), November 15, 1973. Miami, Florida.
“Gesu, Miami’s Oldest Catholic Church,” Miami Herald, March 18, 1940.
“Leaves From History,” n.p., c. 1930.
“Memoirs of Rose Wagner Richards,” Miami News-Metropolis, c. 1903.
“Miami Fishing Village When First Mass Offered,” The Voice, December 1, 1972.
Moore, Right Reverend John D., Deed from Fort Dallas Land Company, July 27, 1897. Gesu Church, Miami, Florida.
“The Jesuits in Florida—Fifty Golden Years, 1889-1939,” Dade Heritage Trust, Inc., Miami, Florida.
Wagner, William J., Homestead Claim, approved May 22, 1877. Historical Association of Southern Florida, Miami, Florida.
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John William Bailly 10 January 2023
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