CORAL GABLES – The first African American Church in Coral Gables was nearly bulldozed a few years ago, it was ultimately saved, though no longer a house of worship.  

This Sunday it’ll re-open its doors for a special theatrical production honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“I’d come in and veer to the right, about midway,” Carolyn Donaldson recalled.

Donaldson remembers coming to St. Mary First Missionary Baptist Church as a young girl.

“We were the Black community at one, referred to as Keybo, Colored Town, but I’m talking about the time when a wall separated us,” she told CBS4.

Because of segregation, African American churches became a meeting place for the civil rights movement.

“I probably will pick the era of Reverend Tanner, Reverend Tanner was the pastor here for 40 years he walked and participated in a lot of the civil rights activities,” he recalled.

But over the years, members had a hard time keeping up with maintenance.

“It went through a period of time where membership fell off, financial stability wasn’t there,” Donaldson remembered.

Despite its historical designation, the church was condemned, and the property put up for sale.

“A lot of the people when the church was lost knew no other church, they grew up here,” she said.

On the brink of being demolished, Sanctuary of the Arts, a non-profit stepped up and bought the building.

“And so the purpose of saving St. Mary’s was one to keep a very important historic building alive, but more than that, to keep it engaged in the community,” Rafi Maldonaldo-Lopez, Sanctuary of the Arts Principal Managing Director said.

After major renovations, the church has been transformed into a multi-purpose space for the Coral Gables, and West Grove communities that call it their own, however a part of St. Mary’s lives on.

“The old pews, that there was an opportunity to repurpose them and so they are with the church in Haiti all their church and everything,” Donaldson told CBS4.

They lost everything because of Hurricane Maria and earthquake in 2021.  Come this Sunday, the former church space with welcome community members in once again.

“I have some members that are so emotional Sunday that they may or may not come to the production,” Donaldson said.

The Coconut Grove Ecumenical Network will put on its 29th Annual Martin Luther King re-enactment, called “Voices of the 1963 March on Washington.”  Donaldson is helping to produce it.

“St. Mary’s serviced the community, as an art theater they will be servicing the community, it’s just a different type of service,” she concluded.

She hopes this will be the start of closure for some, and a new beginning for others.

Jacqueline Quynh

Jacqueline Quynh is a CBS Miami reporter. My philosophy about news is simple: I aim to tell a story while focusing on the people who graciously let me into their lives.