By Tom Tracy Catholic News Service     12/3/2015

DORAL, Fla. (CNS) — The Homestead Extension of Florida’s Turnpike is, according to the state, the most traveled segment of the turnpike, passing west of Miami’s airport and connecting great swaths of Miami-Dade County. It also serves as a gateway to the Florida Keys.

The fact that an estimated 172,000 vehicles pass through the area daily wasn’t lost on the members of the Catholic community of Doral when they envisioned their soon-to-be-dedicated new church and its religious artwork, of which the most visible element is an Italian-made, 26-foot-tall mosaic of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The colorful mosaic depicting the patroness of Mexico — and of all the Americas — is set against a clean, white exterior church with a modern design. The mosaic and other Marian design elements facing the turnpike will be a visible sign of welcome from the 5,000 families of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish to the wider community passing through South Florida.

Set against white wall pre-cast concrete walls, the towering image of Mary will create the first visual impression for visitors. The Marian mosaic was designed and created by the U.S.-based artist Paul Pickel of Conrad Pickel Studio, which won a parish-led design competition.

Made in the traditional Italian style, the artwork is constructed by hand, from Venetian glass “smalti” mosaic tiles. The mosaic was installed in irregular pieces, much like a puzzle, to obscure its individual joints. Once finished, those involved believe it will be the largest such image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the Southeastern U.S.

“We are hoping this image of our Blessed Mother has the same impact in modern times as when the original image first appeared,” said David Prada, senior director of the Miami Archdiocese’s Building and Property Office.

He was referring to the mosaic’s depiction of the 16th-century miraculous appearance of Mary to St. Juan Diego on a hill near modern-day Mexico City.

The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe readily resonates with Latin Americans and increasingly with Catholics in general. The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City is believed to be one of the most visited Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world, and the world’s third most-visited sacred site.

Planners hope the image in Doral will serve as a source of prayer, hope and spiritual invitation to the wider community.

“The original image on Juan Diego’s ’tilma’ served in the conversion of thousands, and in modern times we hope people will be drawn to the new church to see and learn about who is inside,” Prada told the Florida Catholic, Miami’s archdiocesan newspaper.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish began 15 years ago as a mission of Blessed Trinity Parish in Miami Springs and represents the youngest parish in the Miami Archdiocese.

Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski will preside at the dedication ceremony for Our Lady of Guadalupe on the morning of her feast day, Dec. 12. It is the first Catholic parish situated in Doral, which is both a regional hub for business and a highly diverse community of Latin American emigres, especially many recent arrivals from Venezuela.

On hand will be Father Israel Mago, the pastor who has spearheaded much of the building project, as well as thousands of parishioners, guests, benefactors, design and construction staff, and local dignitaries.

In late November, construction, interior build-out and installation of artworks continued at the seven-acre site where the new church, chapel, and multipurpose building were all being erected at once, rather than in stages over years or even decades.

The accelerated schedule was made possible by a donor from Mexico, a devotee of Guadalupe, who prefers to remain anonymous.

In addition, South Florida artist Nilda Comas, a Puerto Rico native and a Fort Lauderdale resident who studied marble design in Italy, designed and sculpted an 8-foot-tall, 2-ton marble sculpture of Our Lady, produced in Pietrasanta, Italy, which will grace the plaza area outside the church.

Leading up to the church entrance, a display of the 14 Stations of the Cross will greet visitors. Each station is a marble sculpture-relief, recovered and recycled from a now-closed Catholic church in Pennsylvania.

Each of the stations also will be flanked by various porcelain images of Mary as patroness of other nations, created by another local artist, Colombian-American Beatriz Ramirez.

A third major religious art element of the new church is a 10-foot-high bronze corpus of Christ situated on a 20-foot high wooden cross in the main sanctuary. The crucifix also was designed by Comas.

She sculpted the corpus first in a high density Styrofoam. It will be cast in bronze locally by a foundry in Hialeah.

Father Mago estimates that some 50 nationalities are represented among his parishioners, with the largest group hailing from Venezuela and other South American nations.

The overall church design is a modern interpretation of the classic basilica layout, with a central raised area flanked by barrel vaults at either side. The curved ceiling, curved adoration and daily chapel spaces, and curved pew arrangement serve to reinforce a feminine reference to Our Lady and her sacred womb, according to Prada.

Embedded on the exterior walls, apart from the large mosaic, are subtle design references to the flowers and stars found on Our Lady of Guadalupe’s garment. Those elements will be more or less visible depending on the interplay of daylight and shadows on the building.

Finally, the church will feature two large stained-glass windows depicting key moments in the life of St. Juan Diego.

Father Mago expects more than an overflow crowd for the dedication ceremony, as his parishioners have been worshipping in tight quarters for more than a decade: a rented space in a nearby public school.

“I am excited,” said parishioner Carmencita Romanach. “I have been waiting for this a long time and it will be a special moment for all of us. Our Lady has been with us all these years and we are looking for a new temple. It is a dream come true for all the parishioners.”

Tracy is a correspondent for the Florida Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Miami.