Earthquake-hit church in rehab

MEXICO CITY — Under a white tent on the street outside Our Lady of the Angels on a recent Sunday, Reverend Adrián Vázquez led parishioners seated on benches and plastic chairs to celebrate the 10 a.m. Mass, flanked by piles of rubble of the shrine left there by a deadly earthquake almost five years ago.

To the left stood the still broken church, with deep cracks in the walls, its half-collapsed dome supported by scaffolding and a leaning column. Behind the priest was a wax painting of the Virgin Mary, a replica of the one on the wall inside the building and almost out of sight for worshippers.

But Vázquez’s excitement was so great it couldn’t even be hidden by his pandemic face mask as he delivered the good news: Just weeks before the anniversary of the September 19, 2017 earthquake, the works finally resumed on the restoration of the Catholic temple. , which houses the precious Virgin considered miraculous for surviving floods and earthquakes.

He urged parishioners to support the church as the restoration progresses, saying, “Waiting is not passive, and the temple will not be rebuilt on its own or only with the help of the government. . How can we all help?

Located in the working-class residential neighborhood of Guerrero and bearing one of Mary’s titles, Our Lady of the Angels has a history dating back to the late 16th century.

In 1580, a painting of the Assumption of the Virgin arrived in the area floating on floodwaters and ended up in the mud on the property of a native cacique, or chief, known as Izayoque , according to a book on the church written by the Rev. José Berruecos about a century ago. The artwork represents the Catholic belief that Mary, mother of Jesus, ascended to heaven, body and soul.

“In the midst of the floods, with all the harm they have caused,” writes Berruecos, “against this background of darkness and desolation, the image of Our Lady of the Angels appears in full light like a rainbow. sky in the middle of the storm.”

Izayoque was so taken with the image on the badly damaged canvas that he had a chapel built in honor of the Virgin with the painting reproduced on an adobe wall. The present sanctuary was completed some 200 years later, with the Virgin still adorning the oratory.

According to the National Institute of Anthropology and History, or INAH, Our Lady of the Angels is the second most important church in Mexico City after the internationally revered Basilica of Guadalupe, which houses its own holy image of the Virgin and attracts millions of people. pilgrims every year.

In an interview, parishioner María González’s voice cracked as she recalled the Sunday in 2017 when the dome collapsed. As her cellphone lit up with text messages about the collapse, she and other neighbors rushed to the site to meet Reverend Cirilo Colín, who at the time was leading the parish.

“It made a huge noise, like an explosion,” González said. “When we saw the dome, we all started crying. … It was a miracle no one died.

The church had been damaged five days earlier by the earthquake, which killed around 360 people, collapsed dozens of buildings and left many others damaged and slated for demolition.

INAH, which finances and carries out the restoration project, began work on Notre-Dame des Anges in September 2019. The first phase consisted of stabilizing the structure with steel supports to prevent further loss and covering the dome collapsed to prevent rainwater.

It ended in December 2020, and since then phase two has been a long one, which started on August 8. At this point, INAH is focusing on the restoration of a chamber behind the main altar that contains religious and historical artifacts, with the aim of protecting them and also rehabilitating a space that will serve as a support for the greater restoration of the nave.

Antonio Mondragón, the project’s lead architect, said phase two is expected to be completed in December.

For now, the image of the Virgin is hidden behind scaffolding, encased in a protective frame and covered with glass and wooden panels that open and close like a book.

Only a handful of people can see the Virgin up close, and sporadically: sometimes those who help the priest in services and daily chores place flowers in front of her, or he lets small groups in for a few minutes to view the image and pray. .

The Virgin looks back at them with a peaceful air, draped in a blue cloak against a gold background, her hands clasped in front of her chest.

Given the fragility of the adobe walls, it cannot be moved, which means that its fate is linked to that of the building.

“If we lose the parish,” Vázquez said, “we lose the Virgin.”

Vázquez was assigned to replace Colín at the end of 2019 and tasked with leading what he called a “complete recovery” of the parish, both physically and as a spiritual community – since the building was damaged, many parishioners started going to other churches.

The 38-year-old priest constantly urges his flock to invite others to the congregation, working to improve his social media presence and broadcast Mass services via mobile phone. He also spent some of his own savings to pay for electrical wiring repairs, wall remodeling and other details.

Although there is still no fixed end date for the restoration, Vázquez said the church is already showing signs of rebirth: August 2, the feast day of Our Lady of the Angels, at least 900 people filled the street festivities outside.

The parishioners also get involved.

Rosa María Ordoñez, 76, who first attended church as a child with her grandmother, sells clothes and other donated goods to raise funds for the church. Other parishioners teach catechism or do chores like cleaning.

María Elena Corona, 85, also helps in any way she can. Recently, she wrote and illustrated panels explaining the story of the Virgin to display them outside the church.

Corona, who first set foot in the sanctuary half a century ago, has moved several times since then but has always found herself drawn back – including in 1985, when she returned from the States United after an even more devastating earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people. of people and first made cracks in the walls of the church. She moved to a nearby neighborhood and began to attend mass again at Notre-Dame des Anges.

Virgo “don’t let me go,” Corona said.

Martha J. Finley