MEXICO CITY (AP) – Under a white tent on the street outside Our Lady of the Angels on a recent Sunday, the Rev. Adrián Vázquez led parishioners seated in pews and plastic chairs to celebrate the 10 a.m. Mass, flanked by piles of rubble from the shrine left there by a deadly earthquake nearly five years ago.
To the left rose the still-broken church, with deep cracks in the walls, its half-collapsed dome resting on scaffolding and a leaning column. Behind the priest was a wax painting of the Virgin Mary, a copy of it on the wall inside the building and all but the view of the faithful.
But Vázquez’s excitement was so great that he couldn’t even hide his pandemic mask as he delivered the good news: A few weeks before the anniversary of the September 19, 2017 earthquake, work has finally resumed on the restoration of the Catholic Church, which houses the precious Virgin Mary who is considered miraculous because she survived floods and earthquakes.
He urged parishioners to support the church as the restoration progresses, saying: “Waiting is not passive and the church is not going to be rebuilt alone or with the help of the government. How can we all help?”
Located in the working-class neighborhood of Guerrero and bearing one of the titles of Mary, 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 in flood waters and ended up in the mud in the property of a native kacic or chief, known as Izayoque, according to a book on the church written by Rev. Jose Berruecos about a century ago. The artwork depicts the Catholic belief that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was taken up into heaven, body and soul.
“Amidst the floods, with all the evil they caused,” wrote Berruecos, “amidst this background of darkness and desolation, the image of Our Lady of the Angels appears in full light as a rainbow in the midst of the storm. “
Izayoque was so taken by the image on the badly damaged canvas that he built a chapel in honor of the Virgin Mary with the painting reproduced on an adobe wall. The current sanctuary was completed about 200 years later, with the Virgin Mary 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 icon of the Virgin Mary and attracts millions of pilgrims each year.
In an interview, parishioner María González’s voice broke as she recalled the Sunday in 2017 when the dome fell in. who then led the parish.
“It made a tremendous noise, like an explosion,” Gonzalez said. “When we saw the dome, we all started crying. … It was a miracle that no one died.”
The church had been damaged five days earlier by the earthquake, which killed an estimated 360 people, collapsed dozens of buildings and left many others damaged and slated for demolition.
INAH, which is financing and executing the restoration project, began work on the Panagia ton Angelon in September 2019. The first phase included stabilizing the structure with steel supports to prevent further losses and covering the damaged dome to avoid rain water.
This ended in December 2020, and since then there has been a long wait for the second phase, which began on August 8. At this stage INAH is focusing on the restoration of a chamber behind the main altar containing religious and historical objects, with the aim of protecting them and restoring a space that will be used to support the larger restoration of the temple.
Antonio Mondragón, the project’s chief architect, said the second phase is expected to be completed in December.
For now, the icon of the Virgin Mary is hidden behind scaffolding, encased in a protective frame and covered by glass and wooden panels that open and close like a book.
Only a few people get to see the Virgin Mary up close, and then sporadically: Sometimes those who help the priest with liturgies and daily chores put flowers on her or let small groups in for a few minutes to see the icon and pray. .
The Virgin returns their gaze with a peaceful expression, clad in a blue mantle against a golden background, with her hands folded in front of her chest.
Given the fragility of the brick walls, she cannot be moved, meaning her fate is tied to that of the building.
“If we lose the parish,” said Vázquez, “we lose Our Lady.”
Vázquez was appointed to replace Colín in late 2019 and was tasked with leading what he called a “total recovery” of the parish, both physically and as a spiritual community – as the building suffered damage, many parishioners began attending other churches.
The 38-year-old priest constantly encourages his flock to invite others to the congregation, working to improve his social media presence and mobile Mass streaming services. He has also spent some of his own savings to pay for repairs to electrical wiring, building walls and other details.
Although there is no set end date for the restoration yet, Vázquez said the church is already showing signs of rebirth: On Aug. 2, the day of Our Lady of the Angels, at least 900 people gathered for celebrations on the street outside.
The parishioners also gather.
Rosa María Ordoñez, 76, who first attended as a child with her grandmother, sells clothes and other goods she donated to raise money for the church. Other parishioners teach catechism or do chores like cleaning.
María Elena Corona, 85, also helps as she can. He recently wrote and illustrated signs explaining the story of the Virgin for display outside the church.
Corona, who first set foot on the refuge half a century ago, has moved several times since then, but has always found herself returning — including in 1985, when she returned from the United States after an even more devastating earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people and first cracked the walls of the church. He settled in a nearby neighborhood and continued to attend Mass at Our Lady of the Angels.
Panagia “doesn’t let me go,” Corona said.
As the recent street Mass drew to a close, Vázquez asked the faithful to turn to their left. This meant that they faced the Virgin Mary’s perch inside the shattered temple, even if they could not see her holy face.
“Let us sing,” the priest begged them, “for the Virgin Mary.”
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