Monday, January 23, 2006

Unanswered Prayers

January 23,2006
Kaitlin Bell
The Monitor

Iconic La Lomita falling into ruin as repair plans delayed

It’s the city of Mission’s namesake, one of its most beloved historical landmarks, a popular tourist destination and a cherished spot for prayer and meditation.

But the more than 100-year-old La Lomita Mission is looking shabby — close to four years after local politicians and city officials first vowed to fix it.

And a collection of historically minded tourists and Rio Grande Valley residents are upset.

"We drove by recently, and it was in deplorable condition," said Henry Von Savage, a Pharr resident who married his second wife, Yuvonne, at the chapel in 1992.

"I think this is just awful because it’s a historical attraction and a tourist destination."

The city says it understands people’s emotional attachment to the landmark but that the deteriorating structure needs more than just a patch-up job.

The small sandstone chapel is a rebuilt version of the original 1865 chapel ranchers and Oblate priests who settled the region in the mid-19th century constructed and established. It gave Mission its name.

Designated a state historical landmark in 1964 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, the chapel is owned by the Brownsville Catholic diocese but is leased to the city of Mission, which handles maintenance, according to city officials.

The chapel is decorated with religious iconography, including children’s drawings, as well as plastic flowers and prayer candles. Two well-worn guest books contain the names — and sometimes the very personal prayers — of the hundreds of annual visitors who come to soak in some local history, pray or just sit in the neighboring city park.

But the white plaster coating the building is crumbling badly, paint is peeling off the doors and the wooden shingled roof is full of chinks. On a windy day last week, fake flowers from an outdoor shrine to the Virgin Mary lay strewn on the grass, cigarettes littered the ground near the chapel’s front entrance and a welcome mat lay crumpled against a shrub several feet from the chapel door.

Repairs have been a long time coming.

State Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Mission, announced excitedly in 2002 that the Texas Historical Commission had awarded the city $20,000 to fix La Lomita. A year and a half later, Mission officials declared plans to begin repairs in the summer of 2004.

But after the commission toured the site a few months later and indicated adequate repairs would require more than $40,000 worth of work, the city decided to hold off on the renovation, said city Grants Manager Chris Duque.

According to the most recent estimates from architects, Duque said, it will cost about $120,000 to overhaul the building — including leveling out the floor, refinishing the walls and putting in new electrical wiring and new wooden prayer benches.

The city will find the money somehow, he promised — and soon.

"This is a very important project for the city," he said "The chapel is probably the thing the city of Mission is most known for.

"But I think we’d rather do the job completely than just in pieces. That does take a little bit more time and a little bit more money, but the commitment is there."

Tourists who had come to the site last week for a repeat visit said they had noticed the chapel was looking more and more run-down each time they returned.

"It’s in bad shape, but they probably don’t have the money to take care of it," mused Pat Freihoefer to her husband, Art, and her sister and brother-in-law, as they all inspected the chapel’s crumbling exterior.

At least one worshipper was also concerned about the chapel’s fate.

"Dear God," read an entry from the 2005 guestbook that is simply signed ‘Valerie Gonzalez.’ "Please watch over this church don’t let anyone tear it down."


Kaitlin Bell covers Mission, Starr County and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach her at (956) 683-4446.
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