I sat in the convent dining room of the Casa de los Pobres, a soup kitchen and clinic run by the Franciscan Missionaries of Peace in Tijuana, Mexico. It was a Thursday, the day when the sisters invited the Jesuits and laypeople who work at the Casa for breakfast. Two of my novitiate classmates, Chris Steck and Leo Leise, were working at the Casa, and I was visiting them from work I was doing in neighboring Tecate. It was the spring of 1985, and the three of us were on our four-month experiment, living and working in ministries far away from our novitiate in Grand Coteau, Louisiana. I was staring at a drawing of the sisters' dream project -- La Ciudad de Misericordia, the City of Mercy, a home they were going to build for mentally retarded adults. They had the idea for the project, they had the land, they even had the pope's blessing. But they did not have an architect. I volunteered. After my novice director, Fr. Norb Keller, SJ, gave his okay, I moved to the Casa de los Pobres.
Before I entered the novitiate I had been an architect in Miami. When I joined the Society of Jesus, I offered the Lord my profession to use according to his will. This project was an early sign that architecture was going to play a part in my Jesuit life.
La Ciudad de Misericordia was to be a place where love and shelter would be provided for many of the poor people the sisters ministered to in Tijuana. The project was ambitious, idealistic, and Christian.
There were challenges, however. The land, about 40 miles from Tijuana, was undeveloped. There was no electricity, no sewers, no telephone lines, and the only water came from a well at a painfully slow rate of five gallons per minute. Not much for this project, which would require a reliable source of water. Also, the unpaved roads leading to the site would be a problem for trucks delivering materials. And how about the budget? Funds were scarce. Many considered this project una locura, a madness. Were the sisters imprudent in proceeding with their dreams? Maybe. But they were determined, and that determination was infectious enough to persuade many, including me, to jump on this adventurous bandwagon. Haven't so many of the Church's great projects been considered una locura at their outset?
To all of the challenges, Sr. Armida, director of the Casa, would peacefully say what she often repeated in the next twelve years: Dios proveerá -- God will provide. That proved again and again to be so true.
My first task was to gather input from the sisters. We worked on site planning -- the number and occupancy type of the buildings. A table with bricks under the back legs became my drafting table. I obtained a T-square, a tool of the trade I hadn't used in years. Sketches were now turning the sisters' concepts into floor plans: facilities for TB and leprosy patients, the mentally ill, the elderly, the handicapped, and orphans and a small hospital for those who lived on the ranchitos and villages in the area.
The complex's future plans called for a chapel, staff housing, and a convent. Since the site is huge and beautiful -- its 152 acres overlook the Pacific Ocean -- the sisters were also envisioning cottages for retreatants.
Top priority, though, was a building for the mentally ill, whom the sisters so often encountered in jails, lacking care, hygiene, and love. The building was going to be solid and beautiful; it was to make this statement: all God's children have dignity.
Because I had never designed such a facility, we visited homes for the mentally ill in San Diego and New Orleans and consulted with psychiatrists. As we did, the design concept came to me: a modern mission where religious and other professionals would welcome and help those in need until they could live on their own. In New Orleans, while I was in philosophy studies, I produced the first sketch of this mission, with a central, protected courtyard as the focal point.
While I was in regency, teaching religion at Jesuit High in Tampa, the sisters told me that they had enough money to build the first building. I got approval to spend August 1988 to June 1989 directing its construction.
In the United States, concrete pumpers make quick work of filling forms at construction sites; at this site in Mexico, manual labor had to do.
What a challenge! I like construction. I had worked as the contractor on a Miami building project, a meeting room for a Christian Life Community. Before I joined the Jesuits I had acquired a Florida building contractor's license. But here I was, out of practice for five years, supposed to construct a building in a foreign country with no workers, equipment, or jobsite phone.
There were pluses, however; the project was an architect's dream: great freedom in design, no deadlines, no building inspectors, no fights between owner, architect, and contractor. I could make changes as needed with no cost hassles. Creativity and adaptability were essential in order to build this one-story, 20,000-square-foot building.
I lacked experience in two crucial initial stages. My only experience with "cut and fill," leveling a sloping building site, was studying it in a course I took at the University of Miami. Fortunately, a Tijuana architect, Alfonso Torres, was able to give me tips as we bulldozed the site.
My other area of inexperience was laying out building perimeters, which requires a transit, and again, the only time I had looked through one was in a college class. Dios proveeria -- God would provide. One day at the Casa de Los Pobres a man from the States mysteriously showed up. John, a balding, soft-spoken man in his fifties, was stranded in Tijuana. To this day he remains a kind of a mystery -- his being in Tijuana, his family, his story. But that day John and I began to talk. He had a lot of experience with surveying.
"If you can get a transit, I'll do the job," John said. So, with a borrowed transit, John and I and two fellows from the Casa went to the site and began laying out the building's boundaries. The tedious job of placing markers -- sticks driven into the ground -- requires split-hair precision. This was a challenge, especially under the hot sun with dusty Santa Ana winds blowing, but we got it done.
Constructing a building on a limited budget with mainly unskilled labor and in a foreign country inclined me toward selecting a construction technique that was typical of the area and familiar to me. We opted for six-inch reinforced concrete block walls and wood 2 x 12s for the roof.
Since I was designer and contractor, I drew up plans as I needed them. Using my books and buying others, I designed the concrete beams as well as the plumbing. A consultant in Miami, a good friend of mine, Jonás Barosela, designed the electrical system.
A big concern was the concrete. Was the quality of the water that was to go into it acceptable? The steel reinforcing bars in the concrete would rust if there was too much salt in the water, so we had samples from the well tested at a lab. The cement beams and columns that would support the roof required a compressive strength of 3,000 psi (pounds per square inch). We were mixing the proportions of sand, gravel, and cement on site, based on a slide-rule chart published by Cemento Compana. The concrete samples we had tested in San Diego cracked under compression at 3,200 psi, 3,050 psi, etc. I remember what Sam, the lab manager, perplexedly said: "I've never seen samples that cut it so close, but I guess it's all right for 3,000 psi concrete."
We desperately needed some skilled workers. In January 1989, Ricardo Benitez was "loaned" to us by a builder in Tijuana. This honest and energetic young man knew construction, and the year started off well thanks to his leadership and the crew he attracted. Dios provee -- God provided. I learned to rely on Ricardo, who became the superintendent. When I left for theology studies at the end of that summer, he was in charge. Now married and with a beautiful daughter whom I baptized, Ricardo runs the job and lives in a brick house next to our building. He admits that at first he did not believe that this building would become a reality, but he is now on our bandwagon of faith.
The construction process turned out to be a wonderful blend of U.S. methods (which I taught the laborers and the plumber) and Mexican expertise and techniques. Many of the workers were true craftsmen in plaster work and bricklaying. Their skills are an art form, and they take pride in their work, often devising custom details for unusual conditions on the job. The quality of stucco work these maestros achieved is simply not seen on a standard job stateside.
Much of what we did was brute labor. When the 18-wheeler arrived with 700 bags of cement, other work stopped as everyone unloaded the bags. Pouring concrete for a roof beam takes twenty minutes with pumped, ready-made concrete, but on our site it was taking three hours. The workers created a human chain, taking concrete from the small mixer to wheelbarrows to buckets, man to man, up the scaffold and into the forms. But bucket by bucket we advanced.
We ordered material from Tijuana since we had no jobsite phone. I hauled it in my pickup -- nails, tools, plumbing connections, and stain for the rafters. I also brought water and tortillas for the workers, who lived on-site from Sunday night to mid Saturday.
Every Friday I exchanged dollars for pesos and made up the workers' pay envelopes. They were needy men with families, and they received a good salary, paid weekly -- not always the case on other construction sites.
At first, the workers didn't know what to make of me, their boss, who was an architect, a seminarian, and a Cuban who spoke their language but with a different ring. But when I returned in the summer of '90 after my first year of theology studies, they asked to have Bible classes. Once a week, in the relative cool of the evening, we gathered and talked. We had mass at the jobsite once a month, and the workers prayed for relatives who were far away in Jalisco, Puebla, and elsewhere in Mexico. After mass we shared almuerzo, brunch.
Our rules were strict. No drinking on the jobsite, even in sleeping quarters. The workers came to appreciate this, since it brought peace and order. They also knew that they were part of a Church project, a project for the poor, a condition with which most of them were familiar.
Many others have collaborated in the construction of this facility. Dios ha proveido -- God has provided. Dan Young, an architect in Redondo Beach, California, and longtime friend of mine and the sisters, donated countless hours doing cost budgeting and reviewing plans and got other consultants involved as well. When I had questions, especially about seismic design, I turned to Dan. He has helped in many other areas, everything from computer-drafted drawings to on-site inspections.
Author and architect
Fr. Rafael Garcia, SJ, celebrates mass at San Ignacio de Loyola shortly after he was ordained to the priesthood.
It was an exhilarating moment in 1993 when, a few days after my priestly ordination at Gesu Church in Miami, I celebrated one of my first masses in the courtyard of the building, then about 80 percent complete. Among the friends who came from Tijuana was Don Victor, someone whom I have known for many years. He and Ricardo brought up La Ciudad's plans and drawings during the offertory. Don will probably be one of the residents when this facility for the mentally ill, named San Ignacio de Loyola, opens.
Work on the interior was directed by other architects while I was studying theology in Toronto and Madrid. I kept in contact via phone and fax, sending in sketches and design details from afar.
Interior work calls for much coordination of effort: installing doors and hardware, painting according to a color scheme, and laying floor tile, again according to a color scheme. Ricardo needed help with this phase, and Dios proveyó otra vez -- God provided once again. The New Orleans province sent a novice with architectural and construction experience to Tijuana. During his four-month experiment in 1996, Ron Boudreaux -- the right man in the right place at the right time -- gave Ricardo the needed assistance.
One by one the obstacles were overcome. Power lines were was still a problem: how could such a facility get by with only a five-gallon-per- minute well? But Dios iba a provee brought to the site before construction started. The roads have improved, and phone lines were brought in. Waterr -- God was going to provide. Some months ago the government approved tapping into the main water line that supplies Tijuana, engineers came up with the routing for the line, and we now have abundant water.
The sisters focus now on furnishings and staffing, and the building will open soon. The convent designed by Dan Young is almost complete. My next project is to design housing for the staff, a facility for sixteen that will follow the contour of the land in a stair-step fashion. The project keeps me active as an architect.
Where will the money come from for the equipment and medicine? Who will be the professionals, doctors and nurses, who will staff the facility? When will construction of the next patient facility begin? Where will the funding for it come from? Will the dream of Ciudad Misericordia become a reality? Dios proveerá --God will provide.