by Fr. Carmelo Vilda, SJ
December 15, 1950, marked the beginning of Christmas break for students at Colegio San José, a Jesuit boarding school in Mérida, Venezuela. Twenty-seven students arrived at the local airport for a 300-mile flight to Caracas that would reunite them with their families for the holidays.
At 11:00 a.m. they boarded the chartered DC-3. The plane cleared the Sierra Nevada, skirted the south shore of Lake Maracaibo, and began to fly over the nearby state of Trujillo.
Meanwhile, the students' families waited in Caracas, but the flight never arrived. Two days later came verification that the plane had crashed. There were no survivors. The tragedy shook the Caracas community tremendously.
At the site of the crash, Siete Lagunas Gorge, citizens erected a cross to commemorate the 27 young lives lost. But the memory of the students did not stop there. A year later, on the anniversary of the tragedy, Fr. José María Vélaz, SJ, founder of Fe y Alegría, announced plans to build a retreat house in Mérida in memory of the students.
On February 15, 1954, a mass marked the opening of the new retreat house, called San Javier del Valle. The site's landscaped grounds and mountain views combined with the architecture of the structure itself to provide retreatants with a truly contemplative environment.
Throughout the grounds are reminders of the students and the tragedy: one of the plane's propellers is set in a lagoon, names and photos of the youths are displayed in the entryway of the retreat house, the chapel is full of symbols of the students, their school, and allusions to the "flight" of life. There is also a poem inscribed on a plaque in the chapel:
Eran 27 muchachos que caminaban por la tierra;
There were 27 boys who walked the earth;
It is in their memory that San Javier del Valle offers retreats for groups of women, men, religious, priests, and youth. The retreat house is best known, however, for its focus on the Spiritual Exercises, offering three-day retreats for students as well as the more traditional eight-day and thirty-day Exercises.
Jesuits lead the retreats but do not live on site as do the four sisters of the Hijas de Jesús (Daughters of Jesus) order. They staff the house with the help of six laypeople who provide meals, clean rooms, and tend the gardens and grounds.
Since 1954, retreatants and tourists have been drawn to the tranquil, almost sacred, feeling that surrounds San Javier del Valle. Because the tragedy of the 27 has become a part of Venezuela's popular history, the retreat house became a monument of national importance. The history and beauty of the site made it one of the most popular tourist attractions in Mérida. But in order to preserve its prayerful atmosphere, San Javier del Valle is today reserved for retreatants.
The 27 have been gone for almost 50 years. Their alma mater, Colegio San José de Mérida, has been closed since 1960. Yet at the retreat house of San Javier del Valle, the memory of these students lives on. San Javier is not just a reminder of the past; it is an inspiration for present and future generations. For in this sacred place, people are able to rest, reflect, and encounter their God.
Author Fr. Carmelo Vilda, SJ, professor of cultural history at Andrés Bello University in Caracas and director of a publishing house, has written many books with Venezuelan topics, including one about San Javier del Valle.
Page maintained by Richard VandeVelde, [email protected] Copyright(c) Company Magazine ,1998. Last modified 9/6/98