In front of the Delgado mural

Francisco Delgado’s mural at the Jesuits’ Sacred Heart Parish in El Paso, Texas, brings to life the city’s traditions and stories: the alligator represents downtown’s San Jacinto Plaza, which housed such animals from the 1890s to the 1960s. The “Ochoaplane,” the flying machine, to the right of the crucifix, was the work of inventor, Mexican revolutionary leader, and one-time El Paso resident Victor Ochoa.

On the Border: A Jesuit parish with a rich history and a fighting spirit

My brother Kevin and I showed up one bright December day at the Jesuits’ Sacred Heart Church in El Paso. We went there to take photographs of a mural going up on the wall of the parish gym. Coming along the side of the parish, we encountered a group of young painters and turned to admire their progress. Kevin—six feet two and still growing—happened to thwack his head on an open hatchback of a car that was blaring music. Abashed, Kevin laughed, and the rest of us joined in. Then we all got back to work, either painting or photography.

Br. Manny Cabral, SJ, the minister of the Jesuit community of seven who also serves as parish historian, met us for a tour of the parish. He proudly showed us around a new plaza and a statue of Fr. Carlos Pinto, SJ, who founded Sacred Heart in 1893, that were dedicated last fall.

El Paso seemed like the edge of the world to me when I moved there with my family at age twelve. Tucked away in the far western part of the state, wedged between the Mexico and New Mexico borders, it’s a place unlike any other in Texas. You can see the shanty towns of Ciudad Juárez across the Rio Grande. Tumbleweeds roll down the streets in the dry season.

At once a large city (with Ciudad Juárez, it forms a metropolitan area of over 2 million) and a close-knit community, its people share a common history. The city was established in 1659 along the Rio Grande on a trade route to the north. After centuries of disputes it was annexed to the gringos, first to the Republic of Texas and later the United States. But it has always been a place of convergence. El Paso’s traditions and identity are cobbled from the various peoples—gringos, Hispanics, and Native Americans—who have been here forever and those who, like me, came from elsewhere to call it home.

Jesuits came to El Paso in its early days and built a thriving ministry. From 1882 to 1932, Jesuits created and staffed every parish in the city and many across the river. The first bishop of El Paso was a Jesuit, Linus Schuler, who served from 1915 to 1942. This past October marked the 125th anniversary of El Paso’s Jesuit ministry.

Today, the Society’s “footprint” in El Paso is one parish: Sacred Heart. Its Jesuit community includes pastor Rafael Garcia; associate pastor Ronald Gonzalez; Javier Diaz, who’s studying medicine at Texas Tech; and Samuel Rosales, who works at Our Lady’s Youth Center in El Paso.

Built in 1893, the parish remains a bastion of the Segundo Barrio, a neighborhood near downtown that’s home to many of El Paso’s poor. The area is sometimes called “the Ellis Island of the border”; the Texas/Mexico border is just two blocks away.

According to local historian David Dorado Romo, the Segundo Barrio “played a crucial role in the history of immigration, the Mexican Revolution, the Pachuco culture and the Chicano renaissance.” And the Jesuits were there through it all. Fr. Pinto is known as “the apostle of El Paso” for building Jesuit schools and churches as well as ministering to immigrants and the needy on both sides of the border.

Traditional altar at Sacred Heart parish

These statues of Mary, Jesus, and Joseph have adorned the altar since the church was built in 1892. The church was expanded twice in its early days but has remained untouched since 1929.

A unique place

I lived in El Paso until leaving for college and the bluster and chill of Chicago, and my family left soon after. I love Chicago but I missed El Paso’s uniqueness, its familiarity, its traditions, so I was pleased when my family moved back to El Paso. I relished the idea of going back there for Christmas, basking in the Texas sun and eating tamales.

There had been a tremendous amount of change in the years since I’d left. The boundaries of the city are creeping outward over desert scrub and sand to accommodate new housing developments and retail spaces. What was once a sleepy border town now boasts cosmopolitan shopping and dining opportunities. While such changes have invigorated the local economy, not everyone thinks they are all for the better.

The boom has caused some controversy over the fate of the Segundo Barrio, which has also seen a push toward development. In 2006, El Paso adopted the Downtown Revitalization Plan, proposed by a group of developers, under which the city will destroy many run-down or abandoned buildings and replace them with, among other things, an arena, an upscale loft apartment complex, and a Wal-Mart.

The plans caused uproar when it was discovered that many historical buildings in the barrio were slated for razing. Some say that the plan’s attempts at “revitalization” could displace the local poor and destroy the vibrant culture of the barrio. “It’s basically economically motivated,” says pastor Garcia. “There’s no respect or desire to keep the culture of the area.” Historian Romo fears that the residents of the barrio will be forced to relocate and, after the area gentrifies, will be unable to afford housing in the area. These were Padre Pinto’s people, Sacred Heart’s lifeblood. How will the church survive if they are forced to leave?

Father Garcia and a parishoner

Fr. Rafael Garcia, SJ, swaps howdys with parishioner Bonifacio Atienzo at a Sacred Heart festival. The parish was celebrating the completion of the mural and demonstrating opposition to a city revitalization plan that threatens the neighborhood.

Ministry in a gym

I asked Garcia how the church is fighting against the impending revitalization plan; he noted that it has always served the community and will continue to help barrio residents. It does so through its various social and pastoral ministries, including a tortilleria run by barrio women; citizenship, GED, and ESL classes; and a tutoring center, all run out of the parish gym.

All that may change: the revitalization plan puts the gym under the threat of demolition. The church became involved with a local coalition, Paso Del Sur, which opposes the plan. Both Paso Del Sur and Garcia are quick to point out that the Segundo Barrio is actually south of downtown proper, despite the plan’s earmarking buildings in both areas. Garcia says that Sacred Heart’s turf “is really a residential neighborhood. It has a different character and it shouldn’t be lumped together with the downtown area.” And in fact, after the plans were released, public outcry caused its proponents to revise it to include fewer barrio buildings.

But the plan’s underlying principles are the problem. Garcia is very much for cleaning up the downtown district. And he knows that there are too many run-down buildings owned by slumlords in the barrio. But the change, he says, “has to come from the bottom up. We think there are other ways to achieve [our goals] that are better for the culture and tradition.” A plan developed and implemented by elite interests, he says, can only benefit elite interests. Paso Del Sur agrees. Its mission declares, “We are long past the mentality that says we had to destroy the village in order to save it. El Segundo Barrio is not part of downtown. El Segundo Barrio is not for sale.”

Despite the threats to its future, the feeling you get in the place is unmistakable. Mass has been celebrated in Sacred Heart every weekend for the past 114 years. Light still filters hazily in through the windows onto the ornate altarpiece, casting the Holy Family and their attendant angels in a rich glow. If not much has changed inside the church, outside, things are moving forward. Last fall was the dedication of Padre Pinto’s plaza, and this year it was the mural. There is a willingness among the barrio’s people, among Garcia and the church’s supporters, to preserve the legacy of their neighborhood and to see it change for the better.

Collective vision

Sacred Heart held a street festival in February to celebrate the mural’s completion and to highlight their resistance to the downtown an. Muralist and barrio resident Francisco Delgado captured the neighborhood’s stories in his vibrant and stylized design. Local youth and artists helped him do the painting. It depicts, among others, Padre Pinto; Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, who used to hide out in the barrio; Sacred Heart School’s first principal; and the everyday people of the neighborhood, including one local well known for blessing people every chance he had. The images of outlaws, priests, saints, and teachers in the mural collectively present a vision of the barrio that might be overlooked by politicians and policy makers. This barrio is filled with the spirit of cultural legacy and the passion to serve its own people, and it is this spirit that will endure, no matter what the future holds.

Maureen Ryan

Maureen Ryan, a graduate of
Loyola University Chicago
is Company magazine’s
Assistant editor.

Page maintained by Company Magazine, [email protected]. Copyright(c) 2007. Created: 5/15/2007 Updated: 5/15/2007