Mexico quake leaves country’s historic churches battered
MEXICO CITY — The Our Lady of Angels Church has survived several major earthquakes, but the magnitude 7.1 shake on Tuesday appears to have been the death knell for the Mexico City building’s historic cupola.
Violent cracks crisscross the dome, and stone from the roof continues to fall onto the church’s wooden pews. The dome featuring stained glass from Germany split in two and half collapsed Sunday afternoon.
“Each earthquake has left its mark,” said Marco Antonio Fuentes, part of the church’s ministry. “This one seems to be the straw that will break the camel’s back.”
The Archdiocese of Mexico says more than 150 religious temples in this deeply Roman Catholic country were damaged by the deadly quake.
Last week’s 7.1 magnitude earthquake seriously damaged at least 3,000 buildings in Mexico City https://t.co/VoqF0o54hY
— The Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) September 24, 2017
Many of the battered buildings are in the state of Puebla, where the epicenter was located. There in the city of Atzala, a child’s baptism turned into tragedy when the roof of a church collapsed, killing 11 family members inside, including the 2-month-old girl being christened.
Statues of saints have been left maimed, missing hands and feet. Once towering, celestial church naves now open to the sky. Dust from fallen stone and concrete cover altars.
On the first Sunday since the earthquake, priests no longer able to say Mass inside collapsing churches instead held services outside paying homage to victims and survivors.
— The Weather Network (@weathernetwork) September 24, 2017
“Our religion is more than a building,” Colin Noguez, the priest at Our Lady of Angels, told parishioners inside a tent with a table holding a cross and candles from the building.
Many of the collapsed buildings where rescuers have been searching for survivors held offices and apartments, places where people worked and lived. The damage to churches hit a different chord — striking places that in many Mexican cities serve as pillars of strength in times of distress.
“It’s our mother,” Azalia Ramirez, 60, said of Our Lady of Angels, which sits in a working class neighborhood. “We come here looking for communion, peace and tranquility.”
Our Lady of Angels is believed to be the most heavily damaged church in Mexico City, while the severity of destruction to religious structures is largely concentrated in Puebla.
In Atzala, a town of 1,200 people, little remains of the golden yellow church with a red roof where the 11 people died. The interior where pews once stood is a mess of twisted metal and fallen stone leading to an altar where the word “merciful” now hangs at a slant.
“Everything happened in the blink of an eye,” said Sergio Montiel, the church’s sexton.
As the church shifted to recovery mode, a planned wedding instead took place outside under a beige tent with mariachi players standing nearby.
In San Francisco Xochiteopan, another town farther south, clergy members moved broken saints into a gym where a makeshift Mass was held.
“If God left us here, it’s for a reason,” said Juana Villanueva, who lost six relatives in the Atzala collapse.
At Mass in Puebla and elsewhere, priests urged parishioners to use this painful moment as a moment of reflection. Speaking at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a national shrine in Mexico City, Cardinal Norberto Rivera also asked God to deliver peace.
“It pains us to see our city hurt, so many hopes lost,” he said, speaking before a giant Mexican flag. “For that reason, we come to you, consoler of the afflicted.”
— AFP news agency (@AFP) September 23, 2017
The origin of Our Lady of Angels dates back 433 years, when a painting of the Virgin Mary transported by a Spanish ship was found to have been damaged by water during the journey. A painter in the city’s then-predominantly indigenous community was commissioned to create a replica.
The replica, cracked and with progressively fading paint, has stood at the altar from the time the church was little more than a small hut to its present-day construction, built in the 19th century. The Virgin Mary painting has withstood seven floods and more earthquakes than parishioners can remember.
“I say Our Lady of Angels holds the miracle of perseverance,” said Adela Corona, a member of the ministry.
Engineers have told the church’s leaders that the cupola has a 60 percent to 70 percent chance of collapsing. It contains stained glass brought from Germany depicting singing archangels. Projecting above the roof, the cupola is meant to symbolize how the church brings those inside closer to God.
“It is an important part of our historical heritage,” Fuentes said as the sound of small bits of the dome falling onto the floor echoed in the church. “Our idea is to save it.”