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Our Lady of Guadalupe

Published Feb 12, 2007 - (Updated Jul 8, 2013)

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Featured in Vallarta Lifestyles Magazine, Winter/Spring 2007 issue.

It dominates Puerto Vallarta's skyline in countless postcards, serving as the city’s most recognizable and endearing landmark all over the world. Year after year, it welcomes thousands of Catholics, particularly during an involved 12-day festival known as the Feast of Guadalupe every December. For many, it is a must-visit attraction in our city. For the privileged few who run the place on a day-to-day basis, the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe is undoubtedly our city's most precious monument, one that we should all endeavor to preserve.

Travel to any inhabited area in Mexico, no matter how small or far removed, and you are likely to find a church at the center of town. Many are large, multi-domed tributes to the grandeur of European cathedrals, crowded with precious paintings, art, gold leaf and stained glass windows; others just a simple structure with an altar. But they all share a common testament of faith to the church introduced to our country by the Spanish conquerors in the early 1500s.

To this date, the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe, or Guadalupe Church, has been under the attentive supervision of eight parish priests: Francisco Ayala (1921 - 1926), José Ramírez (1929 - 1932), Luis Robles (1932 - 1940), Rafael Parra (1942 - 1966), Francisco Antonio Aldana (1967 - 1979), José de Jesús Meda (1979 - 1982), Luis Ramírez (1982 - 2003) and Esteban Salazar (2003 - present). Father Salazar came from Tepic's Immaculate Conception Parish, where he served for two and a half years. Along with him, there are four other priests at Guadalupe Church, among them father Aldana, now retired but still active within the community. Assisting them are two administrative secretaries, two sextons (plus a third for weekends) and a dozen employees who provide domestic support in the priest residence. On any given day, a number of services are offered, including an English service Saturdays at 5 pm, and a bilingual service on Sundays, 10 am. Jacques Landre, an English- and French-speaking Canadian priest has been spending his holiday in Puerto Vallarta for several years, performing Sunday mass.

There is always activity in and around the church, where tour guides can be seen on a daily basis, respectfully sharing their knowledge and our traditions. The church bells are rung by the sextants 30 and 15 minutes prior to each service. During the peregrinaciones, or pilgrimages, for the 12-day Feast of Guadalupe, thousands of faithful from all over Puerto Vallarta and beyond walk to the church to pay tribute to the virgin as the bells joyfully welcome them. (Indeed, there is a party atmosphere all over downtown Puerto Vallarta during those days. Wonderful to appreciate on foot, but most of us wouldn't even consider driving through town at any time during the celebration!)

A Bit of History

When construction of the foundations of an early church began in Puerto Vallarta in 1903, there was already a small chapel dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe at the same location. When padre Francisco Ayala arrived in Puerto Vallarta in 1915, and with careful forethought, he suggested it might be better to plan for an even larger temple than the one being built. Existing foundations were strengthened, and by 1917 they were finished, along with the main pillars and walls. However, an appraisal conducted in 1920 by the church into the progress of the construction concluded that it was not "up to the standards required for our town." Construction continued and, in the following year, the work-in-progress was promoted from a chapel to a parish by the Mexican clergy, with new walls and scaffolding surrounding the original and still-functioning chapel.

Construction continued at a brisk pace during the early 1920s, with the blessing of "La Eucaristía," the main church bell, but halted abruptly in 1926 when Mexico's struggle between church and state escalated into an armed conflict known as the Cristero War. Set off by modifications made to the Constitution in 1917 designed to decrease the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexican life, the Cristero War ended in 1929. On June 27 of that year, church bells rang in Mexico for the first time in almost three years.

Once the conflict diminished to a safe level, construction of the church was resumed with the beginning of the dome in 1930. It wasn't until the 1940s, however, that the entire building was finished, with the exception of the two towers. The chancel was used for the first time, and a Hammond organ installed on December 12, 1951, a special day in Mexico's history since 1531, when the Virgin of Guadalupe is said to have appeared before a man named Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin. Padre Rafael Parra would have very much wanted to finish the main tower by that date, but it wasn't finished until 1952.

The original church crown was installed in 1963. It was made of concrete, and is said to be a replica of a crown worn by Carlota, mistress of the Emperor Maximilian in the 1860s. Finally, and under padre Ramírez's supervision, the façade and lateral towers were completed in 1987, resulting, for the most part, in the church as we know it today.

The church is considered a true expression of popular art, rather than a sophisticated creation, combining several architectural styles with ingenuity. The main building is considered to be neoclassic, while the crown reminds us of baroque Austrian temples. The lateral towers, due to their late completion, have an elegant, Renaissance feel. In fact, under the direction of the different parish priests, construction workers, carpenters and artisans simply did their best to integrate their craft's traditional methods with the conservative visual and religious values of the Vallartenses of that period.

It is traditional in Mexico to build churches with a single, main nave. In the case of our church, early foundations along with the placement of the column groupings indicate that the original design may have intended to pay tribute to the original Basilica de Guadalupe, located in Mexico City's Zocalo. The church is also properly oriented, liturgically speaking, with the main altar sunrise side. Within the church, in a chapel known as the Capilla de los Desamparados, or Chapel for the Forsaken, lie the remains of Father Francisco Ayala and Father Rafael Parra, who initiated and concluded the construction of the church, respectively. This chapel also contains the only surviving lateral altar of the four originally used in the church.

The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe venerated at the church is an oil replica painted by Guadalajara artist Ignacio Ramirez in 1945. The striking resemblance between it and the original prompted Father Rafael Parra to carry the painting to Tepeyac, Mexico City, that same year, where he requested it come in contact with Juan Diego's original tilma, or cloak.

The Crown's Unfortunate Fate

Sadly, our city's most endearing symbol is the one that presently requires most attention. Due to inevitable damage caused by erosion and weather changes, the original crown installed in 1963 had to be restored in 1981. But on October 9, 1995, it was completely destroyed by a 7.5 Richter-scale earthquake. At the time, members of the public and private sectors recognized the importance of the crown as a universal symbol for our destination and agreed to commission a temporary replacement made of fiberglass. Regretfully, the material used to build it was not strong enough to withstand its own weight, so the crown's sections have deformed, altering its original profile and volume.

Presently at the helm of a major fundraising effort is the Patronato de Amigos Vallartenses, a non-profit organization created to look after the conservation and restoration of the church, as well as many other important monuments around Puerto Vallarta. It was originally set in place during the restoration effort after the earthquake. Composed of Puerto Vallarta citizens and businessmen, the Patronato estimates that the budget required to restore the crown to its glory is $800,000 USD. This past December, a gala dinner and silent auction took place in which a sizeable portion of this amount was raised. Much more help is needed, however. To learn more about how you can donate to this worthy cause, contact the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe at (322) 222-1326.

Acknowledgment

This article would not have been possible without the thorough research conducted by Puerto Vallarta artist/historian Felix Fernando Baños. He has written a much more thorough account of the history and art of the Guadalupe Church, available for purchase in English and Spanish at the church. His alter ego—or nom de plume—Mathis Lidice is the creator of the spectacular "The Millennium" sculpture on the Malecon next to Hotel Rosita. A generous and kind artist fully committed to his city, you can catch up with him and learn more about his sculpture, the church and many other cultural topics by joining him and Gary Thompson on their informative weekly Malecon Sculpture Tour.


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