Mexico’s churches took a major hit in the September earthquake

Oct 30, 2017

The historic Ex-Convent of San Guillermo Abad in the town of Totolapan, Mexico, was founded by Augustan monks in 1534.

It was the same time Spanish forces overwhelmed the Aztec empire and established convents and monasteries to spread Christianity. In doing so, missionaries practically eradicated Mesoamerican religious thought.

The building lasted some 483 years, but on Sept. 19 the Baroque stone church was destroyed in the 7.1-magnitude earthquake that shook most of southern Mexico and killed 369 people.

Related: Hundreds of Mexico City buildings may now be uninhabitable

The church’s main roof caved in and the bell towers crumbled. Security camera footage caught the moment as it happened from multiple angles, illustrating the strength of the quake.

Hundreds of colonial era churches like this were damaged or lost near the epicenter, in the states of Puebla, Tlaxcala, Mexico State, Mexico City and in Morelos. Hundreds more were ruined in the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas during the 8.2-magnitude quake on Sept. 7. It’s an aspect of the tragedy that’s been mostly overlooked.

Mexico’s federal government said that 1,821 historically significant buildings were damaged in the September earthquakes.

These included a few pre-Hispanic sites, such as well-known Monte Alban in Oaxaca, where two pyramids were reportedly damaged. But most were colonial churches that were both historically significant and had provided a vital center of social, cultural and spiritual life for residents of hundreds of communities.

For some, the loss of a church might not seem like a big deal in the face of destruction seen in Mexico City, where multiple residential buildings collapsed. In the aftermath of the quake, some survivors in Mexico pondered the meaning of losing so many historic churches in a country where the legacies of colonialism and racism remain very much alive.

Related: When disaster hits home: The Mexico City quake one month on

But for rural Mexicans, local churches are where people are baptized, married and sent to the afterlife. They provide an economic pillar in the form of annual or monthly festivals, which draw regional tourists.

In Totolapan, parish priest Noe Chavez Ramirez guided a visitor to the ruined central altar inside the chapel, where the sky and clouds were exposed through the fallen roof. He seemed truly saddened.

“People feel like they lost something in their lives, and well, in their faith,” Chavez. “This place was filled with happiness, many fiestas.”

Parishioners were able to save the church’s prized relics, which are now being housed in a nearby parking lot, but the building itself is unusable for an unknown period of time. The priest admitted it could be years, or even decades, before authorities manage to rebuild.

Related: Symbolic rubble’ from crumbling adobe homes preserves the past and eases trauma after Mexico earthquake

Carmen Rosales, a food vendor, said that “the entire town” wept and mourned the loss of the Baroque church. “We all cried, because ... well ... it’s the patrimony of the pueblo,” Rosales said. “And now we’re left like little animals, without a church.”

Mexico’s government has launched a massive rebuilding project — though it’s still not certain where the money for the ruined churches will come from. The Mexican conference of bishops said they’ve raised nearly $1 million from Catholics nationwide. The Vatican has also pledged support.

Either way, the pressure will be on, because residents of these towns have insisted that the churches must be rebuilt.

Daniel Hernandez reported from Morelos, Mexico. 

From PRI's The World ©2017 PRI