Our Lady of Loreto Chapel ~ watercolor by architect Raiford Stripling
Integral to the life of Presidio La Bahía, a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Loreto was constructed in 1749 as a place of worship for Spanish soldiers at the fort, and settlers in the surrounding town.
There were interruptions in the chapel’s religious life, to be sure: the imprisonment of Fannin and his men within its walls after the Battle of Coleto Creek; the massacre of those same men in its courtyard; and the signing of the Goliad Declaration of Independence on its altar on December 20, 1835. Although the Goliad Declaration came two days before Stephen F. Austin called for independence at Velasco, and preceded the Texas Declaration of Independence by seventy-three days, the signing was significant, and moved the Texas Revolution forward.
After the formation of the Republic of Texas in 1836, other parts of the Presidio began a slow decline, but the chapel remained intact and, with only a few more interruptions, continued to serve its original purpose. Today, weekly masses still are celebrated, and couples often exchange wedding vows at its altar.
Historically speaking, some Presidio weddings are more remarkable than others. When Roxanne Caye Gayle married Aaron Lee Ochoa in the chapel in 2010, she did so as a seventh-generation descendant of Don Carlos de la Garza, a Mexican rancher who was born at the Presidio in 1807, was baptized in its chapel, and married his wife Tomasita there in 1829.
Like the fort, the chapel experienced changes as it moved from location to location. In her history of the Presidio, Kathryn O’Connor writes:
The chapel at Presidio La Bahía was dedicated as Nuestra Señora de Loreto — Our Lady of Loreto — in memory of a noted shrine of that name in Italy.
It was placed in its first location on the Garcitas Creek among the laurels, or Texas sweet bay, which grows in profusion along the Texas Gulf Coast.
[The name of the Italian town housing the original shrine, Loreto, is rooted in the Latin word “lauretum,” meaning “laurel,” or “laurel grove.” The laurel found at the Garcitas Creek site probably was Persea borbonia var. borbonia]
The old statue in the chapel is said to be the one originally placed there on the Garcitas by Marqués de Aguayo in 1722. It moved with the chapel furnishings to Mission Valley in 1724, and from there to the San Antonio River site in 1749. Left dirty and defaced in the years 1837-1936, the statue was rescued by a priest in charge of the old chapel, and taken to San Antonio to be restored by experts.
In conversation with the Reverend Ed Kircher, in the 1960s, an elderly resident of La Bahía, Mrs. Clara Gentry García, added some details about that 1837-1936 time period. After the Texian victory at the Presidio, many Mexican citizens of La Bahía fled to Matamoros, taking the statue with them. When hostilities ended, they returned to La Bahía with the statue, and restored it to its proper place.
According to Mrs. García, her grandfather, who died in 1915 at the age of ninety-seven, was with the group that transported the statue to Mexico, then back again to Texas.
The well-traveled and restored statue of Our Lady of Loreto
[Restoration architect Raiford Stripling] was particularly impressed by the fact that the chapel’s unique groin-valuted ceiling had been supported for years by the four-foot-thick walls alone. Buttresses built to carry the thrusts of the vaulted ceiling had deteriorated over the years because of runoff from the roof.
Originally, the chapel was outside the walls of the fort. From all indications, it had been built in 1749 of plastered jacal, with a pole-framed pitched roof covered with thatch or wood shakes. Its second incarnation was that of a stone-walled rectangle with a beamed and shingled roof.
The third and final chapel, also built of stone, features what is thought to be the only original Spanish groin-vaulted roof structure still in existence in the Southwest.
It’s worth noting that care for the chapel and its furnishings extended beyond protecting the statue of Our Lady of Loreto. In the 1920s, fearing damage to the groin-vaulted ceiling, local Mexicans built a tin roof over the church, ensuring the ceiling’s survival.
Other items of historical interest lie within and around the chapel walls.
Two bells, dated 1748 and 1910, hang in the tower, while this cracked bell, inscribed El Santissimo Cramento 1796, rests in the baptistry. According to tradition, it was damaged during the 1835 battle which ended with the Texians capturing the fort.
As part of the restoration process, window openings were protected with wrought iron grills similar to iron work found in on-site excavations, or still in place on chapel windows.
Excavations also revealed many graves in and around the chapel, including one mass grave. Annie Taylor, a Mexican girl married to a Mr. Will Taylor, died of tuberculosis while visiting her parents near La Bahía; her marker is the most prominent in the courtyard.
Other graves are marked only by crosses cut into the stone base of the chapel walls. Señora Lisa Garza, a fourth-generation resident of La Bahía, told Father Kircher that the absence of a consecrated cemetery led to burials near the church, since that ground was considered holy.
For years, the niche above the chapel entrance remained empty. Today, a statue of Our Lady of Loreto, carved by Lincoln Borglum during the 1960s restoration, fills the space. A former resident of Beeville and son of Mt. Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum, Lincoln spent most of his creative years devoted to Mt. Rushmore: but, like so many local artisans and craftsmen, willingly contributed to the restoration effort.
Not all of Our Lady’s statuary feels so familiar. An unusual, dark-skinned carving of the Virgin and Child displayed in a side chapel might appear to have been fashioned to appeal to Mexican or Indian worshippers. In fact, the statue is an example of a much older tradition: that of the Black Madonna.
Typically associated with medieval Europe, Black Madonnas may be wooden or stone statues, free-standing or seated on a throne. Sometimes, they are presented as Byzantine-style icons.
The Presidio’s statue is a replica of the Black Madonna of Loreto, discovered in a house near an Italian laurel grove around 1294. Several legends surround Loreto and its so-called Santa Casa, or “Holy House.”
The Holy House of Loreto is alleged to be the house where Mary was born and raised, and where an angel told her she would be the mother of Jesus.
The first historical mention involves Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, who learned of its existence, and had a church built around the house in order to protect it.
According to a fourteenth-century legend, after the Holy Land came under the control of Islam in 1263, the Holy House was flown by angels to Dalmatia (in modern Croatia) in 1291, where a vision revealed it to be Mary’s house. Three years later, in 1294, it was again transported by angels to Recanati. In 1295, it was carried to a laurel grove — the ‘Lauretanum’ — for which Loreto is named. Also according to legend, as it was lowered into place, nearby trees bowed down in respect.
The tradition of the Santa Casa being transported by angels led to the Virgin of Loreto being named the patroness of pilots. A statuette of Our Lady of Loreto accompanied Charles Lindbergh on his solo flight across the Atlantic, and Jim McDivitt carried a Loreto medallion on the Apollo 9 mission to the moon.
Our Lady of Loreto in Italy (Click image to enlarge)
Not all symbolism surrounding the fort and its chapel is Christian. The significance of this sculpture would be obvious to many Presidio visitors, but, at first, I missed its association with Aztec mythology and the modern Mexican coat of arms.
Eagles, cactus, and snakes are common enough in Texas and Mexico, but this particular combination is found in a manuscript known as the Tovar Codex. Attributed to 16th-century Mexican Jesuit Juan de Tovar, the manuscript provides a history of Aztec travels prior to the arrival of the Spanish; an illustrated history of the Aztecs, including their rites and ceremonies; and a calendar.
In this illustration, depicting the founding of Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City), an eagle devours a bird, rather than a snake, while it perches on a flowering cactus growing from a rock in the middle of a lake. On the right is Tenoch, who led the Aztecs to Tenochtitlán. On the left is Tenoch’s co-ruler Tochtzin (or Mexitzin), who came from Calpan. The Mexicans’ footprints are shown approaching the base of the cactus.
Guided by prophecies of Huitzilopochtli, their god of the sun and of war, the Aztecs built Tenochtitlán on a lake island, where an eagle holding a snake was found perched on a flowering prickly pear.
The cactus was believed to grow from the heart of Copil, son of Huitzilopochtli’s sister. Copil’s symbol, seen at the upper right, includes five dots, crossed arrows, and a shield. The five dots represented Aztec belief that the world was a flat surface divided into five directions: north, south, east, west, and center, where Tenochtitlán was located.
If you’re wondering how the “center” can be a direction, it’s because a vertical line drawn through Tenochtitlán intersected thirteen ascending layers of heaven, and nine descending layers of underworld: each with different deities: a complicated system, indeed.
With Aztec mythology and the Holy House of Loreto in mind, the fresco behind Our Lady of Loreto’s altar becomes even more interesting.
Corpus Christi artist Antonio E. Garcia, sometimes referred to as the “Michelangelo of South Texas,” created the work in 1946. Born in Monterrey, Mexico in 1901, he lived during a tumultuous time. During Pancho Villa’s revolutionary forays, Garcia’s father decided to send thirteen-year-old Antonio and his two sisters to San Diego, where they could live with family members in relative safety.
While there, Garcia won a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago by submitting examples of his drawings through a newspaper advertisement. Prizes followed, along with a career devoted to realistic portrayals of South Texas working-class people.
Asked to provide an annunciation fresco for the Presidio chapel — a natural enough request, given its association with the Holy House of Loreto — Garcia chose the southwestern landscape as the setting, and had a little fun in the process. The image of the Presidio chapel painted into the background shows the wedding procession of the woman who commissioned the artwork.
Equally intriguing is the arrangement of the rattlesnake, the prickly pear, and the bird. In the fresco, three primary symbols from Aztec mythology have been separated or transformed. Whether Garcia intended them only as tokens of the natural world surrounding the Presidio, or whether he was making a larger statement about the exchange of one tradition for another, is hard to say.
What is certain is the identity of Mary and the angel — or, more precisely, the identity of the models who posed for Garcia as he painted them.
Mary and Lupe Flores, related through Mary’s marriage to Lupe’s brother, Tony, didn’t know each other particularly well when they were chosen by their priest, the Rev. Paul Hatch, to pose for the painting. Both were 17 years old at the time, and not entirely sure why they were chosen. Lupe’s mother, Guadalupe Flores, cooked for the priests, and Mary thought that might explain why he was chosen. As for herself, she didn’t know.
At a 2014 ceremony honoring them, Lupe wasn’t certain of any resemblance between his youthful self and the angel, particularly since he didn’t have long hair, or six toes on his left foot, as shown in the painting.
Mary remembered the difficulty of posing. “It was very hard, because you’re young,” she said. “You don’t want to sit like that. It was boring.” Then, she looked up at the life-sized Virgin Mary. “Do you see a resemblance? Don’t you think the nose is a little different?”
Later, she acknowledged feeling good about being a part of the Presidio’s larger history, even though her affection for it remained personal. During the years of renovation, her husband worked there as a night guard, and they spent time together on the grounds. “We used to come here and walk,” she said. “We would walk all over, and talk.” No doubt they also talked with Raiford Stripling, since he’d set up a trailer inside the walls to use as an office, and, according to reports, practically lived there throughout the reconstruction.
Halfway between an Aztec-inspired sculpture and a fresco designed to inspire followers of a different faith, I stopped my own walk along the Presidio’s wall to watch the sun lower behind another, quite real, prickly pear, and think about ghosts.
From my first glimpse of sunlight through cracks in the guest quarters door, to this last, remarkable star shining against the western sky, it had been the realities of Presidio La Bahía which entranced.
I’d heard no slamming doors or rattling chains: no gunfire in the quadrangle or screaming from the ramparts. I’d seen no ethereal being passing through fortified walls: no shadows wafting over those walls in the midnight hour. Yet quite real spirits make their continuing presence felt at Presidio la Bahía: spirits of determination and courage; of freedom and liberty; of camaraderie; of dedication.
And there are voices, easily enough heard on the grounds and just as easily heard in memory today: Mary and her husband, murmuring beneath the darkness of the walls; Raiford Stripling, calculating aloud as he roams the moonlit grounds; Chadwick the draftsman, frustrated and swearing over the loss of his favorite protractor; the broad, easy laughter of a Mexican worker telling two curious boys, in the presence of Ed Kircher, “You want to know what happened here, at Presidio? This is where we beat the hell out of those damn bolillos.”
But of all the voices I hear, one above all rings true. In a world overrun by political correctness, revisionist historians, and an infinite willingness to take offense, it’s good to hear T. Michael, one of the extensive O’Connor clan, remember the beloved Miss Kate’s words:
“As a child, every day I would go to her house to learn about Texas history,” he says.
“She told me, ‘You don’t rewrite history. You restore it.”
And so she did.