Rattlesnakes, Cactus, and Laurel: The Heritage of Loreto

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
The statue in place on the chapel’s altar (click image to enlarge)

While the statue is treasured, the chapel’s architectural pride is its original groin-vaulted ceiling. Michael McCullar writes:

[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.

(Click image to enlarge)

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.

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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.

(Click image to enlarge)

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.

Our Lady of Loreto, carved by Lincoln Borglum (Click image to enlarge)

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.

La Bahia’s Black Madonna (Click image to enlarge)
(Click image to enlarge)

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.

A golden eagle atop prickly pear cactus devours a snake (click image to enlarge)
The snake who got away (click image to enlarge)
The eagle and the snake (click image to enlarge)

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.

Click image to zoom in for more details

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.

The annunciation to Mary ~ Antonio E. Garcia (Click image to enlarge)

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.

The wedding procession (click image to enlarge)

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.

Prickly pear and rattlesnake, with artist’s signature in lower left (Click image to enlarge)

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.

Mary and Lupe Flores pose in front of Antonio Garcia’s 1946 fresco of the Annunciation (2014)

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.

(Click image to enlarge)

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?”

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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.

The holey cactus (Click image to enlarge)

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.

As always, comments are welcome.
This is the third of a three-part series. If you missed them, you might enjoy “A Moveable Fort” and “Getting Fortified.”

92 thoughts on “Rattlesnakes, Cactus, and Laurel: The Heritage of Loreto

  1. Great story dear Linda, everything so impressive, how great people to keep the history and the building. Fascinated me the chapel with the painting… I try to imagine the wedding ceremony… Amazing. Thank you dear Linda, it was so nice reading all this history. Love,, nia

    1. I learned some other fun things about weddings there that would interest you, Nia. Sometimes, the Quarters that I stayed in are used as the bride’s room before the ceremony, and sometimes they are the honeymoon suite.

      And the ceremonies can be very different. Some are quite traditional, with the bride wearing a lace mantilla and the men in Spanish-style jackets. Others? Not so much. At one wedding, everyone dressed in hunting gear. I suspect even the cake was camouflaged. The place certainly lends itself to both formal and informal!

  2. Thank you for sharing all of this with us, Linda. It must have required an enormous amount of research. The interior of the chapel is so beautiful. Thank goodness the ceiling was preserved.

    1. Honestly, Bella? I learned as much writing this as I ever have with a post. I need a mental junk drawer to hold all the tidbits I picked up along the way. For example, Stripling was from East Texas — the Piney Woods — and was as happy quail and dove hunting as doing anything else. When he got his architecture license, he said, “Now I can starve to death on my own terms.” What’s not to like?

      The chapel is beautiful. I prefer it to Mission La Bahia across the river, but of course I’ve come to know it better. That makes a difference.

    1. Eventually, I did find those articles, and they were useful for confirming information I’d found elsewhere. What I missed in the first article’s timeline is the title of the Presidio fresco: “Mexican Annunciation.” Thanks for adding the links; I’ll add the title above.

      Initially, I was confused when I found articles and images for “Antonio García” that didn’t seem to fit together. As it turned out, there were plenty of people writing about the role of “Antonio García” at the Presidio without adding an all-important middle initial. There’s a difference between Texas’s Antonio E. García and the Spanish painter, Antonio López García. Quite a difference.

      Once I got that straightened out, I found the Antonio E. Garcia Arts & Education Center in Corpus Christi, and they provided some good information, as did Sacred Heart in Corpus.

      Another family figured in the Sacred Heart frescos: that of Dora Cervera Mirabal. I was astonished to read that she’d written 25,000 poems. The very thought made me tired.

      One of these days, I think a trip to Corpus would be lovely — but after spring break. Writing about Sacred Heart would give me a chance to use “lunette.”

    1. Plenty of people don’t find a thing to love, Jean. I suppose that can happen in any place. It’s not always the fault of the place, either. When I first came to Texas, I enjoyed it. When I came back, I was too busy with life to pay much attention to it. Only now, with a little more time, and a lot more experience, am I beginning to really appreciate it. There’s a lot to love.

      I’m glad you enjoyed reading. I feared I was trying to put too much into one post, but there are so many strands of history woven together here, they deserve to be shown as they are in real life.

  3. Fascinating article Linda. Such superb research on your part. Your pictures make it all come alive. What a wonderful opportunity to meet the descendants of these remarkable people. The sculpture of the Black Madonna is beautiful. So much detail in the crowns.

    1. Thanks, Kayti. When I was trying to sort out the Aztec belief system, and bumped up against the “center” as a direction, I thought immediately of your post about the kivas and the sipapu. It’s fascinating to me how belief systems can differ so in their details, and yet share so much in common.

      Near the bottom of this article there’s a paragraph explaining the various symbols associated with the Virgin of Loreto. I found several articles about the “crowning” that takes place on her festival day, too. The crowns are beautiful, but I’d not want to wear one. It looks heavy enough to cause a headache.

      When it comes to starry crowns, this is more to my taste. Even if you miss out on the crown, you still can dance.

  4. As usual, Linda, you’ve spun a most interesting story here! I had no idea of the tale behind the Our Lady of Loreto statue. She logged in some miles, didn’t she??

    And I enjoyed “meeting” the models behind the paintings of Mary and the angel. While I don’t see any striking resemblance in either case, I suppose it’s a creative’s prerogative to paint what he “sees.”

    I’m glad you didn’t find any ghosts (well, they would have made a good story, though, huh?!), but I fully get what you’re saying about these places having voices of their own. I recall visiting Vicksburg, MS, many years ago and was startled to “hear” cannons and such — probably my writer’s overactive imagination!!

    1. I think the most touching stories associated with the Presidio are those that are the most hidden, like the one about the Mexicans putting the tin roof over the chuch. I didn’t find any evidence of that online. It was only when I read the book about Raiford Stripling that I found it, and even there, it was only a short paragraph.

      As for likenesses — Mary and Lupe Flores were seventeen when the fresco was painted, and they were both 85 in the photo from 2014. Sixty-eight years of living may have helped to dim their resemblance to Mary and the angel. It would be fun to see photos of them as seventeen-year-olds, and compare those with the fresco.

      There are plenty of people who swear they’ve had “strange experiences and encounters” at the Presidio, and perhaps they have. It’s certainly high on the “must do” list of Texas ghost hunters, and it’s been on a Discovery Channel series about the paranormal.

      Still, when my friendly volunteer and I talked about it, we agreed — if you come to La Bahia looking for ghosts, you’ll probably find them. If you come looking for a peaceful retreat, you can experience that, too. But if you come for the history, you could spend a year, and never come close to digging into everything that’s there. Besides: ghosts are unpredictable. The history’s always there.

  5. Such an impressive series on this place. I found the chapel, statuary, and paintings gorgeous. It is good to have it all still available for the future generations to know.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Jim. The Foundation and staff are doing a great job of expanding their interpretive materials and educational opportunities, too. There’s a very good video available as an overview for visitors, and a lot of information is presented in unique ways.

      Speaking of videos, here’s a little tech story. During our Thanksgiving visit, my friend and I were out and about one morning when we saw a drone flying around. I took some photos of it, and then went looking for the operator. When I found him, it turned out that his wife was raised in the area, and he was shooting some footage for her.

      Just a couple of weeks ago, I came across this on YouTube. I’m the one in the coral-colored top, and my friend’s the one wearing yellow. If I hadn’t been looking for a decent aerial view of the fort, I never would have found it.

  6. It was heart warming to read that Roxanne Gayle was married in the same chapel as her ancestor did nearly two centuries before! What a wonderful event that was!

    Texas has a rich and wonderful history and I’m grateful to you for making it known!

    1. Wouldn’t that have been an experience, Terry? One of the things that makes La Bahia so special is that there are so many people with personal ties to it. Descendents of settlers and soldiers abound, and they all have stories to tell.

      One thing I’ve thought about recently are the timelines they used to use in our history classes. Timelines are good for organizing, but they can suggest that history is solely linear: this happened, and then that, and now this. The truth is, events also can be like crabs crawling over one other in a basket. Try and get ahold of one, and you’re likely to get pinched by another!

  7. Thanks for sharing the interesting history of the chapel. I’m learning so much about various sites in Texas from this series. Even though the context is totally different, the photo of the cracked bell made me think of the liberty bell in Philadelphia.

    1. I thought about the Liberty bell, too. There are more old bells still hanging around in Texas (and, in some cases, still ringing) than I’d imagined. Some are in churches or missions, but some are in private chapels on ranches.

      The bell at Espiritu Santo Mission still can be rung by visitors — but just one pull per person, please. Of course I did, just as I raised the bloody arm flag in the quadrangle. That was another unexpected treat that came with being around before the Presidio opened to the public.

    1. There’s always more to everywhere than the purveyors of history-entertainment would have us believe.

      Sometimes, I think that’s why I’ve never had much of an impulse to write fiction. I love a good novel as much as anyone, but I can’t bring myself to spend time inventing a world when the real one’s so interesting.

  8. I am always fascinated by how people mix their traditional beliefs with introduced religions, as we saw in Liberia, Linda. I am convince that keeping the old while adopting the new is a form of insurance. Established religions take advantage of this, naturally. Probably no one has done the job better than the Catholic Church as a means of capturing new converts. So here we had the Catholic and Aztec religions/mythologies being interwoven in your beautifully told tale.
    Sorry you didn’t see your ghost. They always make for interesting tales.

    1. What’s interesting about the ghosties, Curt, is that they never crossed my mind when I made plans to go to the Presidio, because I didn’t know it’s considered prime ghost-hunting territory. I didn’t find out about that until some people in Goliad asked me if that was why I’d come. Even when I created the “cliff-hanger” in the first part of this series, I wasn’t thinking about ghosts at all. I really was surprised to find so many “reading that in.”

      I had to laugh at your phrase, “capturing new converts.” One of the reasons La Bahia moved from Garcitas Creek is that the Indian tribes they’d run into weren’t eager to be captured or converted, and they made their preferences known.

      But to your larger point: joining old and new traditions isn’t necessarily bad. Sometimes, it can be mutually enriching. Some Christian groups in Liberia were scandalized by the practice of pouring libations at funerals, and refused to allow it. Others found a way to re-contextualize a practice that’s as primal as it gets, and let it be — to everyone’s benefit.

      One thing’s for sure — I’d much rather see a ghost than be one!

      1. I was always amused by the Kpelle who went to church on Sunday morning to pray for whatever and then cut a chicken’s head off in the evening to make sure the message got to God. As for libations… how about Irish wakes. –Curt

    1. Oh, Anne. I’m just going to have to make up the absence of ghosts to you by writing that piece about my conversation-in-a-dream with my friend. There’s no doubt it’s a place you would love. And who knows? You might come back from some time there with hauntingly different tales to tell!

  9. Beautiful post, even with snakes sprinkled through the images! In the past two days I’ve seen two different (new) snakes.

    So many areas made me smile, even seeing the raptors with snakes (because there’s a laughing falcon that frequents the area near the house and it prefers snakes.) The mural behind the chapel’s altar is beautiful and the church itself is beautiful, and that painting of Mary is so serene!

    Barb and I drove to town yesterday, and the rain/roads were so bad that we checked into a little hostal. yay, it’s great to spend some quiet time online!

    1. Look at you — living the high life in town! The cloud forest’s wonderful, but I’m sure it is a nice break to get out and about, and to have easy internet access for a time. It’s great for us, too — having a visit from you is a special treat.

      I’ve never heard of the laughing falcon — or, if you’ve mentioned them, I’ve forgotten. I discovered it looks much like an osprey, and sounds much like our laughing gulls. In fact, if I’d just heard a recording without seeing the bird, I might have thought it was a gull.

      I’ve seen one hawk with a snake. It was in Kansas, and the hawk was flying with the snake dangling from its beak. It was quite a sight — one of those that you don’t need a camera to remember.

      Mr. Garcia did several more murals in churches, especially in Corpus Christi, but I’d really like to see some of his other work. Here’s a photo from the art center named after him that I think you’ll like. There are a lot of kids who take time out for art there!

      1. hi from quito!
        barb and i drove to quito today to put the truck in for maintenance and to take a timeout from work at the property! we will drive back tomorrow.

        i stopped in an art supply store to buy acrylic pigments and brushes, and all they had in inventory was absolute junk. i talked to the manager and asked how the young artists of this country would ever improve when they had to use horrible supplies and zero options for good pigments! he smiled and nodded, and i said, ‘and i iknow you’re not the buyer, but someone should buy a better quality…’


        yesterday zero students showed up for their art class – ecuadorians! they are so relaxed which is why many love this country, but it can be frustating…

        it”s so great to spend time with you, even via delayed messages lobbed back and forth!

        love, lisa

    1. Becca, thanks so much. The way I see it, a little more magic, a few more great stories, won’t hurt any of us — especially if we can learn something along the way, and enjoy it. I’m glad you enjoyed the series.

    1. I know. I didn’t find that quotation, or the article from whence it came, until I was well into the writing. As soon as I read it, there was no question what the conclusion would be. All I had to do was write my way to it.

  10. Texas is so complicated. You do such a great job of spiraling back in time and across wide-slung places to pull those threads to more recent history making sense of the jumble – including real people you come across. History is so fascinating (and easy to get sidetracked as one thing leads to another.)
    Never knew that about the tin roof added as protection. There used to be such reverence of/for places.
    And as one said above – perfect quote for an ending

    1. Sometimes I think the “larger-than-life” dynamic works against us, too. People outside the state know the Alamo, Six Flags, Gilley’s, and Luckenbach. And Willy. Maybe bluebonnets, too. All of that’s a part of it, but only a part. It’s more detailed, and far more complex. One example: there were nine flags that flew over Goliad, not six. And if you want to talk about barbeque, the question always is — which barbeque?

      Someone passed on some information about how that groin-vaulted ceiling was constructed in the first place. I couldn’t find any specific information online, so I need to get back in touch with him and find out more about that. Suffice it to say, even without scaffolding, they figured it out. And I liked the fact that many of the workers on the 1960s restoration were from families who’d been there not for decades, but for centuries.

      That quotation is perfect, isn’t it? Maybe it was Kathryn O’Connor herself who sent me back to find it.

      1. I’m always surprised that people are surprised that it’s been so diverse down here with countries of origin. We take so much in stride and for granted. Another reason Common Core, which doesn’t leave much room for states’ history, is unwelcomed. If you don’t understand the past and how we got here and all the relationships…

        Maybe that last sentence of the next to last paragraph in your comment hits the nail on the head. People whose families have been here longer than dirt see their lands and what’s around differently? Migrant families and people who don’t have long rooted connections to their location don’t feel connected to it – so don’t care so much about keeping it functioning, in good shape, and holding its’ history?
        You really need to write /collect writings into a book

        1. Well, except for this: there are places in this country where generations have lived on the same land, and the land is pretty much trashed. On the other hand, many immigrant families arrive from every area of the world with an obvious commitment to keeping up their environment, and improving it where they can. One thing’s for sure: when communities are fragmented, for whatever reason, their care for community landmarks and properties lessens. You know exactly where that’s happened in Houston.

          1. Those who depend on the land for life – live or die by the farm do look at the environment differently.
            Remember all the old anti-litter campaigns – and the Indian on the horse sadly looking at the mess? Experts/psychologists warned even back then that as society moved away from land/farming lifestyle that attitudes would change. Sad.

  11. Love your accounts of restored history as opposed to rewritten history. I’m sad to acknowledge that I have become quite cynical about so much of what is now passed on as history. Seems so much is now just giving the facts necessary to fit some agenda. If it doesn’t fit, ignore it. Thanks for reconstructing these poignant stories.

    1. It’s been quite something to follow proposed revisions of history text books over the past years. The squabbles over content certainly have been agenda-driven, and there are plenty of people pushing for their own preferences, from a variety of perspectives.

      Of course, the same happens even with “smaller” histories, as in families. There’s been some revisionist history in my own family. When I discovered it, I was mightily surprised, I’ll tell you. And of course, how events are remembered and recounted depends so much on the person doing the remembering and the story-telling.
      My stories of the Presidio are much different from those told by some inveterate ghost-hunters.

      In any event, I’m glad you liked my stories. When I first decided to head off to La Bahia, I never expected to enjoy it as I did, or learn so much in the process.

  12. I had the great good fortune to be able to see the Black Virgin of Monserrat in Spain during a brief sojourn in Barcelona in the 1970’s. Loreto’s Black Virgin is another incarnation in this long historical tradition. The Loreto virgin here reminds me of so many others scattered across the Americas with the triangular shape of the robes, particularly the mantle. La Virgin de los Remedios is another one.

    1. I’ve been familiar with Our Lady of Guadalupe for years, and she certainly is the one whose image I see most often. I wasn’t at all familiar with Our Lady of Loreto, and now you’ve introduced me to the Virgin of Remedios.

      When I read the Wiki article, I had to smile at this: ” After 25 years, eight kilometers of tunnels had been excavated, enabling the discovery of the seven superimposed pyramids. In the second one the Mural of the Butterflies was discovered, and in an attached building they found the Mural of the Drinkers, depicting more than a hundred human figures in a ceremony in honor of Octli, the god of pulque.”

      Thanks to the agaves at the Presidio, I know a little about pulque, and was tickled to find this reference to it in a related article.

  13. There is a warm place in my heart for people who appreciate architecture and preservation. You captured it beautifully!

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the story, Jasmine, and found something of value. Preservation and restoration are as much art as science, and I think an especially good job was done here. Thanks for reading, and commenting. You’re always welcome here.

  14. Being a visual person, I like to scan the images first…I have always loved Spanish and Mexican art, the naif style, colors. The chapel is just beautiful inside.

    Your posts are adding another way to exercise my Spanish language skills!

    1. There were a few details of the chapel I failed to capture well enough to show. One was a view looking out from the main door. There’s a scallop-shell design denoting baptism that’s quite wonderful, but I just couldn’t figure out how to deal with the bright outside light and the dimness inside. (That’s the doorway from which I took the photo of the agave.)

      While the were restoring the mission across the river, they found parts of the old walls with painted designs still visible. In that case, they had direct evidence of both the designs and the colors used. What fun that must have been.

  15. Now, I truly love the idea of restoring history, as opposed to rewriting it. I don’t know whether it’s really possible, but I endorse it as a goal. Is this artist Garcia now a third Garcia, to join “my” Torres-Garcia and the Lopez Garcia to which you referred my way? That chapel is beautiful–and this again reminds me of the vaulted clean lines of a chapel we visited in Finland. Well, this place is full of treasures, indoors and out, and I wouldn’t have known a whit about it had it not been for your terrific posts.

    1. Yes, this is yet another Garcia: a fact which mightily confused me in the beginning. I couldn’t quite put together the fresco and the completely delightful but far more realistic paintings from Lopez-Garcia. It didn’t help that most articles about “my” Garcia omitted his middle initial, “E,” which could have helped considerably.

      As I’ve thought more about this, it’s occurred to me that “restoration” isn’t “replication.” Freezing a place at a moment in time and then saying, “This is what it was like” just isn’t possible. There are so many decisions to be made: so many interpretations. A smaller but relevant example might be Our Lady of Loreto. Look at the Italian version of the Black Madonna, and then at the Presidio’s. They’re the same, and yet not. The tradition links them, but they clearly come from different cultures, different contexts.

      I’d say Strip’s “feelings” may have been the best tool in the kit when it came to the Presidio.

      1. You show your excellent wordsmith stripes in distinguishing between “restoration” and “replication.” I agree with the distinction, and with your comment that Strip’s “feelings” (albeit borne out of knowledge and good judgment, it appears to me) were the best in the tool kit. I was just reading an article about the full panoply of methods required when interpreting the Constitution, and funnily enough, it relates!

        1. Of course it does. One of my favorite courses in grad school was an exploration of hermeneutics: the philosophy and methods of interpretation. We focused on textual interpretation, but of course the “text” can be anything from the Constitution, to sacred texts, to the latest addled rant from a political candidate. And the wiki devoted to the subject does have archaeology, architecture, and others included in its list of fields where the methods are applicable.

          As for Stripling: he didn’t arrive at the Presidio without experience. For example, he had worked on the restoration of La Bahia mission across the river in the 1930s. I suspect he spent a good bit of time honing his “sensibilities” and pondering all these questions.

    1. Thanks, Otto. By the time I’d finished the post, I had come to realize that more than the chapel had a history. Every object — the statues, the bell, the ironwork, the sculpture — all were paths that could be explored for their own sake. And I’ve not said a word about the natural surroundings.

      But no writing this weekend. It’s sunny and warm, and time to go out with my camera.

  16. I very much enjoyed touring the fresco, detail by detail, and learning the story of the models. It took a long time, as I followed links and then followed more links and . . . you know how that goes.

    I would argue that history is rewritten even as it happens. We rewrite it whenever we tell our own stories of our own lives. It is nearly impossible for us to recognize that others participated in those same stories and came away with different understandings of what happened. This is just human nature. I need look no further than the Very Interesting Conversations I have with my beloved sisters about life in our very own family.

    By choosing what to restore, however faithfully, we choose particular threads in a vast tapestry. The harder I work at history the more deeply I see how difficult it is. Of course that just makes it a worthwhile pursuit, doesn’t it!

    1. There you are, opening up that delightful can of worms. I agree, of course, and hinted at that in my comment to Susan, above, where I pointed out that restoration isn’t equal to replication: precisely because replication is impossible.

      On the other hand, choosing “these threads” over “those threads”, one detail or interpretation over another, is quite different from excising something entirely — or adding something that wasn’t there in the beginning. No one would be pleased if a conservator tasked with restoring the Mona Lisa decided to add some gold trim here and there, because it “looked pretty.”

      And, the history of events is a different critter than the history of a building, which can be pinned down with at least some greater degree of accuracy. That’s why they began with archaeology at the Presidio.

      (I see this is going to get a little long, but I know you won’t mind.) Clearly, Mrs. O’Connor was aware of these difficulties. One of the questions I had from the beginning was, “If the goal was to restore the Presidio to its 1836 appearance, what is that fresco doing behind the altar?” It was painted 110 years later, after all.

      In McCullar’s book, the issue’s mentioned. He writes: “The only intact structure was the chapel, which was still functioning as a church and in fairly good repair (although at least one attempt to ‘restore’ it in the late thirties by a well-intentioned Refugio woman resulted in a fresco being painted on the back wall behind the altar, which Raiford says ‘really disturbs the whole spirit of the chapel’ but which was left on the wall nonetheless).”

      Why was it left? The cynic might say, “in order not to offend the person who commissioned it, and risk loss of possible funding.” But there’s another answer.

      Raiford said that the two of them agreed at the outset that the “final result should be a restored ruin, not a completely rebuilt Presidio. Although the form and detail of the fort would be re-created, the rebuilt walls would remain unplastered, even though [evidence from 1836] indicated otherwise. The idea wasn’t to rebuild a brand-new presidio that looked immaculately maintained, but to make it look worn as well as whole, so that a visitor’s preconceived notions of visual history wouldn’t be too severely violated.”

      It seems to me that’s a pretty sophisticated approach. Instead of returning to 1836 and freezing things there, they allowed the on-going history of the place to be acknowledged. I think they succeeded marvelously well.

      1. ‘Course I don’t mind. I live for this stuff–and I didn’t intend a criticism of the chapel or Presidio restoration.

        I had an interesting, and I think relevant, experience at Colonial Fort Michilimackinac some 40 years ago when we were on vacation with Rob the Firefighter. The restored fort includes a trading post complete with Hudson’s Bay point blankets. Everything looked-and smelled!-so spanking new. Freshly built shelves, clean blankets, smoothly planed floor . . . I commented on this to the costumed trader re-enactor, who pointed out that the goods would have been new in the original trading post. True. Very interesting. I had experienced having my “preconceived notions of visual history” violated! I take that point.

        On the other hand . . . even though the forts at the Straits (there are two, the one I’m talking about on the south shore, the other on Mackinac Island) have ultimately been painstakingly restored–on the Island–and replicated on the south shore, they offer only a narrow glimpse of the community life that happened there. We tell history by selecting artifacts and stories and shaping them into a particular arc. Otherwise we have chaos, like my research files.

        The really funny thing is that when I went looking for links to give you I found two very different ones that I decided you should have. I also found another subject for reflection for myself, but I’ll tell you about that sometime when I’ve finished reflecting!

        I love this stuff.


        1. Several things caught my attention in that first article. Just after the French built their fort (1714-1715) the Spanish were moving into South Texas, establishing a presence at La Bahia (1722) and elsewhere to put a stop to French incursions. And while Native Americans in your area fought on the side of the British during the Revolution, Mexicans in Texas fought on the side of the colonists.

          I also noticed the WPA connection. La Bahia mission’s restoration also was begun in the 1930s as a CCC project. And isn’t it interesting that both forts began to be restored in the 1960s?

          Speaking of adding and subtracting to history, this tickled me: “The French surrender scene depicted in this 2013 photo of the Fort Michilimackinac Pageant at right never took place in real life, since the French military left Michilimackinac the year before the arrival of the British garrison.”

          I was impressed by all the programming there. The Presidio offers some kids’ weekly programs, the annual reenactment, and other living history activities, but nothing like that. On the other hand, there are possibilities offered by the Presidio that wouldn’t be possible in such an environment. I’m not sure how many more places there are where they hand you the keys to the fort and say, “Have fun,y’all.”

  17. As I read this and so many of your other histories, the folks who seem the most important in creating and maintaining the culture of the U.S. and most likely all other lands are those whose names are not at all well known outside of writings such as yours. While Austin may be a well-known (and rightly so) person, much of what remains is the doing of folks with a dedication at least the equal of the historically famous.

    I am happy that the spirits you experienced are through the continued existence of the place-those are the best kind.

    1. My dad used to tell me that the most important people in the world were ordinary people who did extraordinary things. I think the lesson must have taken, along with an assumption that the “ordinary” itself can be wholly extraordinary. A culture that only worships at the altar of celebrity misses a good bit, and any phrase that begins “just a…” is missing the mark in one way or another. Even today, I hear it now and then: “just a kid”; “just a weed”; “just an artist”; “just a cat.” Phooey, says me. Every one, every experience, is special.

      I’m with you on the best kind of spirits. Ghosts come and ghosts go, but the spirit of a place (or of a time) has staying power.

  18. Dynamite ending to a well-researched three-part story. It’s time for you to enroll in an MLA program. You’ve already demonstrated terrific research and writing skills. I believe there is a terrific program at SMU; I’m not sure what is available in the Houston area.

    1. I’m still happy with that ending, every time I read it. (And yes, of course I re-read my own work. Doesn’t’ everyone?)

      There is an MLA program at the University of Houston. One of my customers has a daughter who just enrolled. But, gracious — after all the time I spent getting myself out of academia, I’m not sure I would want to plunge back in. I’ve been quite aware recently that I probably have twenty good years left, give or take. In the grand scheme of things, that’s nothing. Choosing how to spend it is important.

  19. I have truly enjoyed being taken deep into the story of this fort. Of the many things that have struck me, I am most interested in the attention to Mary, as one would expect. I have been asked to write a response to the Q and A column of our national church newspaper on the theme of the Virgin Birth, which has got me thinking a bit more about Mary.

    I don’t think Lutherans will ever enter into the kind of Mary devotion evident above, but it strikes me that more thought around Mary is needed. At any rate, I have until November to work on the column, so thanks for the kick-start!

    1. One of the things that interests me about Marian devotion is how malleable she is — in a good sense. She can be portrayed humorously (as in “Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility” from Lake Wobegon) or poetically, as in Eliot’s “Four Quartets”:

      “Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory,
      Pray for all those who are in ships, those
      Whose business has to do with fish, and
      Those concerned with every lawful traffic
      And those who conduct them.

      Repeat a prayer also on behalf of
      Women who have seen their sons or husbands
      Setting forth, and not returning:
      Figlia del tuo figlio,
      Queen of Heaven…”

      There are at least three churches on the Texas coast named for Mary, Star of the Sea, and I see there are some in California, England, and Nova Scotia. As a matter of fact, one of the tankers that makes regular runs up the Houston ship channel is named “Stella Maris.” This wiki article is quite interesting, and might give you a little more fodder.

  20. Amazing, you and my dad would have had so much to talk about. He has a “santos” collection, and he also has a black Virgin, but his virgin is called “Santa Efigenia” from Brazil:
    Apparently these black Virgins represent how the indigenous people of these hispanic countries assimilated Christianity and the “mestizo” population in these countries. “Santa Efigenia” was actually black because of the African influence in Brasil. I do like the paintings you have shown here from Antonio E. Garcia “The Annunciation to Mary”. So much history in these places.

    1. Your dad’s Black Virgin is quite interesting. This clearly is a phenomenon that is rooted in a variety of expeiences. The Eastern Orthodox and European Catholic representations go back centuries. Some in the New World were copies of those, but others seemed to spring spontaneously from the devotion of people in countries like Brazil.

      I was amused to see that some even became “black madonnas” because of the simple effects of time, and years of being surrounded by the smoke of votive candles. Now and then, the simplest explanation is the best.

      Corpus Christi, Texas, is the central location for most of Antonio Garcia’s frescos. It would be fun to combine a tour of those churches with a couple of days for one of their bird counts. They’re on one of the primary flyways, and both hummingbirds and raptors are regular visitors.

      1. Yes, I read about how some of the “black madonnas” became black because of being surrounded by the smoke of votive candles and their paint darkening this way. That is amazing.

  21. The chapel and the artwork are just beautiful and how good to see and hear from the models. What a fascinating and informative post, I loved all the history and how religion and culture become entwined, Stunning pictures too, you have certainly given me much to reflect upon, I shall be pondering upon this post for a while methinks.xxx

    1. Welcome home! I have a feeling you have your own tales of history, religion, and culture to share — although from a very different perspective. I’m looking forward to it all.

      When I came across the article about Mary and Lupe Flores, I was delighted. it never had occurred to me that Garcia might have used actual models. Don’t you know those kids were the talk of the town? It must have been an exciting time, and quite an experience for them to look back on, now.

      I haven’t even written about the natural beauty of the Presidio’s setting. I arrived after the height of the spring wildflower season, but there still were flowers galore. One of these days I’ll post something about them, too — but I think three Presidio posts in a row is enough!

  22. Fantastically interesting. Exploring, researching and finally putting on paper (well, you know what I mean) must fill many hours. A very rewarding undertaking. This is a stretch of history of which I have heard little before.

    I know of black madonnas; again a fascinating subject in all its historical aspects. The madonna I like least is the pink one, all statues of Mary and all paintings in the old European School of art wear blue robes. Blue is the colour I associate most with depictions of Mary.

    Also, a study of the symbol of an eagle devouring a snake or bird would repay research.


    1. Like you, I’ve long associated the color blue with Mary. There was one other statue in the chapel that I originally showed here, but later removed, because I feared overloading the post with images. But isn’t this one beautiful?

      This series of three posts filled more hours than I’d intended or expected. But, yes: it was greatly rewarding. I learned a good bit myself, and there are even more paths for exploration, now.There’s just never an end to it.

      Speaking of the eagle and the snake, do you remember reading about the discovery in London of a Roman carving with the same motif? I found this article when I still was trying to deetermine the meaning of the sculpture at the Presidio.

      Clearly, the Roman sculpture predates the Aztec culture, but the Aztec empire predated the arrival of Europeans. It does raise questions, doesn’t it?

  23. This reminds me of the churches I saw in New Mexico, long ago.

    I love reading the results of your journeys into research and history. You take the facts and mold them into a very bonny narrative indeed.

    And I was very entertained by the photograph of the cracked bell! Shrink it a hundred times over, and I can imagine it jingling from the bridle of a particularly proud and spirited horse.

    1. Just across the road from the Presidio is another building that has an even stronger Southwestern flavor: the birthplace of General Ignacio Zaragoza, hero of the Battle of Puebla. It’s apparently only open on the weekends, so I wasn’t able to go inside, but the outside is lovely enough. The metal cactus statue is just to the south of the building.

      I like your imaginative reinventing of the bell. It always delights me when a detail in a post sets someone else’s imaginative soaring.

  24. Voices of the past. I’m sure you heard them all. This is my favorite of the series — and of course you can guess why! I have a passion for church architecture and the history is fascinating. Equally — maybe even more so — is Mary and Lupe’s story and the beautiful paintings by Garcia. The exterior art is as beautiful and I love the strong, solid, beautiful cool white of the chapel.

    As always, your research is impeccable. I love the thought of restoring versus rewriting history and what I would call almost “behind the scenes” moments. And your photos — they’re terrific.

    Bravo, my friend. I can see in your words and detail the hours of research and writing time put into this. It shows — and I hope it was as worth it to you as it was to people like me!

    1. The one question that never was answered for me, because I never asked it, was about the acoustics in the chapel. I suddenly had a vision of Rick and his group playing there. I suspect it would be a good venue. One of the reasons I don’t know is that even the children who came in while I was there were quiet: either hushed by their parents, or instinctively responding to the space.

      You’re right about the time expended on transforming the visit into words, but, honestly? Some people like to go shopping, some enjoy watching tv, some spend a good bit more time than they’re comfortable admitting on social media. Me? I really enjoy digging into things. If I can make my enjoyment equally enjoyable for you, what more could I ask?

  25. If I took anything away from this, it was the mural in the chapel. It’s beautiful, and it also reminded me of a mural that I once saw. It’s in a Coptic church in the city I live, and the eyes of Jesus literally fall you everywhere you go in the actual church. A little spooky, but you know He’s always with us. Apparently, the men who painted this mural were brought over from Egypt for quite a few months away from their families.

    1. Paintings like that are interesting, aren’t they? I’ve seen a few, and they always lead to a little extra scrutiny. The Coptic icons are beautiful. I’ve never been to one of their churches, but I just looked, and there are three churches in Houston — one is fairly near to me. Perhaps I’ll make a visit.

      I’m not surprised that the men were brought here to do the paintings. Some arts are traditions as well as skills. I have some pieces of embroidery done by Ethiopean Christians — also men. They’re true works of art. Here’s an example, although this is done on a skirt.

  26. I am fascinated with the Codex and those drawings. I didn’t see exactly what the symbols attached by lines to the heads of the two figures are. Whether they identify who the figures are. I sort of have an inkling about the prickly pear in the cloud but not really the rabbit and the rest of that symbol. Egyptian wall art sometimes had the identification for who the person in above their heads in symbols or a cartouche.

    Very interesting read.

    1. That’s exactly right — the glyphs do identify the people. If you click on the image, it will take you not just to a larger image, but to a zoomable image that shows it all in wonderful detail. And, there’s a link above the image that takes you to an explanatory page which includes this:

      ” On the right is Tenoch (known from his glyph of a flowering cactus), who led the Aztecs to Tenochtitlan. On the left is Tochtzin, or Mexitzin (known from his glyph of a rabbit), who came from Calpan (known from the glyph of a house with a flag),”

      I still haven’t found an explanation for the rabbit being included. Somehow, I’ve never associated rabbits with Mexico or the Aztec Empire. Shows what I know, huh?

      Now that you mention it, the similarity with Egyptian cartouches is obvious. It fascinates me, how these cultural features develop: so similar, and yet geographically distant.

      1. Ahh that is perfect. I did look at the zoomable image in detail but just didn’t spot that explanatory link since that is exactly what I was looking for. According to the Chinese Zodiac, I was born in the year of the Rabbit. Maybe I’ll have a rabbit over my head one day??

  27. Linda, you work so hard to bring us the best information in your posts. You’ve outdone yourself in this one. Now I want to visit! Someday, who knows?

    1. It’s a place you would love, Lynda. There’s so much to enjoy: history, wildflowers, nice people in town, lots of other places to visit. I did get a little involved with researching this series, but I wouldn’t call it work — I just wanted to give you a real sense of the place. I’m glad you think I succeeded!

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