Sacred Heart Church Restoration Efforts Lead to Major Historic Discovery

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On a sunny afternoon, Father Rafael Garcia and Max Grossman inspect a series of ropes wrapped around the statue of Jesus that sits atop the Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart in El Paso’s historic Segundo Barrio .

“It’s in pretty bad shape,” said Garcia, the church’s pastor and trained architect, as he climbed onto the church’s roof to get a closer look at the statue. “It’s a blessing to the whole neighborhood, but there are these wires holding it down just in case it tips over.”

Garcia and Grossman, an architectural historian and associate professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, embark on the Herculean task of restoring the red-brick church at the heart of the newly designated neighborhood. Segundo Barrio National Register Historic District.

A detail of the balcony railing inside the Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart shows the fleur-de-lis symbol that is common in structures in El Paso that were built under the influence of architects and of investors from St. Louis, Missouri, in the early 20th century. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The visible deterioration of the bricks and straps that hold the Sacred Heart tower together is just the tip of the iceberg: the 129-year-old church needs new floors and pews, new plumbing and new bathrooms to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as new heating and air conditioning. conditioning systems, in addition to renovations throughout.

Though they’re only a third of the way to their $3 million fundraising goalGrossman and Garcia’s efforts have already yielded major discoveries about the fascinating history of the church and the story of the community it serves.

The interior of Sacred Heart Catholic Church was remodeled with pointed arches and clustered columns in the English Gothic style in 1923. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

A treasure trove of 100-year-old letters

Restoration planning efforts led Grossman to what he called a “needle in a haystack” search of the Jesuit archives in Rome, Italy, in March. He hoped to find the original architectural plans for the church from its construction in 1893, or the plans for additions and renovations made in 1923.

Instead, Grossman discovered a beautifully scribbled collection of letters written by the church’s founder, Father Carlos Pinto, dating from 1896 until his death in 1919.

More than 100 pages of letters written in Spanish, Italian and Latin have been carefully preserved in a folder inside a thick, ribbon-bound volume located in the sprawling archives. Marked “Miss. New Mex, Colorado, 1867-1919,” the letters were sent by Pinto and his subordinates to report church activities in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez to the headquarters of the Jesuit order in Naples, Italy.

A statue of the Italian Jesuit priest Carlos Pinto, founder of the parish of the Sacred Heart in 1893, adorns the courtyard of the church. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“What are the odds that material from El Paso ended up in Naples and then in the archives in Rome?” Grossman said enthusiastically. Records of the archives showed that he was the first person to access the letters since they were kept at the archives.

The letters paint an evocative and compelling picture of life in the Segundo Barrio neighborhood of El Paso in the early 20th century, Grossman said, including harrowing descriptions of the Great Flood of 1897 — in which the entire neighborhood, including the Church of the Sacred Heart, was submerged. between 2 to 5 feet of water, leaving thousands homeless.

“I have just lived my life crossing the Rio Grande River on horseback, to confess to a sick person,” wrote Father Cordoba, one of Pinto’s subordinates, in a letter that Grossman translated from Italian. “The poor beast that was carrying me took a terrible fright and got stuck in the mud…he threw me off his back, and I found myself with one foot in the stirrups and the body in the river. I took a good bath, I lost my hat and my shoe.

Grossman said the letters also reveal the emotion and challenges of the church’s work during this time, and almost always include a plea to Naples for money and help for the poor.

Pinto, who has become known as “the apostle of El Paso” for his work helping to establish the city’s Catholic diocese, comes across as “a man deeply concerned for the welfare of his parishioners,” Grossman said. .

“He’s a guy who walks the boardwalk. He is an absolutely committed Catholic, he believes in the salvation of people’s souls, he believes that his primary ambition is to help the poorest.

Max Grossman, associate professor of art history at the University of Texas at El Paso, left, and Father Rafael Garcia, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, co-chair a committee working to restore the church, one of the oldest parishes in El Paso. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

A history to preserve and a vital community center

The letters will have significant scholarly impact, Grossman said, but he hasn’t given up on finding the church’s building plans and other information that can help with restoration efforts.

Grossman has planned two more trips to Italy in the coming months and has hired two assistants to continue searching the archives for documents on the history of the church.

He said the Jesuit Archives planned to donate the letters to UTEP, noting that some local scholars were “dying to get their hands on them.”

Grossman hopes efforts to preserve and share the church’s history will fuel restoration efforts, and vice versa.

“There are several tens of thousands of El Pasoans who can trace their roots to the Segundo Barrio and who have strong family ties to the Church of the Sacred Heart,” Grossman said. “You’d be hard pressed to find a family in El Paso who hasn’t attended a wedding, baptism, or funeral in this building…To say that the church is an iconic institution, headquartered in a building iconic is an understatement – restoring it is paramount.

The main facade of the Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart on Oregon Street in El Segundo Barrio. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Today the Church of the Sacred Heart is much more than a church for local residents: adjoining restaurant The Tilma provides low-cost meals and groceries to approximately 250 families. The church’s English classes and housing assistance programs serve the working-class immigrant neighborhood that has been called “Ellis Island of the Southwest.”

Father Garcia says that’s why preserving its history and the building itself is so important.

“When you have a culture and you value your culture and your roots, it’s important to save small things too, that’s why museums exist,” he said. “But this church is not only a museum, it is also a functioning parish at the moment. In order for it to continue to function and do what it is called upon to do, the buildings must be improved.


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