A parish with no name

Rising shyly above a hill visible from the main bedroom of our new house is a tiny church with no name or date of construction–the neighbors think it must be at least a hundred years old–and where you can attend Mass but only once a month, on the third Saturday to be exact.

Even then the time of the service is más o menos, around three o’clock, depending on when the priest whooshes in on his battered pick-up, goes into the sacristy, throws on the vestments over his civilian pair of jeans and t-shirt, and marches into the sanctuary to face an expectant, standing-room-only crowd.

To be sure, an SRO crowd at this church, which parishioners prefer to call a “temple”, means about 25 or 30 people. Temple seems a bit pretentious for a religious venue that in most places would barely qualify as a chapel. The place is so small that before the service the six stumpy pews are rearranged along the side walls to allow a few more people to stand in the middle. The pews are reserved for the elderly and pregnant.

The crowds spill out the front door. There, a small group of young men tries to stand solemnly though their attention clearly drifts along with the clouds overhead. You can hardly blame them. By the time the sounds of the service reach the outside, priestly prayers and the chants of fervent women are all but unintelligible.

Yet these young guys show up regularly as if to belie the stereotype of Catholic services as a gathering of nervous old women. Not only do they come but they put on their best church threads, cowboy boots and hats, with faces scrubbed and hair neatly gelled into place.

There’s no room inside for a proper confessional, so the priest does his listening and pardoning after the Mass, sitting on a folding chair under a tree on a far corner of the property. It’s also more private al fresco. Think of it, would you want to talk about your misdeeds in a tiny church full of gossipy women?

The 14 Stations of the Cross also have been forced outdoors and transformed into a series of hastily painted crosses on the outside walls and on the stone fence that surrounds the church.

Despite the near-claustrophobic conditions, the church has a tiny choir of three or four girls which livens up the proceedings with easy hymns. The men outside may doff their hats when they sense something important is going on inside but they never seem to join in the singing. Here real men don’t sing, at least not religious ditties.

Candles abound and so do flowers though the latter tend to be of the paper or plastic variety, except on special occasions when there are so many arrangements the aroma hits you before you even enter.

The candles would be critical if an evening service were held. Though there are simple light fixtures and some dusty bare bulbs, they don’t work. Electric service was cut off a few years ago by the government-owned utility, who doesn’t tolerate deadbeat customers even if they are tiny churches filled with desperately poor people.

The only break from the lights-out situation comes once a year when the community, known as La Biznaga or “The Barrel Cactus,” throws a raucous party for itself on the church’s front yard and cajoles a neighbor into donating some juice via a long garland of extension cords.

Inevitably, the collection basket comes around during the service. Some of the parishioners contribute but just as many pass the basket on rapidly and nervously to the person next to them, as if it were contaminated.

The collection is so meager it’s inconceivable, just a few pesos and some centavo coins. On my first visit I tossed a $20 peso bill, about $1.50 dollars, and then realized my attempt at generosity may have struck those around me as pretentious, a rich gringo showing off. On my return visit I brought a couple of more discreet $10 peso coins.

It’s a miracle that the place survives. There can’t be enough money in the collection plate to pay for gasoline for the priest’s pick-up, let alone a stipend for his services or capital improvements like restoring electric service.

The secret is probably Doña Felisa, the woman with the deceptively reticent smile who is also in charge of the community well. She seems to run all aspects of the church, which includes squeezing enough pesos and centavos from the community–plus free labor from the non-singing men–to keep the church building in reasonably good shape.

Two years ago she collected enough money for a roofing job. The white roof now gleams and protects the interior. Then the nave was redecorated with a beautifully detailed paint job, mostly in blues and whites. It’s not the Sistine Chapel, but an amazing job of restoration nevertheless by a congregation with, remember, practically no money.

Now Felisa wants to restore the sacristy, a room the size of a walk-in closet off to one side of the altar. Its walls are pockmarked by missing chunks of plaster. Ventilation is a hole through a wall. Religious artifacts, including a crucified Jesus with strangely large breasts, are mixed up haphazardly with plastic flowers and dusty candles. It looks like a religious garage sale.

She’s put the touch on me for 30 bags of cement, which cost about $8 dollars apiece, so she can redo the walls of the sacristy. Not only that, but Felisa and a younger woman friend have big plans for redoing the outside walls. And replacing a cross that fell off the steeple God knows how long ago. And fixing the bell, which hangs from a tree branch because the metal pipe that used to hold it rusted off. And installing an entrance gate. And getting the electricity reconnected.

I modestly suggested that the combination of crumbling stones of the outside walls, with weeds growing in the mortar, is what gives the building its beauty and charm.

But I sensed Felisa and her friend don’t appreciate the beauty of deteriorated, weedy walls. La Biznaga is too much about ramshackle houses and weeds running amok for these two residents to appreciate the Old World charm of the run-down. Let’s smooth out those walls and paint them white.

Felisa’s request for 30 bags of cement–each bag should be enough to redo five square meters of wall–seems excessive. I asked some of our gringo neighbors if they would contribute some money and one of them balked, claiming it seemed like an attempted rip off or our Mexicans neighbors thinking gringos are made out of money or too ignorant to tell a bag of cement from a bag of manure. She may have a point.

She also got me thinking about what an interesting, some would say peculiar, bunch of ex-pats have settled around this little church and, in a couple of months, our new home.

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