On a sunny afternoon, Father Rafael Garcia and Max Grossman inspect a series of cords wrapped around the statue of Jesus that stands atop Sacred Heart Catholic Church in El Paso’s historic Segundo Barrio neighborhood.
“It’s in pretty bad shape,” said Garcia, the church’s pastor and a trained architect, as he climbed the church’s rooftop to get a closer look at the statue. “It’s blessing the whole neighborhood, but it’s got these wires holding it back just in case it tips over.”
Garcia and Grossman, an architectural historian and associate professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, are embarking on the herculean task of restoring the red brick church at the heart of the recently designated Segundo Barrio National Register Historic District.
Visible deterioration to bricks and straps holding together Sacred Heart’s tower are just the tip of the iceberg: the 129-year-old church needs new floors and pews, new plumbing and bathrooms to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and new heating and air conditioning systems, on top of renovations throughout.
Despite only being a third of the way to their $3 million fundraising goal, Grossman and Garcia’s efforts have already yielded major discoveries about the storied church’s fascinating history — and the history of the community it serves.
A treasure trove of 100-year-old letters
Restoration planning efforts led Grossman on what he said was a “needle in a haystack” search through the Jesuit archive in Rome, Italy, in March. He hoped to find the original architectural plans for the church from when it was first built in 1893, or the plans for the additions and renovations made in 1923.
Instead, Grossman discovered a collection of beautifully scrawled letters written by the church’s founder, Father Carlos Pinto, dating from 1896 until his death in 1919.
Over 100 pages of letters written in Spanish, Italian and Latin were carefully preserved in a file inside a thick volume tied together with ribbons, located within the sprawling archive. Marked “Miss. New Mex, Colorado, 1867-1919,” the letters were sent by Pinto and his subordinates to report on church activities in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez to the Jesuit order headquarters in Naples, Italy.
“What are the chances that material from El Paso ended up in Naples which then ended up in the archive in Rome?” Grossman excitedly said. The archive’s records showed he was the first person to access the letters since they had been housed at the archive.
The letters paint an evocative and compelling picture of life in El Paso’s Segundo Barrio neighborhood at the turn of the 20th century, Grossman said, including harrowing descriptions of the great flood of 1897 — during which the entire neighborhood, including Sacred Heart Church, was submerged in between 2 to 5 feet of water, leaving thousands homeless.
“I just got away with my life while crossing by horse the Rio Grande river, to confess a sick man,” wrote Father Cordoba, one of Pinto’s subordinates, in a letter Grossman translated from Italian. “The poor beast that was carrying me took a terrible fright and got stuck in the mud … he threw me from his back, and I ended up with one foot in the stirrups and my body in the river. I took a good bath, lost my hat and my shoe.”
Grossman said the letters also reveal the emotion and challenges of the church’s work during that time, and almost always include an appeal to Naples for money and assistance for the poor.
Pinto, who became known as “the apostle of El Paso” for his work in helping to establish the city’s Catholic diocese, comes across as “a man who is deeply concerned about the welfare of his parishioners,” Grossman said.
“This is a guy who walks the walk. He is an absolutely committed Catholic, he believes in saving people’s souls, he believes that his primary ambition is to help the most destitute.”
A history worth preserving, and a vital community hub
The letters will have a significant scholarly impact, Grossman said, but he has not abandoned the search for the church’s building plans and other information that can help with restoration efforts.
Grossman has two more trips to Italy planned in the coming months, and has enlisted two helpers to continue searching the archives for documentation about the church’s history.
He said the Jesuit archive plans to donate the letters to UTEP, noting that some local scholars are “dying to get their hands on them.”
Grossman hopes the efforts to preserve and share the church’s history will fuel restoration efforts, and vice versa.
“There are many tens of thousands of El Pasoans who can trace their roots to the Segundo Barrio and who have close family ties to the Sacred Heart Church,” Grossman said. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a family in El Paso that has not attended a marriage, a baptism or a funeral in that building … To say that the church is an iconic institution, headquartered in an iconic building is an understatement — restoring it is paramount.”
Today, Sacred Heart Church is much more than a church for local residents: attached restaurant La Tilma offers low cost meals and groceries to approximately 250 families. The church’s English classes and rental assistance programs serve the neighborhood of working class immigrants that has been referred to as the “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 also save little things, that’s why museums exist,” he said. “But this church is not only a museum, it’s also a functioning parish right now. For it to continue to function and do what it’s called to do, the buildings have to be improved.”