The Washington Post
Sunday, December 14, 2003; Page A24

In Mexico, a Very Slow Build

Cathedral Nears Finish After 106 Years of Tumult

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service

ZAMORA, Mexico -- On a festive February day in 1898, workers laid the cornerstone for the Sanctuary of the Virgin of Guadalupe, boasting that their little strawberry-growing town in central Mexico would soon be home to a towering neo-Gothic cathedral to rival Europe's largest and grandest churches.

Nearly 106 years later, workmen are still cutting stone and hauling mortar, saying that within two years they will finally finish a project that has soared and suffered through a century of Mexico's tumultuous relationship with the Roman Catholic Church.

"Mexico's history is right here," said the Rev. Raul Ventura Navarro, watching workmen craft twin spires rising 345 feet, just higher than the spires of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York and slightly lower than the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

The "incomplete cathedral," as the church is known, has endured revolution and war, neglect and abandonment, and decades as a garage for garbage trucks. Now, in a new era of cooperation between the Mexican government and the Catholic Church, the massive cathedral is open for worship and nearing completion.

"This is something we all want," said Heriberto Rios, 70, sitting on a bench in Zamora, in Michoacan state about 85 miles southeast of Guadalajara, watching workers high on the scaffolding. "For years and years, nothing happened. But now the government has given it back to whom it belongs."

Construction began during the long reign of dictator Porfirio Diaz. It was halted in 1914 when the Mexican revolution rolled through town, riding an angry backlash against Diaz and the church.

For decades, rebels and then government soldiers used the hulking, roofless edifice as a barracks, stable and garbage dump. Their government, an authoritarian, one-party juggernaut, ruled the country for 71 years and set out to create a society free from repression, first by Spanish conquistadors, later by Diaz, and always, they said, by a Catholic Church with too much power.

The government's control and domination of the church led to the Cristero War of the 1920s, an armed uprising by Catholics against persecution. And once again the Zamora church became a key battleground.

"They say they executed them here," Ventura said, pointing to a wall filled with bullet holes near the altar. He said the spot was where, according to local history, soldiers lined up Catholic fighters and shot them. He said the wall would be preserved as a memorial to "what the past was like in Mexico."

In 1940, President Lazaro Cardenas expropriated the property for government use. For nearly 50 years, it sat like a hollow stump rising from the center of Zamora, used to house soldiers and livestock, then garbage trucks.

"It was so sad; they treated it like it had no value," said Javier Guerra Gallardo, 73, sitting in the cathedral's huge plaza and recalling how he wandered past the unfinished stone walls when he was a child.

The cathedral's fortunes have changed dramatically since Mexico, which is at least 90 percent Catholic, has modernized its relationship with the church. In 1988 the government gave control of the property back to the church. In 1992, constitutional amendments were passed removing harsh restrictions on the church, including a ban on priests and nuns wearing their clerical garb in public.

The change was cemented when Vicente Fox, shortly after his election in 2000, went to his local church and took communion with television cameras rolling -- the most open display of worship in a century by a Mexican president.

The gradual thaw cleared the way for work to resume on the Zamora cathedral. When it was returned to the church in 1988, Ventura said, "We started work the next day."

He said it took eight months just to clear the garbage and debris that had piled up over the decades. Workers could find only one yellowed architect's drawing from 1898 to guide them. All other records, blueprints and construction plans were burned during the revolution.

Ventura said workers began by laying floors in the nearly 60,000-square-foot edifice, which can hold 10,000 people. They finished walls and vaulted ceilings, then enclosed the cathedral in 1997.

Arturo Laris Rodriguez, head of the committee overseeing the construction, said it is being built almost entirely with private donations. It has been easy to raise money in Zamora, a city of 250,000 in the geographic heart of conservative Mexican Catholicism. Roberto Blancarte, a leading scholar of the church, said 60 percent of the country's bishops come from Michoacan, Jalisco and Guanajuato states. And the Rev. Marcial Maciel, founder of the ultra-conservative Legion of Christ, was born and raised just outside Zamora.

In addition, Fox's influential wife, Martha Sahagun, a conservative Catholic, was born in Zamora. When Sahagun's mother died in 2001, her funeral was held in the church. A spokesman for Sahagun said she has not donated to the construction project, but that her friends and family may have.

In the past year or so, Laris said, each of the church's 15 stained glass windows, costing nearly $30,000 apiece, has been paid for by individual families. A businessman in Guadalajara paid for seven of the nine huge mahogany doors, imported from Bolivia at a cost of nearly $18,000 each. He said individual donors paid more than $500,000 for the 53,000-square-foot granite floor imported from India.

In a sign of how much the Catholic Church's relations with the government have improved, Laris said, his committee recently asked the federal government to help pay for a $1.2 million German organ specially designed for the church.

"This will be part of our national heritage," he said. "The government can no longer turn its back on the fact that the majority of Mexicans are Catholics, and they need places like this."

© 2003