VIRGEN DE SAN JUAN DEL VALLE SHRINE
VIRGEN DE SAN JUAN DEL VALLE SHRINE. The Virgen de San Juan del Valle Shrine, also known as Our Lady of San Juan Shrine, is staffed by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and is located in San Juan, Hidalgo County, in the lower Rio Grande valley. The present edifice is the third in the history of the shrine. The first was a small wooden chapel built in 1920 by Rev. Alfonso Jalbert on the corner of Nebraska and Second Street in San Juan; at the time, it was a mission of St. Margaret Mary Church in Pharr. The first director, Father Joseph Azpiazu, realized that the shrines of Mexico, Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City and San Juan de Los Lagos in Jalisco, were both too far from Texas for Hispanics, particularly of South Texas and the Valley, to use them. In 1949 Azpiazu brought to his parish of St. John the Baptist a replica of the image of Our Lady of San Juan, venerated in Jalisco at San Juan de Los Lagos. The image is a statue about three feet high, clothed in traditional robes. Father Azpiazu hoped to foster a devotion to Our Lady of San Juan which would benefit his people and help draw the community together. Soon the church became a place of pilgrimage for many Mexican Americans in Texas; on weekends hundreds of pilgrims would come to San Juan to pray. The crowds grew, and in 1954 the construction of a larger shrine was completed and dedicated by Father Azpiazu. With a seating capacity of 800, it was large enough for the ordinary Sunday congregation served by many Masses throughout the day, but small enough so as to not overwhelm the humble migrants who came to pray. As weekly attendance jumped from thousands to tens of thousands, the shrine was lavishly ornamented with oil paintings, wood carvings, stained-glass windows, and statues. The shrine's services for the pilgrims were also expanded to include a Pilgrim House, cafeteria, retreat house, grade school, nursing home, and radio programs. A convent and rectory were also built.
On October 23, 1970, while priests and worshippers were assembled in prayer, a pilot crashed his small plane into the roof. Because a steel beam prevented the plane from falling into the sanctuary, no one was injured, and the pilot was the only fatality. The image of the Virgin was rescued unharmed, but the shrine with its treasures was destroyed. For the next ten years the pilgrims continued to come to San Juan, and image was temporarily located in a cafeteria awaiting the construction of the new shrine. The ground breaking took place in 1976, and on April 19, 1980, the new shrine was dedicated, with Bishop John J. Fitzpatrick and Cardinal Humberto Medeiros in attendance. This basilica cost several million dollars and seats more than 1,800; the surrounding grounds are landscaped with the fourteen Stations of the Cross. The image of the Virgin is placed high in the sanctuary where it remains the center of the people's devotion. Pilgrims average from 10,000 to 20,000 weekly. They come from every state in the Union and from many foreign countries and find Masses, in both Spanish and English, in progress from early morning to late at night.
Gilberto Rafael and Martha Oppert Cruz, A Century of Service: The History of the Catholic Church in the Lower Rio Grande Valley (Harlingen, Texas: United, 1979). Earl G. Hamburg, The Shrine of Our Lady of San Juan: San Juan, Texas (Alamo, Texas: Alamo News, 1971). McAllen Monitor, November 21, 1976. Short History of the Virgen de San Juan del Valle Shrine (brochure, San Juan, Texas: Oblate Fathers, n.d.). Virgen de San Juan Shrine (South Hackensack, New Jersey, 1980).