SAN ANTONIO – For three or more months, pilgrims have arrived at the historic Little Chapel of Miracles on the outskirts of downtown to pray – only to face chain-locked entrances.
Inside the fenced property, pigeons still dawdle between the chapel’s roof and the tree-shaded courtyard. Several cats keep watch, licking their paws between turns at a bowl of chow.
But visitors scratch their heads at the posted hours of operation – 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. six days a week – and leave disappointed.
It is, after all, private property, a long-term labor of love by its owners, descendents of a Tejano soldier who fought in the Texas Revolution. They have welcomed the public for decades.
The chapel, rebuilt in the 1920s to replace a fire-wrecked structure that reportedly dated to 1813, is on the National Register of Historic Places. It has been a popular place of prayer for generations of mainly Hispanic Catholics. Now, many question whether the modest, 576-square-foot structure ever will reopen.
“We used to come here all the time, and we didn’t have this problem,” said Pete Ramirez, who rattled off a list of surgeries he and his wife endured with the help of prayer at the chapel. “This thing should be open. This is wrong. If they don’t open it, pass it on to someone else.”
A man who declined to identify himself last week unlocked the gate and walked briskly into a house near the chapel. He did not let anyone inside and responded to questions with, “All I am going to say is they’re very sick right now.”
Eleanor Zepeda, a descendant of Juan Ximenes, the Tejano soldier who is said to have built the chapel, confirmed that the chapel’s main caretakers are sick. She said she has hit roadblocks in contacting relatives about reopening, noting there are many descendents in the Ximenes family tree, including some who don’t know each other.
“We’re all concerned about it and surprised,” Zepeda said. “We’re trying to find out exactly who is manning it. We know people have been coming in from out of town and wondering why it’s closed.”
By tradition, a female member of the family has served as caretaker, the last known one being Irene Galindo. She is still listed in the most recent property record as an owner, along with Rodolfo R. Cantu Jr., Rodolfo Cantu III and Edward S. Galindo. Attempts to reach them at their homes were unsuccessful.
Ximenes fought in the “Storming of Bexar” near the start of the Texas struggle for independence in 1835. Historians considered his chapel a rare surviving example of how Tejano ranching families built detached structures for prayer at their homesteads.
The candlelit, 58-inch crucifix placed against the main wall is said to be from Spanish colonial times and – through hearsay, legend or family lore – is said to have hung in the Alamo and later San Fernando Cathedral. It is called “El Senor,” the Lord, inspiring the chapel’s common name, “El Senor de los Milagros” or “La Capilla de los Milagros.”
Devotees credit miracles to Christ’s presence there, from protection in combat for loved ones in the military to healings of the injured and ill. It brings them back, to fulfill vows to thank God for them.
The chapel has needed little formal publicity. New arrivals in San Antonio already know of it; word of mouth has reached as far as Central America.
“Immigrants feel a sense of belonging, whether they come from Mexico or Uvalde,” said Mary Olivia Patino, an author and spiritual retreat speaker who recently tried to visit. “They feel they are free inside and can give thanks. It’s a safe place for worship.”
The Rev. David Garcia, former rector of San Fernando Cathedral, said he has prayed in the chapel on occasion, memorably with his father in his final years.
“To me, it’s a little sad if it’s closed,” Garcia said. “I feel the popular religious devotion of the Hispanic people in San Antonio is what has sustained them in their faith. We have the sacraments and the liturgies, but at the same time, there have been many popular religions that Hispanics do to grow their faith.”
Many recent visitors expressed thanks to the family – and sympathy upon learning of the reported illness. But they wished the doors could remain open.
An older woman came with her two daughters to thank God for her cancer remission. Another mother had come from the Bexar County Courthouse to pray for her son’s battle against criminal charges.
Mary Jane Morales arrived from New Braunfels, Texas, for a stop at the chapel on her self-described “church day.” Her late father made praying there a family tradition. She came to pray for her brother, who was battling Alzheimer’s, and for her own eyes; a recent test concerned her doctor.
“I’m so sad. This is a landmark,” Morales said. “I wonder who’s going to open it up again.”
As she left, she walked past a handwritten note, shoved into the chain links of the property’s locked fence.
“We come from far away,” it said. “Why is the chapel closed? ... Please call.”