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Texas, the Terrorist and la Virgen

19 February 2010

In light of yesterday’s airplane suicide attack on an Internal Revenue Service facility in Austin by a guy who doesn’t neatly fit into the category of either right-wing or left-wing extremism, there’s been some attempt to spin what U.S. law (U.S.C. 18 § 2331(5) if you care to look it up) defines as “domestic terrorism into something else.  But — whether we call the kamikaze tax protester a  “terrorist” or, in  my preferred locution,  a fuckin’ lunatic — the guy who crashed his plane yesterday is never going to go to trial.  But this is not the first time a terrorist (or fuckin’ lunatic) launched a suicide airplane attack to resolve some  incoherent grievance either in the United States or in Texas… though Francis B. Alexander may have had to answer for  aeronautic atavism to a higher power.

Yesterday’s suicide flier, Joe Stack, left a message blaming, among others, the Roman Catholic Church for whatever it was that set him off.  Francis B. Alexander, a 50-year old flight instructor, was a bit more ecumenical — the objects of his inchoate rage included both Roman Catholics and Methodists, as well as Mexicans.  On 23 October 1970, Alexander rented a Piper Cherokee 180 and went looking for a target on which to vent his bile.  Going for two out of three of his favored obsessions — Catholics and Mexicans — he deliberately launched what U.S.C. 18 § 2331(5) would later define as “domestic terrorism” (“…activities that involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any state; appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population…) when he deliberately crashed into the Shrine of the Virgen de San Juan del Valle in San Juan, six miles outside McAllen, Texas.

San Juan owed its existence as a community to settlement in the late 1910s and 20s by the Mexican diaspora created by the Revolution and the subsequent Cristero Wars, the latter leading to emigration to Texas of Catholic traditionalists from Jalisco.  The original mission church in San Juan, served by Oblates of Mary Immaculate (originally a French missionary order, now based in San Antonio,  that has traditionally provided priests in rural Texas and the American southwest) sought to preserve the traditional religious practices of their Jalisco parishioners.  The mission  priest installed a statue  of the popular Jalicience icon — la Virgen de los Lagos (who was also known as la Virgen de San Juan, making her presence in the small community a point of local pride)  in the 1940s.  The small town church became the center of worship for those who venerated this particular manifestation of the Vigin, and — it being a hardship on the faithful in the United States to make pilgrimages to the original shrine — in 1949 the San Juan Texas shine was built.  As a pilgrimage site attracting thousands of the faithful, the Texas shine outgrew its original site a new facility was built in 1954.  Attracting tens of thousands of annual pilgrims by the mid 1960s, the shrine became the repository for a large collection of sacred art and grew to include a housing for pilgrims, a cafeteria, retreat house, a grade school, nursing home, a radio studio, a convent and rectory.

Credit the intercession of la Virgen, or the steel-beam construction, or a combination thereof, but Alexander’s plane was tangled in the roof beam when it hit.  The 130 persons in the church all made it out alive, as well as the over 200 children and nuns in the grade school fifty yards away were uninjured.  the image of the Virgen was also unharmed.  Francis B. Alexander — the first known person to use a civilian aircraft as a terrorist weapon — was the only fatality.

The shrine itself, and the artwork were destroyed. The image was moved to the cafeteria and the faithful continued to show up while a new facility, begun in 1974 was dedicated in 1980. The new Basilica (a special ecclesiastical designation conferred on the Shrine by Pope John-Paul II in 1999), according to the Handbook of Texas On-line:

… 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.

1970 was not the ancient past, but this incident never seemed to sink into the public consciousness.  Partially, it’s because the concept of “terrorism” wasn’t considered in those days, partially because there were no major casualties, partially because the Alexander’s motives were never clear to anyone (perhaps even himself) but mostly because what happened in rural Texas to Mexican-Americans was dismissed as relatively unimportant, and the victims relatively unimportant people, and subsequently erased from our collective memories.  That, or la Virgen is all forgiving.

(Photos:  Plane Crash, Corpus Cristi Caller-Times; Virgen, Santo Nino ng Makati; Basilica, Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan – National Shrine)

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Karen Steib permalink
    30 August 2015 11:36 am

    I grew up in San Jaun and remember well the destruction of the church. I was 27 years old at the time. The story behind the disaster was told to me by my mother, who knew the people involved. David Alexander had married a woman who had previously worked as a prostitute in Reynosa. My mother had taught us not to look down at these women, explaining that people in Mexico at that time were cushed by poverty to the extent that many could not afford to feed, clothe or get medical care for their families. David Alexander’s wife was a devout Catholic and attended mass regularly at The Church of the Virgen. She also volunteered to keep the children in the nursery. Some of women in the church, disregarding the teachings of Jesus, complained that they did not want a former prostitute taking care of the children. Mrs. Alexander was then forbidden to work in the nursery. She was so humiliated and depressed by this rebuff that she committed suicide. It was in retalliation that the bereft David Alexander destroyed the church. Of course this is not a justification, but it was the reason he did it. I have never seen the story in print, even though it was well known to many people.

    • Lin permalink
      23 October 2018 6:07 am

      Karen – thanks for the story behind the story from someone who was there.

  2. saul cantu permalink
    23 October 2020 10:07 pm

    That day I was 13 years old. I remember it like it was yesterday. It hurt so bad. I was from Lasara Texas and we would go very often and we would eat at the cafeteria after the service. It felt like I was in a different part of the world. It was exciting to me.PS—Is there a picture of the man who destroyed the shrine?

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