For centuries Christians have made pilgrimages with a spiritual purpose to holy places. Here in the Rio Grande Valley, hundreds are drawn to the Shrine dedicated to Our Lady of San Juan del Valle, and the number of pilgrims continues to grow. Averaging more than one million visitors a year (20,000 a weekend), it is one of the most visited shrines in the United States.
The history of this Marian Shrine begins in 1920, when the Reverend Alfonso Jalbert, O.M.I., built a small wooden chapel in San Juan, Texas as a mission church of St. Margaret Mary Church in Pharr, Texas.
The origins of the devotion to Our Lady of San Juan del Valle are found in San Juan de los Lagos, Mexico, a town founded near Guadalajara after the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Spanish missionaries placed a small image of the Immaculate Conception in the church of San Juan de los Lagos.
In 1623, an acrobat traveling with his wife and children stopped in San Juan de los Lagos to give a performance. While practicing their act, the youngest daughter lost her balance and was killed. An Indian woman, who was the caretaker of the church, begged the parents to place the image of the Virgin Mary over their daughter's body and prayed for the Virgin's intercession. The child was then brought back to life. As word spread of the miracle, the devotion to Our Lady, under the title of “La Virgen de San Juan”, started to grow throughout Jalisco. Today, she is recognized by many people throughout Mexico as well as the United States.
In 1949, Rev. Jose Maria Azpiazu, O.M.I., became pastor of the parish of St. John the Baptist in San Juan, Texas. He was convinced that fostering a devotion to Our Lady of San Juan would benefit the people and help draw the community together. After receiving permission from the bishop to foster the devotion, he commissioned an artist in Guadalajara, Mexico to make a reproduction of the statue venerated at San Juan de Los Lagos and this reproduction was first placed in the San Juan chapel.
Bishop Mariano S. Garriaga approved the construction of a new church and the Shrine was built five years later in 1954, and dedicated to the Virgen de San Juan. At the time San Juan was a part of the Diocese of Corpus Christi. Sixteen years after its construction, a tragic event on October 23, 1970 destroyed the entire Shrine. While 50 priests were concelebrating Mass with another 50 people in attendance, and 100 school children in an adjacent cafeteria, the pilot of a small low-flying airplane crashed into the roof of the shrine and exploded into flames.
While the overall loss was estimated at $1.5 million, many claim it was a miracle that no one was hurt or died in the tragedy. The pilot of the plane, Francis B. Alexander, was the only fatality. Our Lady of San Juan was protecting her children at that moment. Also, Father Patricio Dominguez, O.M.I., a missionary priest, along with the help of Pedro Rodriguez, a sacristan, rescued the statue of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle, and Ron Anderson, then a Diocesan Priest, saved the Blessed Sacrament before the
altar was engulfed in flames.
After the Shrine was destroyed, the Shrine’s dining room temporarily housed the statue of Our Lady of San Juan.
In 1972, Bishop John J. Fitzpatrick separated the administration of the Shrine from the parish. He made plans to build a parish church on the site of the destroyed Shrine and build a bigger church to serve as the Shrine on the grounds north of the former Shrine. The ground breaking for the new Shrine took place on November 27, 1976. The new Shrine was dedicated on April 19, 1980. Cardinal Medeiros joined Bishop Fitzpatrick at the dedication along with an estimated 50,000 people.
The National Conference of Catholic Bishops designated Our Lady of San Juan del Valle a national Shrine on March 24, 1998, and the following year on June 12, 1999 Pope John Paul II designated it as a minor Basilica.