El Papa en México

The Burough of Gustavo A. Madero welcomes Papa Francisco

“Welcome to GAM (the borough of Gustavo A. Madero) Papa Francisco

I should say at the outset that I am not fond of big crowds.  I had planned to take in the Pope’s visit with television and media coverage online – plus, I did plan to go to one mass in Morelia with our seminarians – a smaller mass of perhaps 10,000 people for religious sisters and brothers, seminarians and priests.  I also planned to take two guests to the basilica for the mass on Saturday February 13th and then meet them in the evening.

But that changed before sunrise on the 13th as we were making our way by taxi to the basilica.   Someone sent me a message saying he had a ticket for me to attend the mass at the basilica.  So, I stayed with our guests, walked them to their gates and then waited for the person with the ticket – all before the sun broke the horizon.  The mass was not until 5 in the afternoon!

Crowd filing towards Gate Four at about 7:30 AM.

Crowd filing towards Gate Four at about 7:30 AM.

I ended up waiting a couple of hours more.  I never did see the person who offered me the ticket.  Instead, parishioners I know from where I celebrate mass on Sundays spotted me and gave me a spare ticket.  I got in about 10:15.  One of our two guests spotted me, and we were able to make plans for meeting after mass.  We were also not able to connect with the other guest during the day.  Her phone went dead and was incommunicado. (Thankfully we met up after mass where we said we would).  I ended up sitting with the parishioners who gave me the ticket.

My view of the Basilica (the mass would be inside). On the screen on the left the Pope is welcomed to the Palacio Nacional (the seat of the national government in Mexico) - a first.

My view of the Basilica (the mass would be inside it). On the screen on the left, the Pope is welcomed to the Palacio Nacional (the seat of the Executive Branch of the Government) – a first.

We watched the events of the morning on big screens near us.  The sound system was good.  However, after about 4.5 hours of sleep the previous night, I could not stay awake.   I missed most of his talk to the bishops in the Cathedral as well (also on the big screen).  At one point, there was a rousing applause from the people.  For what, I am not sure.  However, the next day reading the Globe & Mail online (a Canadian newspaper), I learned that he had been quite challenging in his remarks to them.  He especially wanted them to be direct with each other – expressing their disagreements face to face, instead of trying to manipulate things behind the scenes.  He also challenged them to stop trying to curry the favour of the rich and powerful in Mexico.  Challenging words.

Then came the afternoon.  Four hours of blistering sun and heat.  I ate a couple of times, mostly thanks to the parishioners.  One parishioner came with me to find shade where we stood for about 30 minutes.  I had a hat, a hood and sun screen (from the parishioners), but the sun was brutal.  As the time for the mass approached, various groups sang songs, tried to initiate a wave (not very successfully), and just sat waiting.  The big screens showed a life of Francisco and some devotional videos.  And then they started showing his arrival, driving along the streets nearby the Basilica.

El Papa drives by us - for our brief instant with him, he was looking the other way.

El Papa drives by us – for our brief instant with him, he was looking the other way.

He arrived in the Villa (the name for the grounds of Basilica) at about 4:30.   The crowd was electric – clearly moved by his presence.  Even just the few seconds of him driving by close to us seemed almost enough – they did all yell “otra vuelta” – another time around – but were not too disappointed when he did not.  The mass started punctually at five and finished amazingly quickly by about 6:30.

Our view of the altar.

Our view of the altar – speakers are over the screen.

I was not too deeply moved by this particular mass.  The point I most remember was the importance of Juan Diego for the Pope, a figure who, as the Pope emphasized, shows how God works through the humble and forgotten of our world.  I was more deeply affected by the mass in Morelia a few days later.  Perhaps because his remarks were specifically tailored for us.  However, before mass the organizers held a moment of silence for the 43 students in Guerrero, who went missing in September 2014 (The place where the students disappeared was only a couple of hours away).  After about 30 seconds a section of the crowd started counting.  Then we all did, stopping in unison at 43!  It was a powerful moment.

What I most appreciated in the Pope’s remarks was his advice to us all, that we are not functionaries, simply doing a job.  For him, the fact that Jesus was God’s son and that we are all God’s children means that we share God’s life.  That is so much more than simply having a job – it is about life itself.

As with my time in the Basilica, I did not understand all of what the Pope said.  But I understood much more, perhaps because I could see him about 40 or 50 yards away.  Perhaps because it was a morning mass.  I’m not sure.  But, my take away from this experience is that he gets that he is a servant, a servant of the Church.  He knows the Church of Mexico, he understands its struggles. He came to serve us – and that he did admirably.

Priests (on the field) and religious and seminarians (in the stands) at the moment the Francisco arrived in our midst.

Priests (on the field) and religious and seminarians (in the stands) at the moment Papa Francisco arrived in our midst in Morelia.

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Atop Tepeyac



Capilla del Cerrito

Tepeyac is a small mountain or cerro east and slightly north of what is now downtown Mexico City.  It is the place where the Blessed Virgin appeared to Juan Diego in the year 1531.  It overlooks the Villa, a complex of churches, chapels, museums, shops, plazas and gardens dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe.  There is also a small church or chapel atop Tepeyac commemorating the exact spot where the Morenita appeared (Morenita is a term of affection for our Lady indicating that she appeared as an indigeneous woman).

I had never really been inside the chapel.  I had entered once or twice, but because of the throng of people inside I had never gotten further than the door.  However, this year when our community, the Basilians in Mexico, made its annual pilgrimage to the Villa, there were very few people inside.  I decided to take my time and appreciate what is there.


Detail of the first mural: people listening to a Franciscan preaching.

What I found deeply impressed me: a set of six murals painted by Fernando Leal in 1947.  The murals depict the apparition of Our Lady.  But they do so much more.  True to his time period (after the Mexican Revolution) and the philosophy he espoused (especially evident in the ¡30-30! movement), Leal depicted scenes from everyday life.  He tried to integrate the story of the people with the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  He presents scenes known to all – the appearance on Tepeyac and the last meeting with the Bishop when the tilda, the image of our Lady, was revealed.  But he presents so much more.


This detail from a mural shows Bishop Juan de Zumarraga, and a pyramid and two men carrying heavy loads in the background.

In one of the murals, when Juan Diego first reports his encounter with the morenita, the bishop is seated by a barred window.  Behind him outside are two men carrying very heavy loads in front of a pyramid.  The mural captures the disinterest of the bishop, both by being seated with his back to Juan Diego, but also ignoring what is happening outside – the magnificence of Aztec architecture and the suffering of the people.  Leal captures some of the religious tension, but also political and social realities of the time, realities that continue to this day.


Angels overlooking the last mural: two are morena, the skin colour of most Mexicans.

As part of the ¡30-30! movement, Leal tried to make art accessible to all.  The movement was against making art elitist and exclusive.  He wanted it to be open to all – so that all could participate in the arts and so that all could see themselves in Mexican Art.   I particularly like his representation of angels.  Perhaps my favorite were the angels in the dome above the altar which I was not able to photograph (and which I am unsure Leal did although the style and subject matter seem at least inspired by him), partly for their distance from me and partly because people were praying.  It was the first time I had seen cherubs done with any skin colour other than white.  But the angels above the final scene, which I was able to photograph, make clear that Leal wanted Mexicans to see themselves not only in Juan Diego, the people to whom the Franciscans preached and those experiencing oppression but also in the angels who too often come across as Europeans.Cocina

I also liked how Leal added touches from daily life, be it the clothing, the activities or the pottery in this detail. I am reminded of a quote from St. Teresa of Avila of the Lord who walks among the pots and pans.  Clearly the artist is showing how Our Lady also made herself present in the daily lives of her people.

I believe Leal was also trying to represent a reversal in the history of his people.  The final mural shows the bishop kneeling before the Morena and her representative, Juan Diego.  Although he is the only European kneeling, perhaps Leal saw in him a beginning.  Kneeling is a gesture of prayer, but it is also a gesture that indicates rank, who is greater than whom.  The fact that the greater persons in this mural are not Europeans, but the indigenous people,  represents a beginning of a reversal – a reversal which this particular artist sees not only  in the apparition atop Tepeyac, but perhaps also in the Mexican Revolution of which he was also a follower.

La tilda

The bishop kneeling before our Lady, the Morena, and also, as it happens, her representative, Juan Diego.

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A small hospital in a small city

La Entrada - The Entrance

La Entrada – The Entrance to the Hospital Sagrado Corazón (Hospital Sacred Heart)

Three years ago I met Hermana (Sister) María Teresa, a Carmelite of the Sacred Heart and a physician.  She came to me wondering if I could help their community in applying for a grant from our Basilian Human Development Fund.  She spoke of a small hospital in a small city which I had never heard of, Atotonilco el Alto in Jalisco, not far from Guadalajara.  She spoke of how the hospital needed to be renovated to continue serving the needs of Atotonilco. I said I would do what I could.

Not having seen the hospital, I helped to write the application, translate the English questionnaire into Spanish and then translate their replies into English.  Still, I really did not have a full appreciation of what we were doing.  I trusted Sister María Teresa’s conviction and enthusiasm.  And, gracias a Dios (thanks be to God), we were successful.  With our grant, this small hospital started a renovation project which is still in process.

Hermana María Teresa walking one of two outdoor corridors in the hospital.

Hermana María Teresa walking one of the two outdoor corridors in the hospital.  Note the car parked to the left of the pillars.

This week, again gracias a Dios, I have a ten-day vacation, the first vacation I have taken within Mexico itself.  Since, I was going to Jalisco where Atotonilco el Alto is, I suggested to Hermana María Teresa that I might visit her, her community and the hospital.  She responded immediately and very enthusiastically.  So, last Wednesday I took the six-hour bus ride from Mexico City to Atotonilco el Alto which, as its name suggests, is in the highlands of Jalisco, east of Guadalajara.  It is a city of about 70,000 people nestled into a valley with only one fully functional hospital, this hospital.

The hospital has two corridors, one of which is finished, one of which is under construction.  Along that one finished corridor are ten bedrooms, reception, a birthing room, the dispensary, an emergency room and an operating room – most of which have been renovated in the past three years (only the dispensary has not been renovated).  On the other side of the corridor are two courtyards, parking space for three or four vehicles and a place where the staff can eat their meals.  There are twenty-five people on staff, including nurses, maintenance, cleaning, reception, office staff and administration (principally Hermana María Teresa).  In addition, there are area physicians who have hospital privileges.

One of the courtyards lining the principal corridor.

One of the courtyards lining the principal corridor.

I knew the hospital was small, I just had not realized how small – only one operating room, three beds in emergency, ten beds for patients.  Sister pointed out that the hospital is really only equipped to handle patients overnight.  In more serious cases, patients are taken to larger centres, such as Guadalajara I imagine, a city of over 4 million people – either after they have been stabilized or more quickly if necessary.  But as such it performs an invaluable service for Atotonilco and the areas around it.

I was not able to visit the hospital rooms we had helped to renovate.  Two women who had just given birth on the day of the Kings (los Reyes), January 6th were using them.  I was touched by how our simple donation was helping these two families.  I met neither mother, but did congratulate one of the two fathers, very proud indeed.  I am sure the rooms are available for families in much more difficult circumstances.  They are places of joy, suffering and healing.

A picture of me with the two rooms we helped to renovate behind me - there's a plaque above and between the rooms recognizing our gift.

A picture of me with the two rooms we helped to renovate behind me – there’s a plaque above and between the rooms recognizing our gift.

A room for honouring the deceased.

A room for honouring the deceased.  It is yet to be renovated.

Of course, a hospital is place for sorrow and sadness as well.  The hospital has set aside a room waiting renovation as a place where the family can gather in prayer with their deceased while arrangements are being made with a funerary.  It’s simplicity and starkness struck me – I can imagine how this room has been the first place where the family gathers after the death of their beloved, the family focused on the body of the deceased, finding whatever comfort they can from each other and their faith in God.

I’m sure the founders of this hospital had all this and much more in their minds when they founded it 124 years ago.  Dr. Pascual Rojas and his wife María Luisa de la Peña founded Hospital Sagrado Corazón in 1892 when Atotonilco was much smaller and poorer than it is today.  Conditions must have been much harsher.  Dr. Rojas died shortly afterwards – without their having any children.  His wife considered becoming a Carmelite sister and actually began the process to become one – but the pull to continue in the work of the hospital was too strong.  She decided to found the Carmelites of the Sacred Heart, combining the prayer life of the Carmelites with the compassionate tenderness of the Sacred Heart in caring for the poor.  The sisters continue her ministry, recognizing as she did that their children are the poor.

Plaque honouring the founders of the hospital. The quote reads "

Plaque honouring the founders of the hospital. The quote reads “The money which God has given us has to be like the blood of Christ – it must serve to redeem the poor.”

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Missing Tehuacán

The Garden Gate in our house in Tehuacán - with colours and blue sky.

The Garden Gate in our house in Tehuacán – with colours and blue sky.

I just realized that it’s been four weeks to the day since I last wrote in this blog.  I could say that I haven’t written because I have been quite busy, which is true.  Three of the weekends I was in Tehuacán helping out with the Marian Feasts (Immaculate Conception on the 8th and Our Lady of Guadalupe on the 12th) or helping out with a vocation retreat we had a week ago.

However, that’s only part of the reason I haven’t written.  The day after I wrote the last blog I was in downtown Mexico City.  I had my pocket picked, my front pocket picked.  I know the moment it happened and immediately checked other pockets.  I still had my phone and iPod.  It wasn’t until I got to the Metro Station that I realized my wallet was gone, my wallet with my Metro card.

A view from one of the hospitals in Tehuacán. I can't imagine a scene so peaceful from one of the hospitals here in Mexico City.

A view from one of the hospitals in Tehuacán. I can’t imagine a scene so peaceful from one of the hospitals here in Mexico City.

I did have money to get home, but I retraced my steps, hoping perhaps I had actually left the wallet in the last store where I had been or that the thieves had ditched the wallet leaving at least some of my identity cards (my ID for the archdiocese especially).  Thankfully, my driver’s license was in my other pocket.  But, I did not find the wallet.  One of the seminarians came downtown and accompanied me home, which I really appreciated.

It’s not the first time in my life that I’ve been robbed.  I was pickpocketed in Guatemala, losing a camera.  In Detroit as a novice, I had my guitar stolen while we were all sleeping upstairs.  In Toronto, when I was an undergraduate, thieves broke into our apartment during the day when we were at school.  I can’t remember what I lost, but it could not have been much.  I did not have much.

Altar for our December 8th. Lots of statues – a blue pitcher for water and many blessings at the end of mass.

Altar for our December 8th. Lots of statues – a blue pitcher for water and many blessings at the end of mass.

However, this time I was rattled by what happened, partly because I knew better.  Usually I did not carry cash in my wallet.  This day I had stopped by the bank and had about 2500 pesos (about $160 USD or about $200 CND).  They also got the debit card and apparently knew where to go to use it without the PIN (or NIP in Español).  That netted them another 2100 pesos (130 USD, 175 CND).  I learned that I really cannot carry the card on my person when downtown (or at least it needs to be buried under layers of clothing).  I was thankful our card has a daily limit, and that we were able to cancel it before more damage was done.  I have since gotten a reposición (replacement) for everything I lost that day, except the cash.

It’s also led me to reconsider life in Mexico City.  I find I’m not as starry-eyed as before.  I watch people more and am more aware of my circumstances.  I realized that day, that I’m not as young as I once was, and in some ways I am more vulnerable.  Still, I love Mexico City and really want to learn much more about it.  I just need to take precautions.

Jaqueline in the cafeteria outside our parish church in Tehuacán.

Jaqueline in the cafeteria outside our parish church in Tehuacán, making mamelas (Mexican Pizzas).

However, visiting Tehuacán three times this month has also had me longing for life there.  Tehuacán (pronounced teh-wa-KHAN, with the emphasis on the last syllable), is much simpler, safer and, to my eye at least, prettier.  There are complexities, hazards and ugliness for sure, but after three and half years I had learned to manage them.  It was home for me, my first home in Mexico.

Interesting (is it not?) that I found myself longing to be back there and not, for example, my country Canada.   Both are places of the heart for me.  Mexico City is not yet a place of the heart.  It is a big, bustling, and, yes, dangerous city, especially for those who have not learned how to live here, what to do and what not to do.  It is a place of excitement and risk, much like New York City.  I love being here, but I need to learn how to do it.

Arrullando (Singing a lullaby to) the Baby Jesus in one of our chapels in Tehuacán on Christmas Eve. With sparklers and whistles as well!!!!

Arrullar (Singing a lullaby to) the Baby Jesus in one of our chapels in Tehuacán on Christmas Eve. With sparklers and whistles as well!!!!


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Understanding Church and State in Mexico

Monument to the Revolution with squatters/protestors in front of them - either way, not all is well with the Republic.

Monument to the Revolution with squatters/protestors in front of them – either way, not all is well with the Republic.

In many ways, Mexico is a mystery. It is a very Catholic country, but also a country with very strong anti-Catholic tendencies.  It is home to Our Lady of Guadalupe – and millions of pilgrims have visited her from within and outside the country.  Also, according to Graham Greene, in the 1920’s Mexico witnessed the worst repression of the Catholic Church since Elizabeth I persecuted the church in England.

At the time of Independence in the early 1800’s, the church found itself on both sides of the struggle.  Two of the most important figures fighting for independence were Miguel Hidalgo and Jose María Morelos, both of whom were priests.  Miguel Hidalgo is considered the “Padre de la Patria” (father of the fatherland).  He was also formally ex-communicated by the Church and branded a heretic.  Jose María Morelos is known as a great military figure in the fight for independence.  He also was condemned by the Inquisition working with the Spanish authorities who had Morelos put to death in 1815.

The Monument to the Revolution is also the burial place for five leaders of the Revolution including Plutarco Elias Calles.

The Monument to the Revolution is also the burial-place for five leaders of the Revolution including Plutarco Elias Calles, the 45th president of Mexico.

Clearly, different parts of the church were associated with different parts of Mexican society.  Hidalgo and Morelos sided with the poor and those fighting for independence from Spanish authority.  The Inquisition and the hierarchy of the Church kept allegiance with Spain and those who benefitted from Spanish Rule, especially landowners and the well off.

Even after Independence, the Church continued to have much influence in the affairs of Mexico, an influence that did not always see eye to eye with the government.  Thus, in the second major moment in the history of Mexico as a Republic, la Reforma, legislation was enacted to limit the church’s influence within Mexico.  A key figure at this moment was Benito Juarez, president and legislator.

The National Lottery, formerly a police station with a shooting range: used for the execution of Father Michael Agustin Pro, SJ.

The National Lottery, formerly where there was a police station with a shooting range: used for the execution of Father Miguel Agustín Pro, SJ.

Vested interests do not go away easily and without a fight; and so by the early 1900’s various groups throughout the country began to take steps to help the poor and to limit those with power including, again, the Church.  The movement that grew out of these developments is known as the Revolution.  In 1917, those fighting for the Revolution enacted a new Constitution, which included several measures against the Church which: forbade Catholic Schools, forbade the public expression of worship (both worship outside of a church and wearing clerical and religious garb), forbade clergy from participating in the political process (including not voting or speaking publicly in support of any party), and forbade Church ownership of property.

However, the next two presidents of Mexico did not enforce these aspects of the Constitution.  The forty-fifth president, Plutarco Elias Calles, decided in 1926 that it was time to begin implementing these articles of the constitution limiting the Church’s power: articles 3, 5, 24, 27, 130.  This led to an armed conflict between some Catholic groups and the government.  A museum to Father Miguel Agustín Pro, SJ, pointed out that there were actually three groups involved in the struggle: the government, the Church and the Cristeros.  The museum tactfully notes problems with each group: the government for repressing civil rights, the Church authorities for being more concerned for protecting its own rights (and less publicly concerned for the poor), and the Cristeros, who definitely had a fanatical wing.

Procession from the Naticional Lottery to the Church where Father Pro is buried. In the background are the offices of one of the newspapers of Mexico City. It's predecessor, the Universal Gráfico was one of press agencies invited to photograph Fr. Pro's execution.

Procession from the National Lottery to the church where Father Pro is buried. In the background are the offices of one of the newspapers of Mexico City. It’s predecessor, the Universal Gráfico was an evening edition, one of the press agencies invited to photograph Fr. Pro’s execution and one of the first to publish photos of his execution later that same day.

For me, Father Miguel Agustín Pro, SJ, is a very helpful figure in sorting through this situation.  He returned to Mexico in 1926 just having been ordained in Belgium.  The government began forbidding all public expression of worship, which is to say all worship outside of church buildings.  In response and protest, the bishops of the country closed all church buildings.  Thus, there was no place to celebrate the sacraments.  Father Pro, the son of a miner, and very much in touch with the needs of the poor and working class, decided that he would continue to serve as a priest but clandestinely.

He also became a member of an organization advocating civil rights, La Liga Nacional para la Defensa de las Libertades Religiosas.  Unfortunately, this organization had members of a more fanatical persuasion.  They attempted the assassination of the former president of Mexico, Alvaro Obregón, who was closely associated with the current president.  In the car used for the attempt, the authorities found the driver’s license for Fr. Pro’s brother, thus leading them to suspect the Pro family’s involvement.

Road workers stop and honour the procession as we pass them.

Road workers at the side of the road; by the time I reached them they had stopped working and were honouring the procession as we passed them.

The president decided that he had enough evidence to implicate the priest and two of his brothers.   Also, without a trial, he decided to execute Agustín, his brothers and another member of the organization.  However, the president saw in this moment an opportunity to make an example of the four; he invited the press to come and photograph the execution.   As it turns out, there was a court official outside the door of the police station with a stay of execution.  The president did not let anyone to enter, including the court official.  Father Pro, his brother Humberto and another accused were executed without trial.  Father Pro’s other brother, Roberto, was spared.

Father Pro was not involved in the assassination attempt, as witnessed by one of those who was.  But, he was on the side of the poor.  He himself was not on the side of the powerful, both within the Church and the government.   As such, he was vulnerable to those more powerful than he.  He chose to walk with the poor and ultimately suffered with them, showing that the forgotten group in discussions about church and state relations in Mexico is often the poor.  I suspect learning the history of the poor in Mexico would go a long way to help understanding the relationship between church and state and the mystery that is Mexico.

A banner carried by a woman in front of me with one of the photos taken by the press on November 23, 1927 - seconds before Fr. Pro's execution.

A banner carried by a woman in front of me with one of the photos taken by the press on November 23, 1927 – just before Fr. Pro’s execution.  Fr. Pro is just visible on the right side of the photo with arms extended in a cross.

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Getting around Mexico City


This photo has quite a bit of how we get around: taxis, a microbus, a few cars, people on foot and even one adventurous person on a bicycle.

I have lived in Mexico City for over three months now.  I am by no means an authority on getting around in this huge city.  But I have learned a few things.

For example, upon arrival at the airport or one of the major bus terminals, the local advice is to take the secure taxis with booths inside the terminal.  They cost more, but the service is reliable and safe.  Apparently, there are stories of people taking a ride with those yelling taxi (something I see more in the bus terminals than at the airport), and who then end up being robbed.  Myself, I’ll pay the few extra pesos and feel secure.

A Metrobus with its dedicated lanes on Insurgentes Sur.

A Metrobus with its dedicated lanes on Insurgentes Sur.

However, cabs are by no means the only option, not even at the airport.  Once here, there are three types of systems for transportation: the largest and easiest to understand are the systems of trains (including the Metro and light rail) and Metrobus.  These are owned and operated by the CDMX (La Ciudad de México or Mexico City in English).

The Metrobus station at Sta. Ursula Xitla.

The Metrobus station at Sta. Ursula Xitla.

You can find their maps online and in the train or bus stations.  They cover wide swaths of the city and often can be the best way to get from one side of the city to the other or to get downtown.  Also they are very inexpensive: the light rail is three pesos, the Metro five and the Metrobus six pesos.  The downside: except within the Metro, you don’t transfer from one to the other for free; that’s a separate fare.   They are not necessarily the best way to connect from the airport or the bus stations, especially if your luggage is not that portable – but they are there and it is possible to get to Santa Ursula Xitla without using a cab.

A Microbus on the main street in Santa Ursula Xitla.

A Microbus on the main street in Santa Ursula Xitla.

The second system is that of microbuses and vans, called combis or vagonetas.  They seem to be operated and owned privately, but according to licenses given by the city.  They follow assigned routes; in fact, each route seems to be its own business.  Our route #75, that comes right into Santa Ursula Xitla, has signs still up in the microbuses inviting people to a pilgrimage that took place in July.  They indicate that the place to meet was the house of a certain Señor, who may well be the owner of the line.

A combi in Sta. Ursula Xitla, the kind of vehicle in which I fell a year ago and injured my knee and sciatic nerve.

A combi in Sta. Ursula Xitla (also number 75), the kind of vehicle in which I fell a year ago.

This system of transportation is also inexpensive, costing between four and six pesos.  The downside of the system is the lack of available information about routes and destinations.  I have found a website, but it is not complete, nor entirely reliable.  Also, when various map systems online (such as Google or Mapquest) refer to these routes the information is not always right.  And so, the information is learned slowly and route by route.  Your fellow passengers are often the best source of information telling you where routes go and when to get off and where to make connections.

However, it is well worth the trouble to learn the routes.  They connect us with more central transportation systems.  Our local route 75, takes us to two light rail stations, including Estadio Azteca, a central hub for many such microbuses and combis in our part of the city.   I have learned also that there are two other routes in short walking distance from us: route 40 and route 73.  Route 40 is about a ten minutes walk away and goes directly to the Metro “Ciudad Universitaria” or CU (the Metro station for Mexico’s biggest and most prestigious university – UNAM).  Route 73 takes us to a major shopping corridor in our area: the Calzada de Tlalpan.  However, with it I learned that route 73 has actually two routes.  For when I am returning home, I need to look for the bus with “Los Hornos” posted in the window.  I took the other route with “Volcanes” one time and ended up adding an extra fifteen minutes to my walk.

Two cabs in this photo: one in the newly mandated colours of pink and white and the other just exiting the photo in the bottom right hand corner in the old colours of red and gold.

Two cabs in this photo: one in the newly mandated colours of pink and white and the other just exiting the photo in the bottom right hand corner in the old colours of red and gold.

Of course, it might be more convenient to have our own car, though personally I would rather not have to live with the headache of driving in Mexico City and having to learn the city as a driver.  For this reason, I prefer the third and most convenient system: taxi cabs.  It is good to use this system when you have luggage or after grocery shopping.  It is also good to use it when travelling in a group.  It’s much less stressful than public transportation.  It allows you to get directly from point A to point B relatively quickly and easily.

Taxis are organized according to whether they belong to a sitio (or stand) or not.  We have a number of sitios within two or three kilometers (one or two miles) and will often call on them if we’re going to the airport or one of the four major bus stations.  We do that especially when we want to be sure that the cab arrives at a specific time and we get to our destination by a certain time.  Such rides cost more, but are worth the extra pesos.

However, when our schedule is a little more flexible we often just go out on the street and hale one.  Where we live, cabs come from at least three directions regularly.  I suppose we could walk to the closest sitio which is about 9 minutes away, but we usually get a cab within five minutes.  The only downside of this system is that you may end up haling a cab from an expensive sitio.  The most common fare for sitios and cabs without sitios currently starts at 8.74 pesos (8 pesos 74 centavos) and then 1.07 pesos for every 250 metres or 45 seconds.  However, I have encountered more expensive taxis, the worst to date from a mall starting at 13 pesos something and then 2.20 for what seemed a shorter distance than 250 metres and shorter time than 45 seconds.

Well this has been a longer post than normal.  But I hope it gives you an idea about getting around in one of the largest cities in the world.  It’s been an education, and I have a lot more yet to learn.  Happy trails or “¡Vaya con Dios!”

Cabs lined up in our local sitio: Base de Taxis Staux Sur.

Cabs lined up in our local sitio: Base de Taxis Staux Sur.

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I lift my eyes to the mountains

Xitle with the peaks of Ajusco behind.

Xitle with the peaks of Ajusco behind.

Over twenty years ago, I was blessed to spend two summers in Freiburg-im-Breisgau learning German.  I also got to know the local parish and help out with Sunday and weekday masses.  One of my favorite memories involves standing in the sacristy, just before mass would begin.  With servers, lectors and everyone ready, the priest would say the opening lines of Psalm 121: “I lift my eyes to the mountains.  From whence shall come my help?”  All the ministers responded together the next two lines of the psalm: “My help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

I think of those lines often here in Mexico City, surrounded as we are by mountains on every side., especially in the past few weeks as I set out to determine which of the local peaks was Xitle, after which our barrio is named.  I had two principal candidates, the peak you see in the photo above, and the one you see in the photo below.

The peak to the left was my first candidate for Xitla.

The peak to the left was my first candidate for Xitle.

I thought it looked like some “ombligos” or belly buttons I have seen.  But, alas, it was not positioned precisely where Xitle should be.  From where I was looking, on one of the many pedestrian bridges crossing Insurgentes Sur, this peak was south and somewhat east of me.  By my calculations, Xitle should have been south and somewhat west.  It also should have had the peaks of Ajusco behind or near it.  According to Wikipedia, Xitle is in the “faldas” or foothills of Ajusco.

The peaks of Ajusco as seen from Wednesday's market in La Joya. The blue letters on the building spell UIC for La Universidad Intercontinental.

The peaks of Ajusco as seen from Wednesday’s market in La Joya. The blue letters on the building spell UIC for La Universidad Intercontinental.

So, I kept looking up at the mountains, studying maps and of course doing research on-line.  Especially helpful, were just looking at images of the volcano, the last volcano in this valley to erupt.  But, what I really enjoyed were looking for new and interesting vistas, and how the mountains constantly lift my eyes and my spirits.  At times, in the hustle and bustle of a very busy and crowded city, it’s easy to feel lost and confused.  It can be very difficult to get your bearings.  But the opportunities to get up above the trees and buildings, most often provided in our area by the pedestrian bridges, lets the spirit rise and realize that even Mexico City is small compared to the world around it.

Looking south on Insurgentes and La Joya. Above and beyond it are many peaks. The trained eye should just be able to see the southern slope of El Popocatépetl, the second highest peak in Mexico, to the east of us.

Looking east along this stretch of Insurgentes Sur. Above and beyond it are many peaks. The southern slope of El Popocatépetl, the second highest peak in Mexico, is barely visible above and between the telephone line and the CR sign.

So yes, I have searched, and I have finally figured out which peak is Xitle.  Recently, I realized that it is visible from the main street entering Santa Ursula Xitla, just after turning off of Insurgentes Sur – in fact, from the middle of the street.  It is, however, a very busy street.  I have not got up the nerve – nor found the right time of day to be able to stand there and take a photo of it.  I think, I’ll need to get someone to go with me and watch the traffic, so that I can lift my eyes and look upon our mountain, Xitle.

Xitle is directly in line with the pedestrian bridge with the sunlight coming from the left (the east). Ajusco is hidden by the trees, as is where we live.

Xitle is directly in line with the pedestrian bridge with the sunlight coming from the left (the east). Ajusco is hidden by the trees, as is where we live.

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Santa Ursula Xitla

The original chapel of Saint Ursula built in the sixteenth century.

The original chapel of Saint Ursula built in the sixteenth century.  It is decked out for the feast day which was October 21st.

According to the Wikipedia website, Franciscans began evangelizing this area in the fifteen hundreds; in fact, the website gives a very precise year, 1546 or twenty-five years after the Conquest began in the Valle de México or fifteen years after Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared in Tepeyac.  As with many places in Mexico, they gave the village which was already here, a Christian and indigenous name: Santa Ursula Xitla (pronounced SHEET-la).  Saint Ursula, according to legend, was a girl from what is now Wales who made a pilgrimage to Rome and was martyred in Cologne with her companions in the fourth century.  Angela Merici named her community Ursulines in her honour, since their ministry was (and is) principally teaching girls and young women.

The inside of the chapel with the statue of St. Ursula. The inscription reads: Saint Ursula, you are the honour of our people.

The inside of the chapel with the statue of St. Ursula. The inscription reads: “Saint Ursula, you are the honour of our people.”

Xitla is a word in Nahuatl meaning “belly button” or “navel”.  It is derived from the name of a volcano southwest of here, Xitle, which erupted about 1600 years ago, entirely displacing the people who lived about three kilometres (a little less than two miles) north of here, the Cuicuilco.  I am still trying to figure out which of the many peaks in our area is Xitle, but after studying some maps this morning I now have a general fix on where it is: about seven kilometres south-west of here (about four miles).  Now if I can just figure out precisely what direction is southwest, I may be able to take a photo of it some day.

The local cemetery or, as they are called here, the

The local cemetery or, as they are called here, the “panteón”.  Notice all the green!

Some centuries after the irruption and centuries before the conquest, people began living in this area.  Apparently the volcanic rock gradually broke down into a soil that was very rich and very good for agriculture.   Thus long before the Europeans came to this area there were people living here, forming a small village or town (the word “pueblo” in Spanish can refer to either the “people” or the “town”).  Santa Ursula continued to be a village after the conquest.  When Tlalpan became a delegation or borough of Mexico City in the 1920’s, independent towns and villages, such as Santa Ursula Xitla, were mostly suppressed as separate political entities.  However, as “barrios” or “colonias” they continue to have a very local feel.

The main street in front of the church, with local businesses.

The main street in front of the church, with local businesses.  Just visible in front of the bicycle parked on the side of the road is one of the nastiest speed bumps or “topes” in Mexico –  it helps keep traffic at a moderate speed.

I like this aspect of things. As much as I can, I try to sponsor the local businesses.  I use the pollería (chicken store) where the bicycle is parked.  They also make a very good paste for mole – not very spicy, but rich in flavours, including the strong taste of the primary ingredient, cocoa.  Beside it where the woman is, there is a wonderful little store for fruit and vegetables. There is also, of course, a tortillería (for tortillas) where the two cars are parked, and around the corner to the right is the carnicería (for carne – beef and pork) and a small grocery store.  I haven’t gotten up the nerve to use the estéticas (hair salons) or peluquería (barber shop) covered in graffiti.  I still go visit my friend Lupita in Tehuacán when I’m there once a month.

One of many local convenience stores.

One of many local convenience stores tucked in behind the church.  The back of a taxi is just visible to the left in the new colours mandated for most taxis in the city (pink and white), as part of the awareness of breast cancer.

Not all aspects of the culture are quaint and historical here.  The modern world is felt everywhere especially in the convenience stores.  Within the few blocks of this barrio there are at least six of them, including one national chain; few are as covered in advertising as is this one is.  I have used from time to time the two that are closest to us, especially when we first arrived.   It is perhaps how they stay in business.  The people who live nearest to them run out and get what they need at the moment – including the convenience of them being so close.

Street vendors in front of the church - these change daily and seasonally. Now there are flowers available for the panteon just down the street.

Street vendors in front of the church – these change daily and seasonally. Now there are flowers available for the panteón just down the street – the Day of the Dead is tomorrow!

That’s a quick view of Santa Ursula Xitla, my new home.  There is, in fact, so much more I could have shown you (to date we’ve used a dentist, the carpenter shop, a tailor and bought our mass wine here to name just a few things).  But it gives you an idea of how Mexico City is not just a sprawling mass of humanity (it is that too).  There are also many, many such small pockets of life and community everywhere.  Santa Ursula Xitla is only one of several in walking distance from where I am.  I hope you enjoyed visiting it.

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Journey to Xalapa


The main route from Mexico City to Xalapa is the highway 150D to the city of Puebla and then 140D to Xalapa (or as it is more formally known Xalapa Enríquez).

Xalapa (also spelled Jalapa) is a city of about a million people, about five hours to the east of Mexico City.  It is the capital of the state of Veracruz; it is a university city with many young people and many of the kinds of places they love to frequent, such as small interesting restaurants and lovely parks.  Jalapa has given the world the Jalapeña pepper.  It also where we the Basilian Fathers were for few years in a small parish on the periphery of the city and where we met a boy named Cristián.

According to one of our priests, Cristián was always at the church – serving mass, helping the priests or sacristan.  He clearly loved being in church.  In his last year of high school, or prepa as we would say here, when he was seventeen, Cristián began to investigate a vocation with us, his priests, the Basilian Fathers.  We invited him to take his time as we did not have a way to welcome him into the community and needed about a year to set up a house for those exploring a vocation.  In the meantime, Cristián attended encounters (or retreats) and helped out with a mission we held in his home parish.

The Valle de Puebla and some of the mountains that contain it in the distance.

The Valle de Puebla and some of the mountains that border it in the distance.

Finally, this past summer, just before his 19th birthday in August, Cristián moved to Tehuacán and began exploring formally a vocation as a Basilian.  He began studies for his carrera.  In Canada or the US we think of this as a time to study at university or college.  In Mexico, the next stage of learning is more focused on an actual career.  And so Cristián took up residence with us and was studying communications at UNID (Universidad Interamericana para el Desarrollo – Inter-American University for Development) in Tehuacán.

The mesa beyond the mountains leading to Xalapa.

The mesa beyond the mountains leading to Xalapa.

Everything was going well until two weeks ago yesterday.  Cristián got very ill and was taken to hospital.  It appeared that the doctors were able to help him and that by Sunday evening, two weeks ago today, his condition had stabilized – the doctors were going to release him the following morning.  However, that did not happen.  The next morning, at about 7 AM, Cristián had a cardiac arrest.  Within fifteen minutes, he passed away, cutting short what seemed to have been a very promising vocation.

In fog as we approached Xalapa.

In fog as we approached Xalapa.

And so, this past Thursday, I was on my way to Xalapa to celebrate mass with Cristián’s family, our community and our other candidates in Tehuacan.  It is the mass after nine days of mourning.  It brings the first stage of grieving to a close – with a cross to be planted at the grave, a night of prayers (after eight previous evenings of prayers) and, as with all things Mexican, something to eat.  Father Alexandro (our superior and the director of our candidates) asked me to preside; Father Beto preached; the family had asked Father Alejandro to be the Padrino of the cross (the one who carries the cross to the grave – and takes a leading role the prayers in the home).

Cristián’s passing has affected us all very deeply.  I hardly knew him from the few times we had met.  But he has focused our hearts and prayers on the cross in a powerful way.  Our lives are indeed very fragile.  As the readings at mass in these last weeks of the liturgical year keep reminding us, we do not know the day or the hour.  May Cristián rest in peace, and his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace.  Así sea (Amen).

A ribbon placed over the door is a traditional sign that the family is in morning - this ribbon is placed over the door of our candidates in Tehuacán.

A ribbon placed over the door is a traditional sign that the family is in mourning – the candidates placed this ribbon over their door of our candidates in Tehuacán.

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Nuestra Casa (Our House)

Man from our gas supplier filling the tank on the roof. We use the gas for the stove and heating water.

Man from our gas supplier filling the tank on the roof. We use the gas for the stove and heating water.

A week ago yesterday, we had the Vice-Rector of the Universidad Internacional (UIC for short) to dinner with his family.  To a person they were impressed with our house, thinking it looked rather plain from the street.  They also seemed to wish it had been available for sale or rent when they were looking for a home last year.  I thought, indeed, our house would have served them well.

It also gave me new eyes to appreciate what we have.  An architect built this as a family dwelling, though I am unsure how long ago.  One of the professors at the UIC, whose campus is hardly a hundred metres from where we live, said this whole area was country when he first moved here over thirty-five years ago.  Now there are houses, and businesses up to the base of the volcanoes (long extinct) in our area.

Chapel within the glassed-in patio. Two satelite dishes above (we do not have a TV - yet)

Chapel within the glassed-in patio. Two satellite dishes above (we do not have a TV – yet)

Everyone who sees our house for the first time – including us when we arrived – comments on the amount of light we have during the day.  The sun bathes the dining room-living room area and almost all the bedrooms on clear days; also, the brilliant colours of exterior walls help to brighten the other rooms on sunny days and all rooms on cloudy days.  The chapel, on the south side of the house, is very bright and very beautiful, opening onto the backyard.  It is also exposed, meaning that it can be chilly in the morning and quite hot at midday.

DSCF0452The exterior lines of the house are stunning, especially when we have blue skies.  It is clear that someone with an eye for such things drew them up.   If it had not been for the gas delivery earlier this week and the fact that I was unable to go up the ladder, I might never have looked up.  Now I find myself looking up daily, checking the movements of clouds, sun, moon and stars and how they play with our house.

DSCF0456Lines at ground level are not bad either.  Even though it is not a big property, there is still a sense of space and openness.  The way the garden, pillar, flooring and walls interact give the eye much to enjoy and play with.  And the choice of colours is not common for me, with warmth and earthiness (above) as well as yellows and blues and oranges (below).

The staircase.

The staircase.

DSCF0492Admittedly, we’ve not done that much with the colours.  Our dining room is pretty simple and basic, at least in its decor.  But it is home, our home.  And already in just over two short months, we have had many memorable meals in this very space – memorable not only for the food itself, which my friend Father John Robbins might have called out of this world, but more so for the joy and community we share.  Indeed, the best parts of our house you cannot easily photograph, like the peace and joy we shared with the vice-rector of the UIC and his family and with each other just over a week ago.

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