Monday, September 07, 2009

COM: La Lomita Fire

sad news about a place near where i grew up that appears frequently in my writings . . .

Fire Severely Damages Historic Building In Mission

The Monitor, Posted September 6, 2009 EST

Texas - A massive fire ripped through a historic building and forced four seminarians and a priest to evacuate a nearby dormitory early Saturday morning. The building was located on the grounds of the St. Joseph and St. Peter Junior College Seminary, 5208 S. Farm-to-Market Road 494. It sustained heavy damage from the blaze.

Border Patrol agents spotted the fire about 6 a.m. and rushed to the location, contacting the Mission Fire Department and the Mission Police Department on the way, said Border Patrol spokesman John Lopez.

The agents entered the seminary and found a priest and four seminarians inside adjacent dormitories. The group was safely evacuated from the premises and no injuries were reported during the fire.

Shortly after the men were evacuated, the Mission Fire Department arrived on the scene to extinguish the fire. The McAllen and Palmview Fire Departments assisted in the effort.

"It was fully engulfed," said Mission Deputy Chief Rene Lopez Jr. "It just collapsed."

Investigators with the Mission Fire Department and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were at the scene Saturday afternoon attempting to determine a possible cause.

As firefighters worked to put out hotspots, drivers slowed down past the building's locked gates, curiously watching the smoldering ruins. Some walked out of their vehicles and snapped photographs, while others just parked on the road's shoulder to get a better look at the mysterious three-story structure, which sits atop a hill and is visible from miles away in the rural landscape.

Marlen Rodriguez and her daughter squinted in the shade as they tried looking closer -- they had seen the building go up in flames that morning from their Granjeno home and wanted to know how bad the damage was.

"The dogs were barking and we looked out to see if someone was in the patio," Rodriguez said in Spanish. "It was like a giant ball of fire...really ugly."

About three years ago, her daughter Mariana had been allowed on the private property with a church group to help clean out the dusty structure.

"It was very dark inside," Mariana said. "And there were lots of rooms on the first seven on each side of the hall."

"They say it was for people that were mentally ill," her mother chimed in. "Those are the stories they tell here in Granjeno."

Norma Garcia and her sister, Elizabeth Hinojosa, had just visited their church, where they learned about the fire. The pair recalled playing near the old building at Anzalduas Park when they were children and hearing stories about the building from their mother, who was also born and raised in Mission.

"I always just drove by and it was off-limits, but I knew it was something special," Norma Garcia said as she sat inside her SUV with her family. "I wish I had seen it from the inside."

"I remember we'd pick cotton there," said their mother Audelia Garcia, 76. "(The seminarians) would come up to the building on their horses," she said in Spanish.

The building was vacant and not in use, the statement said. The diocese, which acquired the property in 1999, planned to renovate the historic site. Several projects were in the works, including plans for a diocesan museum. The building was entered in the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 and bore an official Texas Historical Marker.

The building, completed in 1912, was constructed by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and housed their novitiate program until 1962. From 1974 to 1992, the building housed a program for mentally disabled adults sponsored by the now-defunct Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation. During that time, a kitchen, dining area and dormitory were built on the grounds. After the diocese purchased the property in 1999, a chapel and faculty living quarters were added. Today, future priests for the Diocese of Brownsville begin their studies at the St. Joseph and St. Peter Junior College Seminary.

This latest blaze comes just five months after another nearby landmark narrowly survived a fire.

A wildfire along the banks of the Rio Grande threatened the iconic Lomita chapel on April 2.

Mission Fire Chief Ricardo Saldana said at the time that 80-100 acres burned before that fire was contained, leaving La Lomita and the nearby eatery Pepe's on the River unharmed.

Priest Recalls His Tenure At La Lomita During ‘30s

by Dave Silva, Progress Times, June 9, 2006

The year 1935 brought a young seminary student from Evansville, Illinois to St. Peter’s Novitiate, also known as La Lomita, for studies in philosophy, psychology, theology, etc., in preparation for a vocation as a priest in the Catholic religion. Father Boniface L. Wittenbrink, O.M.I. (Oblates of Mary Immaculate), now 88 years young, sat with this Mission native in Los Angeles, Calif., recently to share his recollections of his stay at La Lomita in Mission, circa 1935-1936.

Father Boni, as he is affectionately known, remembers that in 1926, while attending mass as a grade-schooler in Illinois, the question as to who would replace the local parish priest who was retiring due to illness, struck him personally. At that moment, he had a clear vision that he, indeed, would replace the sickly priest one day.

After graduating high school and attending two years of college, Boniface L. Wittenbrink entered the local seminary, St. Henry's in 1935. He immediately volunteered to go to La Lomita Novitiate in Mission as it was the training location for all Oblate seminarians hailing from the Midwest and the state of Texas.

Padre Wittenbrink recalls taking a comfortable ice-cooled train to San Antonio, then boarding a hot, muggy, smoke-filled passenger railcar to Mission. When he arrived at La Lomita, the novice master, Father Isodore Chateau, a tough Oblate teacher who was short of temper and quick to discipline, greeted him. Fifteen other seminarians also arrived for the start of the year long studies. Their stay at La Lomita was commonly referred to as boot-camp and Father Chateau as their drill instructor.

When not concentrating on their studies or in deep prayer, the seminarians would tent to La Lomita's farming needs. Several crops were grown at that time including lemons, oranges and grapefruits. Father Boni recollects that because of his experiences as an Illinois farm boy, he was chosen to hitch up the mules in order to plow the land, along with milking the cows. He would also drive Father Chateaus Model A automobile to run errands, having learned to drive his father’s Model T as a youngster.

Since he was the only seminarian who knew how to drive, Father Chateau instructed him to drive into Mission and apply for a driver’s license. He drove five miles into town and parked the Model A by the horses hitching post in front of the then city office which was located in a one room structure.

After being asked by the city clerk where he had learned to drive, he replied Illinois, and was then issued a Texas driver’s license. The young seminarian handed the city clerk one dollar and received 50 cents in change. To this day, Minister Boni exudes how simple life in Texas was back then. In fact, the average annual salary in 1935 was $1,600; a loaf of bread cost eight cents, a new automobile went for $580 and Social Security was first implemented. As a 52-year member of the national Rotarians, Padre Wittenbrink frequently quotes the fact that his first driver's license was issued in Mission.

Fr. Boni recalls taking long walks by the nearby Rio Grande where he would pluck grapefruits from their trees, bore a hole in them and squeeze out their juice to quench his thirst. He clearly remembers he had never eaten grapefruit that big or that tasty back in Evansville, IL.

The cleric also met and talked to several Mexican families living in nearby Madero and frequently shared meals in their homes. These people were some of the most gracious people I’ve ever met, said the priest.

One of the hardest part of Father Boni's tenure at La Lomita was having to work and study while being allowed to bathe only once a week. Father Chateau mandated that the seminarians cut their hair extremely short and also instructed them on how to keep clean daily with the use of a washcloth. He would demand that the students read the Bible from beginning to end, and once finished, start from the beginning again.

Another chore required of young Boniface was sweeping up the concrete basement of La Lomita. That necessitated spreading of coffee grounds on the floor so as to pick up the dust when swept. The seminarians also were required to kneel on the concrete for a predetermined amount of time as penance for inadvertently breaking on of Father Chateau’s rules.

Young Boniface attended mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Mission on several occasions. During one of the masses, he got to meet Father Thodore Laboure, Provincial of the Oblates in Texas at that time. Seminarian Wittenbrink also got to visit the Catholic Church in Roma, where he remembers the local priest, along with Roma's sheriff, wearing guns on their hips. Seems they were celebrating a religious holiday and after mass a Mexican fiesta was initiated with the priest and sheriff shooting their guns into the air.

Father Boni had certainly never seen anything like that before or since. In fact, he states, "I hope to get back to a good Mexican fiesta before I die."

When Wittenbrink's year-long stay at La Lomita came to an end in August, 1936, he was directed to go to a Catholic retreat located in Port Lavaca, a retreat that still functions today. He rested there for a few weeks before boarding a ship docked in New York City en route to Rome, Italy. He continued his studies in Rome for four years before returning to the states. In 1941, Boniface L. Wittenbrink was ordained a priest at the Evansville, Illinois parish he attended as a child.

Of the 16 novitiate students that arrived at la Lomita in 1935, only seven were ordained priests. Of the seven, only three survive, including Father Boni. Of those three, only Padre Boniface continues to work, as the other two priests are presently enjoying retirement in San Antonio.

For the past 60 years, Pastor Wittenbrink has applied his vocation in several different parishes across the U.S. He has had an interesting, varied career. Besides administering to thousands of believers throughout the U.S., he has found the time to become an expert on the history of the Oblates, learning everything about their origins in France to their present day legacy.

He also remembers teaming up with actor Paul Newman and others to march on Washington, D.C., in the 1960s to protest the war in Vietnam. He voiced his concerns to then Speaker of the House John McCormick and to Senator Mike Mansfield. Predictably, both men were less than enthusiastic with Father Boni's actions and philosophy.

Father Boniface has traveled throughout Europe extensively researching the Catholic faith. Besides being a Rotarian, he also is a long-time colleague of the Knight of Columbus and a fourth degree member, the highest level. When questioned about the shortage of priests facing the church, Padre Boniface suggests that the problem can be partially solved by allowing long-time married men, who have raised their families and are at the retirement age, to serve as priests. He said that long ago the Catholic Church allowed married priests until the Irish monks mandated that priests be celibate.

Fr. Wittenbrink also is involved with several organizations designed to help the blind and the vision impaired, especially children. On June 17, 2000 he was awarded the Agrama Harmony Gold and Light Award at the 27th annual Vision Awards in Beverly Hills. The award was presented to him for his special gifts of compassion, dedication and innovative vision.

Celebrant Boniface does not believe in his own retirement. "My mind and body are still in good condition and as long as they stay that way, I will continue to minister to the faithful," he said.
His main residence is Belleville, Illinois, but several times a year he functions as a visiting priest at Our Lady of the Valley in Canoga Park, Calif., "I am privileged to be a member of the priesthood in service to our Lord almighty, and will enthusiastically continue to do so until the good Lord chooses to call me up to heaven," Father Boni added.

Dave Silva, a Mission native, is an actor/producer and owner of Doherty Street Communications in Los Angeles, Calif.

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