St. Ann’s worth more than just money
By PAMELA SCHAEFFER
A resolute group of Mexican-Americans in Dallas, their heels dug firmly into a piece of land they hold sacred, is waging a preservation battle to prevent the Dallas diocese from selling the property to developers.
To diocesan officials, pressed to come up with $11 million to settle a landmark sex abuse case, the property — an acre and a quarter of prime real estate in the resurging Dallas arts district — represents easy money. Or rather, officials say, it did represent easy money until Mexican-Americans geared up for a so-far successful campaign to have the site declared a historic landmark. Bronson Havard, editor of Texas Catholic and a diocesan spokesman, said a developer who reportedly offered $4 million for the property has since backed off.
The property, known as St. Ann’s, was the spiritual and social center of an area once known to insiders as El Barrio, to outsiders as Little Mexico. It housed the first wave of Mexican immigrants to Dallas. To Mexican-Americans determined to save the site, it represents a community’s history, nostalgia and, above all, pride. “To me, it’s the Ellis Island of Dallas,” said Marie Mongaras, one of 13 board members who oversee the Guadalupe Social Center Community Development Corp., a group formed in February to save the property. “All the Mexicans who came to Dallas in the earlier years landed here.”
The preservationist group scored a major victory against the diocese Nov. 10 when the Dallas Landmark Commission voted unanimously to recommend that the St. Ann’s property be designated a historical landmark. The commission also approved demolition restrictions for the closed but still-standing school that are much tighter than the city’s current code. The City Plan Commission and ultimately the City Council must rule on the proposal. Manuel C. Trevino, a Dallas architect, said he favors establishing an “intensely academic” school called CASA Dallas, Children’s Academy of Science and Arts, on the site as a way of countering the stereotype that Hispanics are academically deficient.
William E. Cothrum, consultant for the diocese, the official property owner, said at the landmark commission’s hearing that the diocese strongly opposed the historical designation. Even talk of it in recent months had posed a serious obstacle to the diocese’s efforts to sell the site, he said.
The bitter struggle between the two Catholic groups is creating negative publicity for an already battered church. Diocesan officials are eager to move beyond events of last year, when a jury awarded an unprecedented $119.6 million to plaintiffs in a sex abuse case. Eleven plaintiffs accused the diocese of negligence and cover-ups during years of sexual abuse of altar boys by a former priest, Rudolph “Rudy” Kos. In posttrial negotiations, plaintiffs settled for $30.9 million, and the diocese dropped plans to appeal.
Insurers paid all but $11 million of the settlement. The diocese mortgaged some properties to pay its part, as well as settlement costs related to other sex abuse cases, and began selling undeveloped properties to pay off the loans. When the diocese announced plans to sell St. Ann’s, the most valuable of the targeted properties, a diocesan financial officer said that interest charges on loans could run as high as $1 million a year.
Two more plaintiffs filed civil lawsuits Nov. 5 against the diocese and former priests. One named Kos, another named Robert Peebles, as the abuser. Kos was convicted of criminal child molestation in March and is serving a life sentence in prison.
Havard, the diocesan spokesman, said of the contest over St. Ann’s, “This gets messy because it’s a family dispute.” Havard hopes for a diplomatic resolution. “All the parties involved ought to work harder in that direction,” he said. “Both sides aren’t talking now.”
Dallas Bishop Charles V. Grahmann was unavailable for an interview with NCR.
Havard said the 100 or so members of the preservationist group are hardly representative of the 300,000 Hispanics in Dallas. Rather, he said, they represent “the first wave of Hispanics who came to Dallas, those who have risen to success and are now involved in the political and community life of the city,” people who are “able to make the system work for them.”
“In part this dispute reflects the ascendancy of Hispanics in Dallas and all of Texas,” he said. “They want recognition of their contributions, and it’s well deserved. The question is, can we take the church’s property to meet the needs of one group? We have tens of thousands more Hispanics whose needs we have to recognize, too.”
As set forth in a 19-page detailed history submitted by preservationists to the landmark commission, the St. Ann’s site, also formerly home to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, played a key role in assimilation of early Mexican settlers. A few Mexicans settled in Dallas as early as 1875, but it was a violent revolution in 1910 that drove thousands to seek refuge in the United States. The Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul arrived in the city in 1896 to help with resettlement.
Later, members of the religious order staffed St. Ann’s, first an elementary school that opened in 1927, then a commercial high school for girls and the Guadalupe Social Center, which opened in an addition to the building in 1947. The high school closed in 1965, the elementary school in 1974. Today the building is used an an outreach center by Cathedral Santuario de Guadalupe, situated just five blocks away. English classes, mentoring programs, parenting classes and counseling for victims of domestic violence are offered at the school.
The church was closed as a place of worship in 1976 and has since burned down, according to the report.
Like many in the preservationist group, Mongaras has strong familial ties to the property. Her parents had married at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and had her baptized there, she said. Mongaras now volunteers at St. Ann’s in a mentoring and tutoring program for at-risk children.
Elizabeth Cedillo, 27, a law student at Southern Methodist University and chairwoman of the Guadalupe group, said the group has between 300 and 400 active supporters. Many, like noted musician Trini Lopez of Palm Springs, Calif., are alumni of St. Ann’s.
The preservationist group has been meeting since February, when they first learned of the diocese’s interest in selling the property. Since April they have gathered weekly at the site to pray the rosary, erecting a portable shrine to Lady of Guadalupe and imploring her intercession in their campaign.
Leanor B. Villareal and other group members scattered some 300 miraculous medals all around the property. “We put them in trees, on windows, in crevices between bricks,” she said. “About 30 to 40 of us went in procession and prayed the rosary, putting the medals around,” she said. “We believe in the power of prayer and the power of Our Lady.”
Villareal said she got a real boost in life from St. Ann’s. The nuns who taught at the commercial high school forged links with Dallas business leaders so graduates could get good jobs, she said. Villareal, mother of seven, has logged 42 years with Neiman Marcus. Her husband, Ronnie Villareal, was her “childhood sweetheart” at St. Ann’s, she said.
The Guadalupe preservationist group originally offered the diocese $2 million to buy the St. Ann’s site, then dropped its offer to $900,000 when other bidders fell away. The group hopes to fund the purchase with grants and money from investors. They presented a letter of intent to Grahmann at a meeting in mid-October. Members said the bishop had declined to meet with them for months, then changed his mind after learning that they were seeking historic designation for the site.
Havard said the Guadalupe group’s offer is the only one now on the table. “Nobody will touch the property until these issues are resolved,” Havard said. He said the $900,000 offer was far too low — not enough even to pay off a mortgage of nearly $1 million on the property. The diocese has “a fiduciary responsibility” to get the most it can for the land, he said.
Cedillo said members don’t want to be pitted against the church over the property.
“I hope we can save it together. I have never thought of our group as being outside the church.” The site, she said, “belongs to the church and to the people. It shouldn’t be sold to fund the judgment in a negligence suit.”
Leanor Villareal echoed that sentiment. “We are not at odds with the bishop,” she said. “He inherited this problem, and we’d like to help find a solution.”
Havard said diocesan officials had hoped to forge a compromise that included saving the oldest part of St. Ann’s and establishing a memorial to Mexican-American history as part of any new development. The Guadalupe group wasn’t interested. Members regard the entire site as sacred.
Charity Sr. Bertha O’Neill of Perryville, Mo., said she sympathized with the bishop’s problems but hoped the Mexican-Americans would prevail. O’Neill taught at St. Ann’s from 1953 to 1963.
“I think they have put so much blood and sweat into it,” she said. “Their families did so much to keep the school going. I think it means a great deal to the people who are trying to save it.”
National Catholic Reporter, December 4, 1998