By Wallice J. de la Vega | Catholic News Service
EL PASO, Texas -- Pope Francis' visit to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, sparked more than a one-day devotional impulse within the general Catholic population on both sides of the Rio Grande.
It also has drawn international attention to the spot where he said Mass as a future communal mega-complex anchored by a massive church.
The project began to take shape four years ago, when Sandro Landucci, a Mexico City telecom entrepreneur, had an idea that has drawn together other people who have responded to Pope Francis' call to care for the needy.
"In his travels, Landucci was heavily impacted by what he was seeing in Ciudad Juarez, a destroyed city as if there had been a war," said Cecilia Levine, who later became a key player in the complex development.
"He had heard Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron talk about the positive impact one major architectural structure could have on a city, and remembered (Mexican financier) Agustin Coppel's wish to create a contemporary church structure in Mexico," she told Catholic News Service.
Joining their ideas, Landucci and Coppel then approached Levine, an industrialist in Ciudad Juarez, who threw in her own ideas for a place focused on social services to the poor. A native from the Mexican state of Chihuahua who was raised in El Paso, she has been running youth violence and substance addiction prevention programs in Ciudad Juarez for years.
Her place in the development team was to help secure land for the project, but she had her own conditions: "It's a great idea, and I agree 100 percent, but we must adjust our thinking and make the site not only a church, but also a community service center," she said she told the others. And they agreed.
Through her, the group secured a private trust from the local Ciudad Juarez government to use El Chamizal, a public park, plus some land annexed to it, totaling some 74,000 square yards. El Punto, as the development project is officially known, found a home, and Pope Francis' visit there has already made it an international pilgrimage attraction.
El Chamizal is a historical site, also known as El Punto. It was one of the few points where the Bravo River -- as the Rio Grande is known in Mexico -- was tame enough to permit safe crossings within what was then Mexican territory. El Paso del Norte -- present-day El Paso -- refers to this river pass.
El Punto, now as the new development site, points to the concept of a center point where religion, charity, human development, social justice, culture, education, economic development and tourism come together in an effort to improve a depressed region.
Already past the phases of planning, feasibility and engineering-architecture studies, organizers of El Punto are now focused on pulling together the development funds needed for construction.
The project is composed of several areas where the church will be its main feature. Covering 47 percent of the space, it will include the usual altar-sacristy, seating area, rectory, columbarium, chapel, multi-purpose rooms, and three offices. Also, there will an "external altar" and round plaza for outdoor masses.
"It will be a Catholic church," but all spaces will be shared with other religions as needed," said Levine. "In fact our current programs are supported by other religions. The idea is to stay together, working together on behalf of this community."
As envisioned by Herzog & De Meuron, the church design mixes ancient styles -- like block-built pyramids -- with ultra-modern features, like open squares on its walls. According to the architects, "one will find Christian symbolism and nuances from (the) French Angouleme Cathedral, St. Sernin Basilica (in Toulouse, France) and (the) Pantheon Church."
From afar, the whole complex looks like a pile of blocks; from above, it looks like a giant articulated cross.
"They used local community, historical and cultural resources to come up with the design", Levine said. "It will be built with adobe, using area materials."
Aside from the church, El Punto will include:
-- A music academy with a main hall, practice rooms, and educational spaces working together with the National Institute of Fine Arts and Ciudad Juarez Esperanza Orchestra.
-- An education center with classrooms, conference center, meeting rooms, and visitors' suites.
-- A migrants center and clearinghouse offering general information, specialized counseling, psychological and spiritual support and training programs geared toward community reintegration.
-- A meditation center as a space for introspection open to all.
-- Complementary areas with a restaurant, a cafeteria, and fixed sales booths.
-- Outdoor spaces including an esplanade, an auditorium and a youth forum.
So far, Levine runs several nonprofit youth programs, including three community orchestras. For adults, she is structuring a perma-culture system of urban farms to teach the community about conservation while producing food stuffs to benefit them.
"All these are going on now. The one for children is supported by the United Way and the orchestras are supported by Fundacion Azteca," a nonprofit organization led by Mexican businessman Ricardo Salinas also operating in the U.S., Guatemala, El Salvador and Peru. "All we need is a space where we can have them all together and keep growing," she said.
With all its members being Catholic, El Punto's development team has considered Pope Francis' recent visit a blessing.
"The fact that El Punto was chosen for a Holy Mass by the holiest man has been a privilege for all of us," said Levine. "It has been beautiful to see how people have kept coming in pilgrimage to pray and meditate here."[[In-content Ad]]