MIRACLE ON 24TH STREET

FOR DECADES, BELIEVERS HAVE FLOCKED TO A SOUTH PHOENIX CHAPEL DEDICATED TO A HYBRID SAINT CANONIZED BY THE MASSES

The memory of the uniquely Mexican way of practicing his religion.
After a short time in Tombstone, Francisco settled in the area around 24th Street and Baseline Road, a part of the Valley that was then devoted to citrus orchards and cotton fields, and to a great extent still is. He and his wife, Elena, had five more children in this country, and in general saw their lives turn out better than those of family members who'd stayed around the old hometown of Magdalena, Sonora.

Sometime in the late 1940s--no one remembers exactly when, or is willing to say exactly why--Francisco built what amounts to a church in miniature on his property. "On his property" means that it's not 30 feet from his house, and that its west walls and the house's east walls form the home's driveway and yard.

Named the St. Francis Xavier Mission, Francisco's act of faith is a compact white building that from a distance looks as much like a white dove in the desert as the famous San Xavier del Bac. Francisco's chapel has a bell tower, five rows of pews, an altar and a communion rail. Over the years, the little building has accumulated a throng of statues--Christ, his mother, the Infant of Prague, popular saints like St. Martin Porres--but what people come to see is a life-size statue of the saint to whose memory the building is dedicated. That statue is at the front of the church. The plaster St. Francis Xavier is lying on his back with his eyes staring open, ringed with stout black lashes. He has dark hair and a beard, and both his hands and feet are crossed. The carver who made the saint attired him in a black gown, but over it the Vasquezes have slipped a robe fashioned from cheap brown cloth, held in place by a white rope belt. The forehead above the staring eyes bears lipstick traces, an odd combination of the sensual and the spiritual, and across the saint's chest and under his hands are tucked and pinned photographs, scribbled prayers and even legal documents.

These appeals bear witness to private travails that range from the touching to the harrowing. For weeks there remained a photograph of a badly dehydrated baby, its tiny body punctured by feeding tubes, its skin, wrinkled as if by old age, crisscrossed painfully with medical tape.

"Please help us reunite the whole family," reads one appeal, but more frequently the prayers are in Spanish, asking the saint to protect children who lean toward bad companions or drink too much. "San Francisco, por favor, ay£dame con mi hijo que deje de tomar." During the Vietnam War, and again during Desert Storm, the saint was buried under tiny pieces of paper. One woman has left the envelope in which a notice from the Immigration and Naturalization Service arrived. No explanation is attached. None needs to be. The saint with the staring eyes will understand.

After the chapel was built, the Phoenix neighborhood near it--south of Baseline, east of 24th Street--came to be called San Francisco, and the little white building has drawn believers from all over the Valley ever since.

They come, even though it is not altogether clear that the saint they venerate at the chapel is St. Francis Xavier.

The chapel is presided over today by Francisco Vasquez's daughter, who introduces herself as Donna, but is called Nicha by everyone else in the family. Her real name is Dionicia.

Donna makes sure the church is kept clean and that candles are available at $2 apiece when people with petitions arrive to ask the saint's blessing. A visit to the chapel is a trip of supplication. Because of Donna, it is also a chance to pick up some toys for the kids.

Saturdays and Sundays are the busiest days at the chapel, so that's when Donna pulls the covers off the tables in the yard between the chapel and her house to reveal dishes, sheets, housewares, toys and a panoply of other objects. Donna sits on a folding chair near her Ford Taurus while kids try to convince their folks to buy them a toy. With Donna's yard-sale prices, the kids are often successful.

Nearby is Donna's son Glenn, who provides people visiting the chapel an opportunity to practice what the Apostle Paul said was the greatest of virtues: charity. Twenty-some years ago, Glenn was involved in an automobile accident. He was not expected to survive. While his body did, much of his mind did not.

A conversation with Glenn tends to be a one-sided affair, consisting largely of endlessly repeated jokes, sight gags and card tricks, although he occasionally injects such a thoughtful insight in such an offhand way a listener is brought up short. When asked how his Thanksgiving was, Glenn says, "Well, I was rooting for the turkey."

Glenn treats the chapel as an extension of his home, lounging on the pews, sometimes sprawling on the floor when no visitors are there, occasionally making remarks about the crowd of statues, as if they were relatives who got on his nerves.

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