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MIRACLE ON 24TH STREET

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, aydame 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.

The statues accumulated as petitioners left them in thanks for prayers answered. According to an authority familiar with the veneration of St. Francis Xavier, he is not a saint one ought to forget to thank. While he very well may intercede successfully with the Almighty on questions regarding the INS or a dreadfully sick baby, he will extract his due.

People in need strike a bargain with St. Francis Xavier, promising to approach the chapel on their knees, for instance, in exchange for leniency from the INS, or to pay a weekly visit if the saint keeps the baby alive.

Mary Helen Perez, who was at the chapel recently on her weekly outing, has such promises to keep. A few years ago, she asked St. Francis Xavier for help, because she kept getting into unaccountable and frightening automobile accidents. She even went so far as to wear an abbreviated version of the brown robe the statue of the saint wears. But then she began getting careless in her visits to the chapel, and she developed a tumor in her face, which plunged her into a depression. Now, Mary Helen is being more assiduous in thanking the saint, even explaining to him in prayer when she will have to be out of town on a Sunday and miss her usual visit.

Mary Helen got off easy. The saint's preferred method of reminding petitioners of their manners is fire. Houses have gone up in flames. People have died.

The life of St. Francis Xavier, at least as it is recounted in Butler's Lives of the Saints, does not yield many clues to his popularity among Mexican Catholics in this region, although it does indicate his stiff-necked and unforgiving qualities.

St. Francis Xavier, born 1506, died 1552, was one of those bureaucrat saints who became sanctified for contributions to the church's organization, rather than for a bloody martyrdom or a life of self-denial. A missionary, St. Francis Xavier spent most of his life in India and the Far East, persuading people he thought were heathens to give up ways he thought were sinful. He died on the shore of China, and was buried in Goa, then a Portuguese colony, where his body remains today, miraculously undecomposed. Since the body lies in state at the top of a ten-foot catafalque, however, this miracle is taken on faith.

While Butler does give St. Francis Xavier great credit for the generosity he extended to the poor and the outcast, it also points out that Francis was not particularly patient with people who failed to accept his teaching. This testiness may explain some of his sharpness with people who can't live up to a contract.

The particular popularity the saint has for people in this area--northern Sonora and southern Arizona--centers on Magdalena, a town of some 10,000 souls located 60 miles south of Nogales. The full name of the saint, in fact, is San Francisco Xavier de Magdalena. Francisco Vasquez and his family were from Magdalena. This fact, and everything else known about the pioneer who built the chapel near South Mountain, has been collected by Francisco's grandson Fred Vasquez, family historian and natural-born pack rat.

Fred keeps a family chart giving the birth dates of all his relatives, knows who's who in the family pictures and adds to the trove by taking new ones. The photographs and documents Fred has collected date from the teens of this century, when Francisco arrived in this country. Fred remembers his grandfather owning a number of guns, and even has a few of them still. The guns were apparently so much a part of Francisco that even Glenn remembers something: The old man would shoot toward the mountain every night before he went to bed.

In the Mexico Francisco Vasquez left, with Pancho Villa ranging along the border and any number of different armies ranging after him, it was wise to own a gun. Francisco's brother shared his fondness for firearms, at least according to a photo showing him looking rakish in a wide-brimmed hat and a gunbelt full of ammunition. Although Francisco arrived in America with a couple of his brothers, they wanted to return to Mexico after they did not immediately become millionaires in the copper mines around Tombstone. Francisco, however, moved on to Phoenix, where he worked as an ostrich wrangler for Heard Land and Cattle, the company owned by the millionaire who built the Heard Museum. On the whole, Fred thinks, the Vasquez family has done very well in this country. When you look at the chart he's drawn up of the seven children Francisco and Elena raised, there's only one bad apple among them. Not a bad average for a family.  

When Fred went back to see the distant cousins who still remain in Magdalena, he had the bittersweet experience common to the descendants of successful immigrants everywhere: He looked at the cousins, living without running water or electricity, and although his heart went out to them, he was glad he was better off.

And although Fred's mother and Aunt Nicha still talk in Spanish on the phone--about gambling in Laughlin!--both the women are afraid to go back to Mexico for a visit. They don't want to get robbed, Fred says, or have to deal with that Mexican con game: A guy runs into you, claims it's your fault, the cops side with him and you have to produce a large wad of cash to get out of the mess.

Still, says Fred, if you can, it's a good idea to go back to Magdalena to visit the main chapel of St. Francis Xavier, where there is a reclining saint that is the prototype for the saint at the Vasquez family chapel. A popular time is the saint's feast day, October 4.

San Francisco Xavier de Magdalena and his veneration have been described extensively by Jim Griffith, who teaches at the University of Arizona and is the authority on folklore of the region--southern Arizona and northern Sonora being all of a piece culturally, even though they're divided by a border some folks prefer not to cross. Griffith explains that the saint, both the one in Magdalena and at the little chapel in South Phoenix, is not exactly St. Francis Xavier. You can tell that just by looking at him, because saints wear clothes and carry attributes that identify them as clearly as members of a baseball team.

St. Lawrence carries the grill upon which his martyrdom by fire took place. St. George rides a horse. St. Michael the Archangel waves a big sword. St. Joseph holds the lily branches that blossomed when he was chosen to be Mary's husband. St. Francis Xavier wears a black robe and is generally making some gesture to show he is preaching.

If a saint is wearing a brown robe, especially if there are birds about, that is St. Francis of Assisi, who loved God so much he preached to His animals, and who was so filled with godliness the creatures listened. Wolves, given the opportunity, declined to eat St. Francis of Assisi.

So the reclining saint of Magdalena and the little chapel in South Phoenix is actually a combination of St. Francis Xavier (man lying down) and the much kinder and gentler St. Francis of Assisi (man wearing brown robe).

There are also some elements of Padre Kino, a local celebrity, thrown in for good measure.

Padre Kino was the missionary who converted Arizona. He traveled through the northern Mexican borderlands, preaching to the Indians and founding missions, including the one at Magdalena. He apparently favored the church at Magdalena, since it was there he deposited a reclining statue of St. Francis Xavier, and there he was buried after he took sick and died.

When archaeologists found Padre Kino's bones in the churchyard in 1966, the temptation to connect the bones outside with the reclining figure inside was too great for people to resist, so they didn't.

Thus was an entirely local saint canonized informally by the will of the people.

"What it is is an absolutely regional devotion to a composite St. Francis," says Griffith, who put all this together the way folklorists do, by traveling around Mexico and Arizona, talking to people. He published what he found out in Beliefs and Holy Places, which devotes a whole chapter to the St. Francis Xavier/Assisi/Kino personage.

"What impressed me is how very, very unusual reclining statues of St. Francis Xavier are--except for the thousands in this region," Griffith says. The mainstream, papally approved St. Francis Xavier familiar to the rest of American Catholicism looks like the fellow described in Butler's Lives of the Saints. Such representations depict the missionary saint as upright. The one in the church of St. Francis Xavier at Brophy Prep, for example, shows the saint raising his hand in a gesture that must surely be a blessing. Given the well-cut bit of dry goods he's wearing, however, the pose is uncannily reminiscent of a CEO making a point to the board of directors.

The best place to buy a reclining St. Francis Xavier, of course, is in Magdalena. That's where Amador Sanchez gets the ones he sells--complete with cloth robe, encased in a pretty little handmade glass box--at his shop on Washington Street. Sanchez, who's from Ciudad Jurez, supplies what he realizes is a local demand. Ciudad Jurez folks don't pay much mind to San Francisco Xavier, preferring Saint Lawrence and his grate.  

Religious veneration, like the preference for certain sports teams, appears to be somewhat a matter of geography.

The conflation of the two Francises may explain some of the difficulty experienced by Father David Kelash, who obliged the Vasquezes by saying Mass at the chapel on October 4, which he knew as the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. His confusion didn't start until he found out that the chapel was dedicated to St. Francis Xavier, whose feast day is December 3. Priests, even rookies like Father David, who is new to Phoenix, have saints' days in their heads like some people have baseball stats.

Every year, says Donna Vasquez, there's a celebration at the chapel, complete with matachines dancers from nearby Guadalupe. The Yaqui Indians who live there, and whose homeland straddles the border of Mexico and this country, are also great admirers of the composite saint. Even Papagos from Ak Chin, their faces delicately tattooed with blue ink, come to the chapel to ask for favors, the women careful to change from their Reeboks to the more proper high heels before approaching the statue.

But petitioners arrive at the Vasquez chapel year-round. On almost any Sunday, the little white building is as busy as any church, with whole families stopping by and staying about as long as the parents can control the little ones. Old couples sit quietly while the kids sprawl on the saint in an attempt to get their lips in contact either with his head or his feet, until the beleaguered holy man looks like Gulliver covered with Lilliputians.

A young man with a black beard lifts the head of St. Francis, a test of virtue brought from Magdalena. If you can lift the statue, that means you're in good favor with the saint. The proper way involves standing at the saint's head and cupping his head in both hands--the one-armed bicep-curl method is ineffective.

Donna Vasquez lives with this spiritual hotbed next door, watching without any surprise as an old man shuffles on his knees from the parking lot to the saint's side, his breathing labored and painful to hear.

"I guess it's his kidneys," Donna says, because after struggling to his feet, the man had held the saint's rope belt around his waist briefly.

Donna makes the miraculous seem quite ordinary by fretting about how to pay the tax bill due in February, and complaining about the people who make that more difficult by bringing their own candles to the chapel rather than buying hers at $2 apiece. The people who bring their own candles bugged Donna so much, she put a sign on the chapel door.

"No outside candles," the sign read, but people thought it meant not to put the candles in the little garden in front of the chapel, and continued to bring their own.

For a while this fall, Donna and her son Glenn were regularly visited by Tim Archibald, the staff photographer for New Times. Tim discovered the St. Francis Xavier chapel as he was exploring his new neighborhood, hiking along the canal around 24th Street and Baseline Road.

Tim spotted the white structure from the back, went in and asked if he could photograph the building. Over the next few months, he would stay for hours, chatting with Donna and Glenn and the people who came to light candles and pray, hearing their stories and taking their pictures.

One day Tim accidentally left his camera bag at the chapel. When he returned a half-hour later, the bag, full of cameras and lenses, was gone. The next day, Tim went back to the chapel to post a notice he'd written, offering a reward for the return of his equipment. Donna came out and told him not to bother.

A family that had been at the chapel had accidentally walked off with the camera bag, thinking it was the diaper bag. When they discovered the mistake, they drove back to the chapel long after dark to return it.

Tim gave Donna some money. She told him to put it in the box for the saint.


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