The Diocese of Brownsville says that U.S. Customs and Border Protection has not confirmed whether the government intends to remove the historic La Lomita Chapel to accommodate the planned-border wall’s 150-foot enforcement zone, court documents indicate.
“CBP has represented in other informal conversations with community members that La Lomita will not be removed, and that there will be a gate in the border wall to allow access (to) the chapel, although the Government has not provided any official confirmation of its plans,” the Diocese said in a motion expanding on its religious objections to the federal government building a border wall on its property.
On Oct. 25, the federal government filed a Declaration of Taking to seize properties owned by the Diocese of Brownsville that include the La Lomita Chapel and property south of the Juan Diego Academy in Mission on brush land next to the levee. The Catholic Diocese of Brownsville is opposed and in late November, the federal government asked a federal judge to give it immediate possession of the property so that it can begin surveying.
The Diocese of Brownsville’s latest filing occurred on Dec. 31 and provides additional information about the future of the La Lomita Chapel as well as expanding on the Catholic church’s religious objections to a border wall, which it calls a physical symbol of division and dehumanization.
CBP’s plans for 25 miles of border wall in Hidalgo County include a 150-foot enforcement zone where federal authorities would remove all vegetation and install lighting and cameras. According to the Diocese of Brownsville, the La Lomita Chapel is 130-feet from the southern levee and would fall within the enforcement zone on the south side of the border wall. In the filing, the church said it anticipates that all the grass and trees around the chapel will be removed and replaced with lighting and surveillance equipment, destroying a tranquil and peaceful environment where parishioners can feel the presence of God.
And while the federal government has indicated that it might allow access to the chapel via a gate, it’s unclear to the Diocese of Brownsville who will have access to the gate, whether CBP will monitor or interrogate people returning through the gate and when access to the gate would be allowed.
“For some worshipers, the need to pass through the border wall to reach La Lomita will deter them from their religious practices,” the Diocese of Brownsville says. “Some local Catholics are undocumented and therefore would fear being unable to return to the north side of the wall if stopped by CBP.”
Worship activities at the La Lomita Chapel include services during summer droughts where parish priests pray for rain, the November mass commemorating the life of Father Pierre-Yves Kéralum, an early Oblate missionary, and the Palm Sunday procession where worshipers travel four miles from Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mission to La Lomita Chapel.
Last year, more than 1,000 people participated in that procession, according to newspaper archives. The Diocese of Brownsville said in the filing that it has a difficult time seeing how that procession could continue if CBP walls off the La Lomita Chapel.
“Even if CBP officials allow the flow of upwards of 1,000 people from the north side of the wall to the south side, it is likely that any tactics that CBP uses to manage the procession and prevent immigrants from coming through the gate will chill parishioners from participating in the event,” the Diocese of Brownsville says. “To date, the Government has offered only vague reassurances that give little reason to believe that Our Lady of Guadalupe’s Palm Sunday procession can coexist with the wall.”
The Diocese says the discontinuation of the procession would be a major blow to the Rio Grande Valley’s Catholic community.
But most of all, the Diocese of Brownsville explains in the filing that it opposes the border wall because it is completely contrary to Catholic values.
“A barrier that prevents victims of government tyranny, gang violence, domestic abuse, and economic insecurity from seeking refuge in the United States cannot be reconciled with Catholic moral and doctrinal teaching,” the Diocese of Brownsville says.
Simply put, the Church said in the filing that it cannot and will not consent to participating in actions that it views as hostile to Catholic teachings and values.
“A wall reflects the view that humanity is not a community of mutual responsibilities, but instead is divided into camps of ‘us’ and ‘them,’” the Diocese of Brownsville says.
According to the church, a border wall also creates a threat of death and injury to individuals coming to the border, so it is opposed to the wall. The court filings mention 8-year-old Felipe Alonzo-Gomez, of Guatemala, who died while in CBP custody and refers to the federal government’s recent use of tear gas.
“The Diocese has the greatest respect for the responsibilities of the men and women charged with border security. And by invoking these incidents, the Diocese does not intend to assign blame,” the Diocese of Brownsville says. “But these tragedies demonstrate that maximal border enforcement threatens life and limb.”
A border wall is fundamentally inconsistent with the church’s values because of these reasons, the Diocese said in the court filing.
“In sum, the proposed erection of a border wall on the Diocese’s property would stand as a counter-sign to the Church’s teachings on the universal nature of humanity and would pose a risk of physical harm to migrants in contravention of the Church’s respect for human life,” the Diocese of Brownsville says.
Further more, the filings describe La Lomita as a cornerstone of Catholicism in the Rio Grande Valley because of its historic establishment by the order of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in 1849 who ministered to the region by horseback, riding from ranch to ranch between Brownsville and Roma. The Diocese of Brownsville said in the filing that the Rio Grande Valley’s Catholic community owes its existence, in part, to the La Lomita Chapel.
“Just as Jerusalem was the birthplace of Christianity, La Lomita Chapel, as the original worship space for the Oblate missionaries who ministered to the Valley, is a wellspring of Catholicism in the Valley, the Diocese of Brownsville states.
For these reasons, the Diocese of Brownsville urges the federal government to abandon its eminent domain efforts or in the alternative find ways of securing the border that will not undermine Catholic values or restrict access to La Lomita.