“To me now — I’m a man of a lot of faith — I believe that the Virgin Mary saved all the priests. Now it is in my heart — every day.”
Monsignor Juan Nicolau
Recalling the plane crash at the San Juan shrine in 1970.
SAN JUAN — The priests congregated inside St. John the Baptist Catholic Church at 9 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 23, 1970.
Roughly 60 priests from the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville, just over five years since its inception, gathered at the house of worship — the home of the shrine of Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos — for their monthly assembly of the priests.
With no choir or mariachis present, the priestly congregation was led in song by 23-year-old Monsignor Juan Nicolau, the young, charismatic native of Palma de Mallorca, Spain, with an ear for music and a heart for song.
At 11.33 a.m., somewhere over the skies near McAllen, 52-year-old Franklin L. Alexander radioed the tower at the McAllen International Airport using its emergency frequency.
From inside the plane, Alexander, a former math teacher with the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district warned Charles Wardroup, chief of the control tower aid, that all Catholic and Methodist churches in South Texas needed to be evacuated.
Questioned as to why, Alexander responded, “A serious plot.”
Standing at the pulpit of the church, Nicolau began to lead the congregation of priests into a song he had written called “A New Commandment God Has Gave Us.”
Together, the priests sang Nicolau’s song in Spanish.
“Un mandamiento nuevo, nos da el Señor …”
“Boom!” Nicolau said in description of the noise he heard 50 years ago.
“At that time, we did not know it was a plane,” Nicolau, now 83, recalled. “Everybody ran like crazy.”
At just around noon, the single-engine Piper Cherokee flown by Alexander collided with the roof of the church. The plane happened to strike one of the steel girders framing the roof of the church, ricocheted off and crashed into the adjacent Catholic school cafeteria where nearly 100 children were eating lunch.
The ceiling of the church, which was full of asbestos, quickly engulfed in flames.
As the priests raced for safety from the growing flames of the church, two priests quickly ran toward the altar. One ran toward the tabernacle to save the Eucharist. The other ran toward the now-famous statue of the Virgin, which currently resides inside the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle.
Perhaps through the grace of God, all of the priests and all of the children escaped from the fiery inferno unharmed. Miraculously, the only casualty was that of Alexander, who was still strapped to the seat of the Piper Cherokee, found in a restroom located on the second floor of the cafeteria.
Pablo Villescas was in class at Austin Junior High, roughly a mile-and-a-half from the site of the crash, when word began to spread about a fire at the shrine.
“The news was spreading right away that the shrine was burning,” Villescas said, who now works as the director of staff for the basilica. “We could see the smoke.”
He was 15-years-old at the time and employed as a member of the kitchen staff at the Catholic school cafeteria next to the shrine.
“There was another lady who worked with me there (at school),” Villescas recalled. “Her name was Lala, and we both worked at the cafeteria. I told her that the shrine was burning down and she said, ‘Wow!’ We were both stunned. ‘What’s gonna happen? Are we gonna have a job?’ Well we still had a job because we had to help clean up.”
Villescas described feeling a sense of loss — an emptiness at the thought of losing something that he said was taken for granted.
“It’s something that you’re always used to being there, and now it’s not there,” Villescas said. “You think, ‘It can never be replaced. It’ll be gone forever.’ What happens is you see how things manifest themselves. Out of a tragedy, something comes out and it just develops into something very positive.”
“You can’t kill faith. You can’t take that away from people.”
As the fire was extinguished, many gathered around the now charred church — only the exterior skeleton remaining of the 100-foot structure.
Villescas recalled seeing people going through the rubble as he helped clean the area. At the time, he thought they were helping to clean the church. Now, he believes that they were scavenging for artifacts.
“Right after the plane crash, there was a lot of confusion,” Villescas said. “A lot of people didn’t know what was going to happen. There was no sense of guidance. What do you do when a church like that burns and has so many relics inside? By the time we got together and said we need to save as much as we can, starting from the bricks to the bronze and gold statues. I could see people going through the rubble. I didn’t think anything about it. There was no fence until it was determined that people were taking stuff.”
Since then, the church has put forth extensive efforts to reclaim many artifacts from that day — artifacts not believed to have been lost in the fire.
There’s been some success. Villescas led Monitor reporters to a small building catty-corner to his office. He fumbled with his keys a bit before finding the right one, like a key to lost treasure. As the large door opened, there inside the room were dozens of artifacts believed to have been lost.
Among those retrieved artifacts include bronze and copper statues, stained glass windows, the charred tabernacle, and near a wall of the room lay the Piper Cherokee engine next to twisted metal wings.
Also among the artifacts are nearly a dozen chalices, which Villescas said he found and purchased from a garage sale two years ago for $2 to $3 each. Those artifacts, along with the statue of the Virgin and the tower of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church are all that remain.
“We plan to put this on display,” said Father Jorge Gomez, who serves as rector of the basilica. “There were 60 priests inside the shrine celebrating Mass, and one of them is still alive. He was singing when the plane crashed.”
“The most important thing was to save the statue and the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle,” Nicolau said, in his thick Catalán accent, the last living priest from that day. “I remember that the older priests were very scared to death. I remember one, Monsignor Ralph, we never forget that that man ran like crazy. He almost fell because he was scared to death.”
As he recalled the circumstances of that day, he stopped abruptly and slumped into his chair. His hands clasped his face, and he began to weep — 50 years of tears pouring out of him.
“To me now — I’m a man of a lot of faith — I believe that the Virgin Mary saved all the priests,” he said between sobs. “Now it is in my heart — every day.”