San Juan shrine draws thousands - Brownsville Herald: Local News

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San Juan shrine draws thousands

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Posted: Monday, July 29, 2002 12:00 am

By Jennine Zeleznik

The Monitor

SAN JUAN The vast Italian-tile mosaic of Jesus and the Virgin rises like a

beacon from the surrounding greenery, drawing thousands of the faithful to

pray at the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan Del Valle.

They come to pray, and to open their pocketbooks to the areas many

restaurants, hotels and gift shops.

People come not only for the spiritual aspect of the shrine, but for the

touristic one as well, said Monsignor Juan Nicolau, the Basilicas rector.

People come from vacationing on (South Padre) Island and say they will go to

visit the shrine. You havent come to the (Rio Grande) Valley if you havent

seen the shrine.

The basilica draws about 20,000 people every week, many of whom stay in the

area for a few days, Nicolau said.

When Mass is over, the basilica offers shopping opportunities. It runs an

almost 7,600 square foot gift shop with sales that reach, on average,

$225,000 per month as well as a cafeteria and hotel.

Every weekend, all 96 rooms at the Pilgrim House are booked, said Julie

Alvarado, who works at the basilica.

During Lent, we have reservations for years ahead, she said.

The basilica also has a nationally recognized mariachi group that in the past

year alone has sold more than 100,000 compact discs, Nicolau said.

That money, as well as that generated by candle sales, donations and the

basilicas other venues, goes right back into the operation, he said.

Many people, but especially the poorest of the poor, are those who give money

to the shrine, Nicolau said. I am very conscious about what happens with

that money. This is a very big institution and, economically speaking, I have

to run it like a business.

Every month, he gives a report to the board of directors and to Bishop

Raymundo Pea, head of the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville, which oversees the

South Texas region. Twice a year, an independent auditor checks the basilicas

finances, Nicolau said.

He said this shrine is one of the most-visited in the United States. And

although the economic impact of so many visitors is difficult to measure, area

merchants say they do feel the effects.

The church is our main business, said Roberto Flores, a manager at the

nearby Days Inn on Raul Longoria Road in San Juan. Almost every weekend, all

90 rooms at the motel are booked, he said.

San Juans restaurants, too, enjoy the business.

If you drive around on the weekend, youll see that the restaurants are

packed, said Estela Salazar, president of the San Juan Chamber of Commerce.

The city of San Juan has plans that will draw visitors to its own downtown in

coming years, said City Manager Jorge Arcaute.

City planners are working to beautify the downtown area with brick-paved

sidewalks and old-fashioned street lamps.

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