This Day in Texas History: Plane Crashes Into Religious Shrine

This Day in Texas History:

Plane Crashes Into Religious Shrine

October 23, 1970

On this day in 1970, the lower Rio Grande Valley town of San Juan made international headlines when Francis B. Alexander smashed a rented single-engine plane into the Virgen de San Juan del Valle Shrine.

San Juan Plane CrashThe town of San Juan was organized in 1909 by John Closner near his San Juan Plantation. In 1949 Father Joseph Azpiazu brought to his San Juan parish a replica of the image of Our Lady of San Juan, venerated at San Juan de Los Lagos in Jalisco, Mexico. The image is a statue about three feet high, clothed in traditional robes. Soon the church became a place of pilgrimage for many Mexican Americans in Texas; on weekends hundreds of pilgrims would come to San Juan to pray. The crowds grew, and in 1954 the construction of a larger shrine was completed and dedicated by Father Azpiazu.

On the day of the 1970 crash the pilot had reportedly radioed a warning that all Methodist and Catholic churches in the lower Rio Grande Valley should be evacuated, then twenty minutes later struck the shrine, which at the time was occupied by more than 130 people. The pilot was the only fatality. Two priests were able to save the statue of the Virgin, but damages to the shrine were estimated at $1.5 million and were a devastating blow to the community.

A mass effort was initiated to reconstruct the church. In April 1980 San Juan again made international headlines when the new shrine was dedicated; the televised ceremonies were shown nationally on the Spanish Information Network.

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One Reply to “This Day in Texas History: Plane Crashes Into Religious Shrine”

  1. I grew up in San Jaun and remember well the destruction of the church. I was 27 years old at the time. The story behind the disaster was told to me by my mother, who knew the people involved. David Alexander had married a woman who had previously worked as a prostitute in Reynosa. My mother had taught us not to look down at these women, explaining that people in Mexico at that time were crushed by poverty to the extent that many could not afford to feed, clothe or get medical care for their families. David Alexander’s wife was a devout Catholic and attended mass regularly at The Church of the Virgin. She also worked as a volunteer keeping the children in the church nursery. Some of women in the church, disregarding the teachings of Jesus, complained that they did not want a former prostitute taking care of the children. Mrs. Alexander was then forbidden to work in the nursery. She was so humiliated and depressed by this rebuff that she committed suicide. It was in retaliation that the bereft David Alexander destroyed the church. Of course this is not a justification, but it was the reason he did it. I have never seen the story in print, even though it was well known to many people.

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