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A border fence could seal off a tiny Texas chapel, but its worshipers aren't giving up

Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

MISSION, Texas -- Dozens of people packed into the one-room chapel Friday to pray that the 19th century mission known as La Lomita, perched on a hill above the Rio Grande, won't be sealed off behind a border fence.

Worshipers bowed their heads during the Catholic novena prayer vigil, the latest of nine Masses that the Rev. Roy Snipes has held to oppose to the fence. The mayor of the town of Mission, his wife and the city manager stood with them among the rustic pews, and several police officers watched with the overflow crowd outside.

A Border Patrol agent sat in a marked SUV on a nearby levee, where the fence would be built, and watched.

"Never did we contemplate a wall" rising nearby, Snipes said.

Snipes -- known as "the cowboy priest" for his Stetson and pack of adopted stray dogs -- prayed in a mix of English and Spanish.

"Between reflection and hysteria and whatever else, Lord, we pray to be true to ourselves," Snipes, 73, told about 50 people in the chapel before blessing them with the holy water he draws from the river.

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The modest sandstone chapel is caught between the coming fence -- 18 feet high, made of steel bollards -- and the Rio Grande, the dividing line between the U.S. and Mexico.

Landowners said they saw crews arrive to clear brush this week several miles west of La Lomita for the fence. The $1.4 billion, 37-mile stretch of border barrier was funded by Congress last year. It is expected to rise atop the levee just north of the chapel, with a 150-foot "enforcement zone" to the south that would swallow the whitewashed outpost.

Snipes, who was ordained in the chapel in 1980, has been against the fence since October, when the Border Patrol filed a federal lawsuit to condemn land around the chapel and begin surveying.

He worries about the future of the mission, where he says priests once lived in a bunkhouse with stables and a blacksmith. He worries that it would block access and scare away the faithful, most of whom are Latino.

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