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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

"The only disturbance will be if they rile the old ladies," Snipes said as he stood outside La Lomita after Mass, referring to the women who attend services regularly. "I don't know if you've ever riled a viejita, but they might give the surveyors a hard time."

The priest said he was more worried about what comes after the survey for the fence, which he called "obnoxious and obscene." The government could move to seize the land, as they have in other parts of the valley, claiming eminent domain.

The city of Mission draws its name from the chapel, a former mission for oblate priests like Snipes. Mission Mayor Armando "Mando" O'Cana, 64, a former altar boy, has belonged to the surrounding parish all of his life. The former educator and city councilman says he supports added border security, but he doesn't want to see the chapel cut off behind a fence.

"It's not only a physical barrier, it's a symbol," he said.

O'Cana, who like many in the valley describes himself as a "conservative Democrat," told President Donald Trump how he feels when he met the president during his visit to McAllen last month. The mayor also asked for more information about the fence project. Trump paid attention and directed an aide to follow up, O'Cana said. Ten days ago, the mayor met with the new Rio Grande Border Patrol chief, who promised that the fence would not restrict access to the chapel.

"He sounded very sincere," O'Cana said before leaving La Lomita to attend the Border Patrol chief's first "state of the border" address at the local convention center.

Others lingered after Mass. The temperature had dipped overnight into the 40s, and the sun barely rose in a gray sky spitting rain. So they built a campfire outside the church entrance and sang a hymn as the priest blessed them again with Rio Grande holy water. Next to the chapel, the city had erected a blue and white striped tent, where volunteers set out Mexican hot chocolate, Shipley's coffee, breakfast tacos, pan dulce and sugary, home-fried bunuelos.

Gracie Ramos and some childhood friends pulled folding chairs together to reminisce about "our Lomita." They had worried they would find it closed, locked or blocked.


"We don't want it to be isolated," said Ramos, 69, a retired AT&T worker.

Until the issue is resolved, Snipes told those outside the church, he plans to continue holding Friday morning Masses at La Lomita in opposition to the fence.

"Saddle up," he said, "And come on down."

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