SAN JUAN, Texas (ValleyCentral) — It has been more than half a century since a local pilot crashed his plane into the original Our Lady of San Juan del Valle Shrine.
While the crash forever changed the church, what could have been an incredible tragedy ended up becoming a miracle.
“People started to come more and more because they saw that as a miracle, and I say that as a manifestation as well,” said Fr. Jorge Gomez. “Our lady wanted to stay here because the statue didn’t burn down.”
On Oct. 23, 1970, flying instructor Frank Alexander flew a single-engine plane into the shrine that was filled with people.
Fr. Jorge Gomez who is the current Rector of the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan Del Valle tells ValleyCentral that what happened next was nothing short of a miracle.
“Nobody died because there were about 50 priests celebrating mass inside and children in the school that was next to the building, except for the pilot,” Gomez said.
The Virgen of San Juan statue which was placed on the altar was saved from the raging inferno and now sits inside the basilica we know today. The basilica was built a decade after the plane crash.
Even though many years have passed, the basilica still has reminders of that fateful day. Multiple plane parts including the engine, a wing, and a piece of the propeller are stored in a room on the basilica grounds.
When Fr. Gomez became Rector in 2017, he found the plane parts left thrown outside where the shrine once stood and had been there since the crash.
Fr. Gomez took it upon himself to preserve the plane parts along with other religious artifacts that were pulled from the rubble.
“I said, what are they doing outside?” Gomez said. “We need to have them inside and protect them because it is a part of our history now.”
As the Basilica was being built over the span of 10 years, it was all thanks to the many donations from migrant farm workers. The basilica honors those farm workers every year during its Migrant Welcoming Festival.
Fr. Gomez believes it is this history that has made the basilica the epicenter of Catholicism in the Rio Grande Valley.
“People come for devotion to pray to give thanks,” Fr. Gomez said. “ It is just moving to see people holding a candle and newborn babies and new mothers giving thanks for the babies.”
Fr. Gomez adds he plans to put a museum at the basilica to display the artifacts that survived the crash. The Basilica of Our lady of San Juan is the second most visited church in the U.S seeing up to 20,000 people a week.