On a Mexico City Traffic Island
By Beverly Stevens
Photos by Michael Durnan and Beverly Stevens
It may be the smallest church in the largest metropolitan area in the western hemisphere. This delicate chapel, the Inmaculada Concepcion de María, was built centuries years ago, on the outskirts of Mexico City at Salto del Agua.
Today, this living reminder of Mexico’s Spanish colonial architecture is stranded incongruously on a Mexico City traffic island in the historic center.
The chapel rises like a ghostly apparition above the choking traffic exhaust inundating one of the poorest districts in this city of 21 million souls.
As people have abandoned the farming communities unable to compete against global agribusiness, they have migrated to the cities and across the US border.
Mexico City has quadrupled in size in the last 20 years. Many wind up here, in this jumbled urban neighborhood of crowded, narrow streets, jostling crowds, dirt and noise.
Migrants live in hazardous housing. Family-run shops belly up to perilous sidewalks left unrepaired for years; one false step could earn you broken bones.
In the midst of the Salto del Agua barrio, Inmaculada Concepcion de María has sat disused for decades, its lovely oil paintings and statuary in danger of destruction from water leaks and intense pollution.
Just 22 months ago, the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter assigned Fr. Kenneth Fryar here.
A native of Australia and fluent in Spanish, Fr. Fryar began to offer the Latin Mass at noon in the little chapel, every day.
REGINA: How long have you ministered as an FSSP priest in Mexico City?
FR KENNETH FRYAR, FSSP: As a priest I have lived in Mexico City since September 2014. Before that I used to travel twice per month to offer Mass for the Faithful in a chapel of the cathedral, called ‘Animas’ (‘Souls’).
REGINA: Mexico City is known as the least Catholic place in Mexico, with less than 10% attending weekly Mass there.
FR KENNETH FRYAR, FSSP: It seems that more recent statistics show an even lower percentage of Catholics attend Holy Mass on Sundays. There are obviously many reasons why people don’t want to go to Mass, but the main reason is the lack of interest in supernatural or spiritual realities. Materialism has a strong hold on the minds and hearts of the Faithful. Many of them would rather work on Sundays.
REGINA: Sounds like the Faith is of little importance, then, to people in Mexico City?
FR KENNETH FRYAR, FSSP: Most don’t understand or care that there is an obligation and a need to go to Mass every Sunday. For many God is not of any importance; they get baptism, First Holy Communion, and the other Sacraments more out of custom than out of real religious conviction.
“Some of the reforms that the government is implementing here cannot be accepted by Catholic Faithful, and many of them prefer not to be considered as such. Many people laugh about the Church and Her teachings, even publicly.”
REGINA: Your lovely chapel is colonial-era, today incongruously stranded on a traffic island in the midst of busy commercial thoroughfares. Do Mexicans value an architectural gem like this chapel?
FR KENNETH FRYAR, FSSP: There certainly are many Mexicans who value the beauty of the old churches in the city. Unfortunately, they are not only Catholics, so many enter the church gazing up and down, from side to side, often talking out loud, showing no respect at all for the holiness of the place, much less for the Divine Lord dwelling therein.
REGINA: We have seen the same phenomenon in Italy – so disconcerting to see people from a Catholic culture treat a church like a museum, right?
FR KENNETH FRYAR, FSSP: It seems like they have no idea why anyone would bother to build such edifices. It must be a real thorn in the side for the many atheists and neo-pagans to see that previous generations were so sure about the greatness of God that they often spent several decades building a single church to honor Him.
REGINA: You have been in your chapel for less than two years; how is the growth in your ‘congregation'?
FR KENNETH FRYAR, FSSP: The growth is relatively slow. None of our Faithful live close to the church. Most of the people that come have heard about us by word of mouth.
“Some of our Faithful had known the Extraordinary Form of Mass before, but the majority have discovered it here for the first time in their lives.”
“After having attended about three or four times they begin to feel a preference for this Form of the Mass.”
“Some of them feel that the way Mass is celebrated in their previous place of worship does not help them to grow spiritually, or that it does not draw them closer to God.”
REGINA: As you sweep through the neighborhoods in your cassock, what reactions do you get?
FR KENNETH FRYAR, FSSP: There are many varied reactions from the people on the street. Often they will greet the Priest.
“Some will ask for a blessing. Some will call out the name of a bad priest from a well-known movie. Others make comments in their conversation like: ‘There’s the priest, you should confess your sins…’”
REGINA: It seems you are attracting a cadre of young men who are interested in serving the Mass. Are they also interested in the priesthood?
FR KENNETH FRYAR, FSSP: Several of them have expressed interest in the priesthood with the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter, but the main difficulty for most of them is that they need to learn English in order to study at our Seminary in Lincoln, Nebraska. We would need lots of generous benefactors in order to establish a seminary for Spanish- speaking seminarians. In that case, there would certainly be more vocations to the traditional priesthood. Direct inquiries and donations here.