Below the floor

I WENT TO church yesterday. Basilica, actually, but I went to basilica doesn’t sound right, bounces off the ear funny.

Driving down the cobblestone street, I passed the basilica and got a hair up my backside, so I parked and went up the long stone walkway to the huge old door. I didn’t have to doff my hat because I’d left the hat in the Honda.

dahliaI went inside and sat on one of the shellacked pine pews, in a spot where the place to kneel was flipped up because I don’t kneel and because the kneeling things make it a tight squeeze for feet. I like legroom.

The basilica ceiling is very high. In spite of its being a small town here, the Spaniards built a first-class operation. You can’t have a puny basilica. It makes a bad impression on God, or I imagine that’s how it would be seen.

It was late afternoon, too late for Mass or perhaps too early, or both. Not a priest in sight. There had been a powerful rain, and few folks were inside the basilica with me, perhaps seven or so. It was grandly decorated with massive buntings, red, white and gold, hanging from on high. And floods of fresh flowers.

There were three confessionals and electronic candles because wax candles have gone the way of most full-penguin nuns, a thing of the old days. Nuns want to be comfortable, and nobody wants to burn the basilica down.

You do forfeit the nice smell of hot wax.

We have our own Virgin Mary. She’s named La Señora de la Salud. All over Mexico, towns and villages have their own local Virgin Marys. I really don’t get it, all those Virgin Marys instead of just the one. Our local Virgin Mary, made of cane paste and very old, sits up high in a glass-enclosed perch in the basilica. People here take her very seriously.

I sit in the basilica every couple of months, and I always look at the marble floor and think of who’s beneath it: my brother-in-law, the one who accidentally shot himself to death with a little .22-caliber pistol some years back. There are tombs down there. You descend narrow steps under a ventilation grate in the floor.

If you didn’t know it was there, you’d just walk right over it, thinking of other things, not of all the rotting corpses below. I’ve been down two or three times, those tombs where Catholic people spend eternity.

On leaving the basilica, walking back down the long stone walkway, you have the option of crossing the cobblestone street and continuing ahead. Four blocks down a hillside, on a perpendicular street, sits another church, almost as big, but not a basilica, just a normal Catholic church.

I don’t visit there. I don’t sit. I know no one below the floor.

22 thoughts on “Below the floor

  1. The basilica is always a pleasant place to visit. What strikes me odd about the place is that it is only one-third (or one-fifth, I forget which right now) of the size originally envisioned by Don Vasco when he dreamed of a great cathedral on top of the hill. He too has a final resting place there. But, unlike your benighted brother-in-law, he has a fancy tomb stamped with spooky Masonic symbols. I have yet to descend into the bowels of the basilica to visit the departed. But I always stop to see Don Vasco.


      1. It was Don Vasco’s intention to make your humble pueblo the capital of Michoacan. He was a Spanish judge sent to Mexico to fix the Indian problem and was made a bishop after he got here.


  2. When I became an accredited Tourguide, one of the hardest things I had to study was Catholic churches, mostly because there were many new words about the architectural part of them I had never heard before such as boveda, nave, etc., but there are differences between a regular church and a basilica. A basilica has a higher ranking because it is used for special rituals attended by the bishop, and usually basilicas are pilgrimage sites because they contain something considered miraculous.

    There is a basilica here in Apizaco, Tlaxcala, fairly new in comparison with other religious sites. It was built in the 1930s. It has a copy of a painting of the Virgin of Rimini (Italy), which was claimed that the eyes were seen to move.
    Trying to sort out the Saints of course can be quite difficult, We get more all the time, and many are waiting in line to be sainted, There are the three children martyrs of Atlihuetzia, Tlaxcala who fall into this category, Their father killed them because they destroyed Aztec Idols he had hidden from the Spanish and was worshipping in the 1500’s.

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  3. As the lone Russian Orthodox boy in the Catholic school in SF, we had to march, weekly some 5 or 6 blocks to the Great St Mary’s Cathedral on Van Ness which some nogoodnik set flame to one Friday night.
    The aroma of the candles you speak of, along with the massive echo of the large edifice, has been in my memory for years. Each time I visit or show visiting guests the Basilica it instantly transports me to those days in the ’50s.

    You no longer see any massive structures like those nowadays, they are all just large boxes stacked at various angles on top of or next to each other with a cross perched on the top.

    I doubt they will exhume the same kind of memories of other visitors years from now as the old ones do.


    1. Tancho: Whatever one might think of the Catholic religion, it does know how to built a structure. Protestant churches pale in comparison. For sitting, you can’t beat the Catlicks, as my old mama used to call them.


  4. The most impressive (Church – Basilica) I have seen in Mexico was in Taxco. The Fresno paintings were beyond belief.


    1. Señor Peterson: I was in Taxco just once, in 2004, but I don’t recall that church. The most impressive church I’ve seen here is in Morelia on Avenida Tata Vasco where it intersects with Calz. Fran Antonio de San Miguel. What sets that one apart is the spectacular interior paint job. The church is very popular for weddings.


  5. Under-the-church-floor burials fascinate me. It seems irreverent but I’m sure those interments were meant to be extra spiritual for the deceased. On one of our trips to Europe, Germany specifically, we walked through the countryside and passed a small church, the basement of which was filled to overflowing with bones from emptied tombs to make room for the newly dead.


    1. Carole: A few years before my mentally challenged bro-in-law did himself in by accident, he and his sister had their mama dug up from somewhere and replanted below the floor in that same church. He was so proud.


  6. Nice post Felipe.
    I like visiting old churches. And that sounds like one to visit with La Señora de la Salud in its presence. But, I do kneel, before I sit. Don’t know if it’s the Catlik or the spiritual…

    Does the Basilica have a lot of wood in its structure to permeate the aroma of frankincense and myrrh?


    1. Hi, Andean: Like most churches in Mexico, it’s mostly stone and concrete, but lots of wood on the inside. As for frankincense and myrrh, I don’t know if I would recognize them if I smelled them. But I like the words.


  7. I am not Catholic, but of another faith. My wife is a twice in her life Catholic. That means that they go to church for baptism and funeral. In between, they get by with magnetic icons on the fridge.

    The old Villa de Guadalupe I found to be impressive. The newer building seems to bear an uncanny resemblance to the bus stations. Did they have the same architect?

    I find myself uncomfortable in Catholic churches. Years ago, we were in the church in Tlaquepaque. My wife and her sister were lighting their umpteenth candles.

    I was just sitting in the pew. In came five teen age boys. They asked me to hear their confession.

    To this day, I wonder just what they would have told me.


    1. Señor Gill: Magnets, confessions and twice-yearly Catholics. I like all that. Do you look like a priest? My second ex-wife was a recovering Catholic, so I’m a bit familiar with the breed. Of course, in Mexico I am surrounded by them.

      The “new” Guadalupe church in Mexico City very much, I think, resembles its times, the early 1970s. I have been there just once, but it seemed to have a very definite psychedelic air about it, as if it had been designed by Timothy Leary.


      1. Yes, I may have looked like a priest. They may have mistaken my stupor for religious contemplation.

        On another note, by my computations, you should be turning seventy this month. If so, happy birthday.

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        1. Señor Gill: Stupor indeed. I like that too. As for your mysterious computations regarding my age, you are correct. A post to mark that dreary milestone is already waiting in the wings.


      2. Felipe: Those were the days my friend. Mexico had its own version of Richard Nixon, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, who slaughtered 100s of protesting students at Mexico’s own Tiananmen Square, aka the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968, just prior to the Olympics. It is not surprising the outrage over this event may have contributed to a psychedelic church.


        1. Those were the days indeed, Señor Andrés. However, I doubt outrage at Tlateloco had anything to do with the church design. I think it was simply the times that caused it. Everybody was stoned.


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