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'Our church deserves better': Families gather to clean Our Lady chapel after vandalism
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'Our church deserves better': Families gather to clean Our Lady chapel after vandalism

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Sometime between late Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday, a vandal with a can of cherry red spray paint vandalized a number of local landmarks. R.C. Gorman’s statue honoring the Navajo Code Talkers was tagged with three letters, the N word was sprayed across the wall of a title loan business on Route 66 across from the Chamber of Commerce, and the Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel was desecrated with a message sprayed across the front door and a nearby statue of Jesus on the cross.

According to Sgt. Charles Hernandez, spokesperson for the Flagstaff Police Department, a suspect is in custody who is believed to be responsible for the vandalism.

The vandalism to the Catholic church drew a rapid response from two local Flagstaff families, the Garcias and the Velascos, who have lived here for generations starting just after the founding of the city.

“Our families have been here a long time. My grandmother came to Flagstaff at the age of 3. She’s been here since 1886, 10 years after the city was first settled. She lived in in Plaza Vieja, Old Town. Her name was Sophia Garcia and she came to Flagstaff with her parents by wagon train from Fort Davis, Texas," Loretta Velasco said. "My father’s family came here after the Mexican Revolution in 1912."

Sitting in the Coconino Estates home of Lupe and Loretta Velasco, members of the Garcia and Velasco families talked about the Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel and their reactions to its desecration.

“I got a phone call from my brother Brandon Garcia, who is really close with the church," said Loretta’s daughter-in-law Stephanie Velasco. "He had been called by Father Matt Lowry at 4 p.m. saying that the church got vandalized and he doesn’t know how to get the spray paint off.

"Brandon called me and said 'hey, this happened, do you have time to clean?' and I said sure. I called my husband and my husband called his parents and we all rushed over there to start cleaning.”

“We were just devastated. There was red graffiti on the doors and above on the window and then there was graffiti all over the statue and the white part of the cross. By the time we got there, Father Will Schmid had already been there and Brandon was already there. We didn’t know what to do, really.

Stephanie's father Lupe Velasco chimed in: "Marty Garcia from La Fonda had been notified and he came over with a power sprayer and they started scrubbing down. It took quite a while; we ran to get some steel wool. We were there as a group trying to get rid of it all. There were three generations of two families, the Garcias and Velascos.

“The Corpus (the statue of the crucified Jesus) was covered in red spray paint. Father Will and a couple of the seminarians took it down because Father Will said he knew someone who he thought would be able to fix it. My wife Loretta and I put it up a couple of years ago. We had a chance to go to Mexico to see my relatives. I went with the intention of hoping to bring back something. The old statue was in really bad shape and we thought that if we could bring something back, we could replace it and make it like new again, so we took it upon ourselves to take the old one out and put a new one in."

“It was probably the oldest statue that had been there. Vaughn Oliver had tried to repair it, but it was made mainly of cement. It was looking sad. We wanted something good for our church,” Lupe’s wife, Loretta, added.

“It really hurts me because this is our church, it’s been our church since it was built and we’ve lost it several times along the way, so we are trying to keep it still a part of us. So to have somebody do that it just broke my heart. This was our sanctuary. It’s the oldest church in Flagstaff.”

“The church was started in the 1920s when several members of the Hispanic community were being oppressed for praying in a white church, so what they ended up doing was building their own church. They came together as a community and families came together.” said Juan Carlos Ortiz Velasco, 17, Lupe and Loretta’s grandson.

“We were told by our parents that they didn’t want you at Nativity. If you sat down in any pew and somebody paid for it you could not sit down in that pew, you had to stand in the back of the church, they just didn’t want you there," Loretta said.

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“It led to the community to build this church. They hauled their own lumber, they hauled their own stone to build the magnificent church that it is today and it all started because the Hispanic community was asked to leave from the white church, they were not allowed to pray,” Juan Carlos said.

Sitting with her children and grandchildren around the family dining room table Loretta Velasco let out a heavy sigh and reflected on the mood in her city.

“I’m tired of the hate, I'm tired of the bickering. This is not Flagstaff. It’s a peaceful community where everybody got along and all of a sudden it’s not. Our town needs to be left alone where we are not destroying property that is very sentimental in value. I heard that they desecrated the Native American statue on campus as part of this. Father Will told me that the person that they have in custody did it to other places too.

"Lupe and I were driving down Santa Fe and we saw the graffiti on the side of the building that houses the loan place there was graffiti on the wall. I didn't catch the top part but I did catch the bottom part -- it said the N word. It feels like someone is trying to provoke. If they did that on the wall with the N word then they went to the Hispanic church and desecrated our church and then they went to NAU and desecrated a Native American statue. So to me whether they mean to send it or not, they’re sending me a message that they are targeting us, trying to stir things up. I’m thinking, is this a hate crime? Is it racially motivated?” Loretta added.

“What happened at the church today was unfortunate, but it’s not going to dampen our spirits," said Loretta’s son Miguel Velasco. "It's not going to take away from what we believe in, what we have lived through in the past, and we are just going to keep moving forward and do the best that we can and the most positive things that we can for our community. Flagstaff is a great place to live, born and raised, for all the changes I can’t think of any place else to be. Things change, but we can’t forget lessons from the past, the good things from the past. We just have to keep moving forward and do the best we can for everybody.”

On Thursday afternoon, Father Schmid and parish manager Anna Hoffman sat inside Our Lady of Guadalupe to talk about their reactions to the vandalism.

“I didn’t know if someone had broken in, if the damage was affiliated with the riots and protests around the county -- I just didn’t know. When I saw the door I was upset, but when I saw the crucifix my heart just sank because that’s an image of our Lord, you know, that image reflects who we follow, who we love. He’s our beloved," Schmid said. "I was in shock. Anna and I just stood there for five minutes, not saying much, just waiting for the Flagstaff Police Department to get there. They got there very quickly, within 15 minutes of getting the call. Within another 15 minutes of that an officer came back and said we believe this graffiti is affiliated with a number of others and we have a suspect in custody. We think it’s the same person.”

“The heavy heart, the anger, the disappointment started to subside because I saw these families step in and just take ownership. They were heartbroken too, but they just said we have to cover this up, people don’t need to see this. Whatever this is, this is not of the Lord. We need to get this off this door. Within an hour of them showing up, the graffiti was gone. I think that’s a greater reflection of Flagstaff than the graffiti. People stepped up. Anna told me we received a number of phone calls today from people in the community saying 'how can we help, this is not right.'”

Schmid said when he saw "Illuminati or Die" on the doors, he realized it wasn't connected to the recent protests, but rather someone who was unhealthy in heart or mind -- or both. He said he prayed for the person in accordance with a recent gospel message from earlier in the week.

"I thought of this person -- I don’t know who they are, but I pray that they can have healing, that they don’t think this is a bad place, a place that should be destroyed or vandalized, that their heart might change towards whatever their perception is towards this place. If they hate minorities, I hope that wound in their heart is healed."

I saw the fruit of the community coming together and thought how beautiful is this? I think God can take the evil that is brought about by humanity and turn it into a great blessing and that’s what the crucifix is a symbol of, that God can take the evil of sin and turn it into salvation.” Fr. Schmid said.

Speaking about the future of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel Father Schmid addressed how the parish has recently renovated the basement and sees its use as a community faith center.

“I want to utilize this space and I would agree with any of the families that want to utilize this more but I want to be very intentional about it. I don’t want to just open a building just for the sake of opening a building. We do use this building quite a bit. Probably half of our funerals are here, many of our funeral receptions where we have food and a space for grieving families are done here. We have different ministries within our church that utilize this chapel, the basement and the convent next door. We use this space quite a bit but we haven’t used it in three months because we’ve been in Covid. I’ve noticed in the three months that we haven’t used it we have had issues. That poses a challenge, when it’s not being used for a long period of time it’s hard to keep an eye on it.

“We just completed a renovation of the basement.” said Hoffman. “We were going to have a big open house so that people could come and see and then Covid hit.

For now, thanks to the fast work of local families and the ongoing commitment of the San Francisco de Asis parish the Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel is safe. The Corpus statue of a crucified Jesus will be sent to a specialist in Phoenix for repair and will be replaced on the cross once again outside.

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