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  • San Agustín Cathedral of the Diocese of Laredo

Laredo: San Agustín Cathedral Gets Makeover for Diocese’s 20th Anniversary

Feature Photo (above): Interior view of San Agustín Cathedral. Courtesy: Diocese of Laredo.

Posted: 10-29-2018

by Adolfo Pesquera

Laredo (Webb County) — The Roman Catholic Diocese of Laredo is poised to begin the renovation of its 19th century cathedral, possibly before the end of the year and roughly 13 months after the capital campaign was launched.

San Agustín Cathedral was constructed in 1872 and went through a major remodel in 1944-45. Last week, Diocesan research efforts received documentation from the Southwestern Oblate Historical Archives indicating that the 1944 project expanded the building length by 40 feet.

Until very recently, there have been no significant modifications since the 1950s. The installation of the air conditioning system and fixed stained glass windows were accomplished in 1953, according to Oblate records.

There have been numerous maintenance and restoration projects ongoing over the past five years, most notably the stabilization of the tower foundation in 2013 and the more recent and still ongoing craftsmanship work on the restoration of historic stained glass windows.

“Still, the major preservation project will start December or January. The construction manager at risk is already on board pricing the project,” M. Teresa Fonseca, AIA, told VBX. Fonseca is facilities manager of the Diocese of Laredo.

cut-away view of a renovated San Agustín Cathedral, with the expanded sanctuary (upper right). Courtesy: Diocese of Laredo.

Cut-away view of a renovated San Agustín Cathedral, with the expanded sanctuary (upper right). Courtesy: Diocese of Laredo.

The goal is to complete the restoration of Laredo’s most prominent landmark by August 9, 2020, in time for a 20th anniversary celebration. St. Pope John Paul II created the Diocese in 2000 out of territory from the Archdiocese of San Antonio and the Diocese of Corpus Christi–portions of which had been part of the Diocese of Brownsville.

When the Diocese of Laredo was created, the Pope chose San Agustín Church to be the Cathedral. But the church was not originally designed to the liturgical specifications needed of a cathedral. A redesign of the interior became a major impetus of the four-year capital campaign, along with the seriously needed repairs due to aging of the structure and its building systems.

The coat of arms for the City of Laredo features the cathedral (lower right).

The coat of arms for the City of Laredo features the cathedral (lower right).

San Agustín Cathedral is important to the Diocese, but it is also important to the City of Laredo. It is the border city’s most beloved landmark and appears prominent on the city’s coat of arms and official logos. The cathedral is the most famous of many historic buildings in the San Agustín de Laredo Historic District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Building Origins

The historical record is not clear on details about its design and construction, as well as on later modifications. Fonseca said she has been corresponding with the Southwestern Oblate Historical Archives of San Antonio, in hopes of locating architectural records. The Oblates of Mary Immaculate, known as the Oblate Fathers, constructed the church and assisted San Agustín during its formative years.

They were responsible for the administration of the San Agustín parish and its satellite churches between 1922 and 1985.

Most of what is known about the building’s past is based on forensic examinations of the building’s elements itself, as well as the ongoing search for historic documentation and historic photographs.

The existing structure is the third church to have been built on the site. Laredo was founded in 1755 and a chapel was built in 1759. It was soon replaced with a church that was constructed from 1761-1764.

San Agustín Church (right) as it appeared in an 1892 3D hand drawn map. It was expanded in the 1940s.

San Agustín Church (right) as it appeared in an 1892 3D hand drawn map. It was expanded in the 1940s.

The stone walls of San Agustín did not come from a quarry. They are entirely of rubble masonry–the use of rough stone piled into place.

At the commencement of construction, Fonseca said, “There was a plea from the French priest, Assistant Pastor Alphonse Souchon, asking the ranchers, ‘Go out and bring stones so that we can start our campaign to build a permanent structure.'”

The rubble stone was covered with enjarre (plaster) on the exterior and interior. Today, in places where the plaster is cracked and dilapidated, the stone textures are visible.

Cut-away view of the bell tower. Courtesy: Diocese of Laredo.

Cut-away view of the bell tower. Courtesy: Diocese of Laredo.

The bell tower was part of the 1872 project, although it was not completed until 1876. The tower was raised in 1922 to add a fifth platform for the installation of a four-sided clock chamber.

The tower had to be stabilized in 2013 because it was beginning to separate from the church and was leaning away from it. The origins of the tower separation are unknown, but an early 20th century storm is a suspected contributing factor.

“There is a story that in 1905 there was a tornado. Maybe it was a storm related to a hurricane, but (local historian) Stan Green stated it ‘toppled steeples all over town, but it seemed that San Agustín was spared.’ This one didn’t fall, but perhaps the cracking was noticed at this point,” Fonseca said.

Much of the cracking in the southwest section of the church floor, ceiling and adjacent walls resulted from the tower shifting. The stabilization of the tower subsequently also caused some buckling to the roof.

Mario Peña of Hickey Peña Architects is the project’s lead architect. He also collaborates with Frank Architects on historic considerations.

“The foundation was definitely not stable until 2013,” Peña told VBX. “The whole building seems to be–from the research we’ve done and from the pictures we’ve seen–at some point pier and beam. It seems the church had a wood floor.”

A floating slab on grade was installed later, but the project team hasn’t found a record of when that happened. Once the pews are moved and church services temporarily relocated to Santa Monica Hall next door, more exploratory bores are planned for the center of the slab.

“We do have reason to believe that some of that slab is moving a bit. When we redo the terrazzo (flooring), we don’t want it to continue cracking,” Peña said.

In architectural style, the cathedral is neo-Gothic or Gothic Revival, although that form has taken shape over many years.

“The church does have some Gothic elements,” Peña said, as evidenced by the tower and the shape of the stained glass windows. “There are some early pictures where the Gothic shapes and proportions aren’t quite there yet. It’s like it got reshaped into that as the various campaigns modified it through the years.”

The original façade was simpler, Fonseca added. When the building was expanded, the columns changed and the Gothic style vaulted plaster ceiling seen today became a more prominent feature.

The Cathedra

A Catholic cathedral is the mother church of a diocese. It is distinguished from other churches by its Cathedra, a seat in the sanctuary section of the interior reserved for the bishop.

Laredo Bishop James Tamayo. Courtesy of the Diocese.

Laredo Bishop James Tamayo. Courtesy of the Diocese.

“The Cathedral takes its name from that” said Laredo Bishop James A. Tamayo. “The chair symbolizes the role of the teacher–the role of the bishop as the first teach of the faith.”

At San Agustín, the sanctuary area is too small to host the celebrations, such as ordinations, that are unique to a cathedral. The sanctuary needs to be expanded so as to adapt for special liturgical ceremonies.

The $11 million capital campaign was named “Our Story–Our Faith–Our Cathedral. Its goals include numerous preservation, restoration and upgrade projects. These include expansion of the second story choir loft, accessed from the tower, to accommodate instruments; restoration of the pipe organ; installation of modern acoustics and an audio-visual system; new restrooms; new lighting; a HVAC system with off-site chiller; and removal of an unsightly exposed exterior duct system above the sacristy.

“After the altar was extended, a mechanical room was placed on top of the roof and it is blocking the east light from coming in through the medieval stained glass windows flanking the altar,” Fonseca explained.

There are so many elements scheduled for an upgrade that once the project is complete, taking in all the changes may be almost overwhelming to parishioners. It’s more than can be appreciated by a single casual walk-through. But one of the upgrades that is sure to catch the eye of Laredoans is the exterior clock–rather, the four clocks of the bell tower. Secondly, hearing the sound of all five historic bells which have been quiet for years.

Artist rendering (left) of a renovated San Agustín Cathedral. Google Earth view (right) of the cathedral in the historic district.

Artist rendering (left) of a renovated San Agustín Cathedral. Google Earth view (right) of the cathedral in the historic district.

Bishop Tamayo indicated the clocks were not in working order in 2000 and no one could recall when they last operated.

The Verdin Company of Cincinnati, Ohio–the same family-owned church bell and tower clock firm that worked on the clocks and bells in 1956–will do the current repairs. The clock faces are 7 feet in diameter. One face is broken and will be replaced.

“The metal work, that’s the dial with the numbers, will be restored and then all the mechanism will be restored and modernized,” Fonseca said.

The diocese is holding in reserve its option of relocating some of the 1922 clockworks or modernizing them.

“At one point, we thought about removing the old mechanism, which is no longer functioning, and putting it in our museum,” Fonseca said. “Now, if we no longer need the additional space adjacent to the choir loft for audio-visual equipment, we’ll go ahead and leave the mechanism there and ask what it will take to make it somewhat functional for demonstrational purposes.”

Either way, when the preservation and rehabilitation project is finished, all the cracks, shifts and incongruous mishaps that accumulated over decades will disappear, and the clack hands will sputter unstuck, keeping pace with daily life in 21st century Laredo.

Other Project Team Members:

  • JC Stoddard Construction Co. / Construction Manager
  • Synergy Structural Engineering Inc. / Structural Engineer
  • Trinity MEP Engineering PLLC / MEP Engineer
  • Dickensheets Design Associates / AV/IT/Acoustical Consultant
  • Cathedral Stained Glass Studio / Art Glass
Interior concept rendering of the renovated cathedral. Courtesy: Diocese of Laredo.

Interior concept rendering of the renovated cathedral. The Cathedra (bishop’s seat) can be seen on the left side (point of view of parishioners in the nave) of the sanctuary. Courtesy: Diocese of Laredo.

The Diocese of Laredo is collecting historic photos, stories and more. Share with the Facilities Management Office at (956) 727-2140 or tfonseca@dioceseoflaredo.org.


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About the Author:

Adolfo Pesquera (Reporter/Editor) is a veteran news journalist. He has worked for Hearst Corp., American Lawyer Media, News Corp and Freedom Communications. His work has been published in newspapers and magazines across the USA. He is a journalism graduate of UT-RGV. He writes, edits and creates digital pages for VBX.