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October 2002 - Reappearance of a ghost

The monastery of Santiago Quechula rises from its watery grave ...






The facade of Santiago Quechula in the 1940s,

sketch based on a rare photograph by Heinrich Berlin >

With the construction in the 1960s of the Malpaso hydroelectric dam across the Grijalva River, in the Zoque region of northern Chiapas, several upriver communities were inundated and their inhabitants relocated.

Chief among these was the ancient village of Quechula. A substantial Zoque speaking center before the Spanish conquest, Quechula was evangelized in the mid-1500s by the Dominican friar Antonio de Pamplona and chosen as the site for a major mission town. Initially a simple visita, Santiago Quechula later became a mission in its own right, subject only to the grand Dominican priory at Tecpatán. By the early 1600s, an imposing church and convento had risen in Quechula.

Related architecturally to other Dominican missions in the region, in particular that of nearby Tecpatán, the Quechula church front displayed several distinctive features, notably its unusual double choir window and large archway enclosing the recessed west porch. The openings are framed in typical Dominican fashion by rounded, Romanesque arches with continuous stepped jambs. Massed pilasters with sculpture niches enliven both the lower and upper facade. The latter was originally crowned by a grand triangular pediment. Other classic Dominican stylistic features include the prominent exterior running cornices and the cylindrical exterior stairway.

Although roofless and partly ruined by the mid-1900s, the facade remained intact. Submerged beneath the rising waters, it seemed that the church would be lost to view forever. In 2002, however, because of drought conditions in the region and the seasonal need to relieve pressure and release impounded water to the parched communities downstream, the lake level behind the dam was dramatically lowered.

This past September, for the first time in 40 years, the church was exposed once more. Townspeople from the new settlement of Nuevo Quechula, as well as many former natives from other communities, made a pilgrimage to their ancestral village to view the remains of the colonial church and pay their respects to Santiago, the traditional patron saint of Quechula.

Men and women who had left the area as children returned as grandparents, arriving by canoe and celebrating the re-emergence with music dancing and prayers, according to the Mexico City News

They are now calling on the government to restore the monastery, both as a tourist attraction and, as a local priest termed it, "a temple of God that cannot be destroyed."

"The water wiped out everything," said Don "Gilito" Vasquez, a 100 year old former resident who had returned, "now, the monastery is time's only witness."

The flood gates, however, will soon be closed again and the monastery once more submerged, its seemingly miraculous reappearance destined to become just a memory.

November update: Water levels continue to remain low, widening the window of opportunity to view this remarkable reappearance.

New pictures of the Quechula mission have just been posted by Conaculta in Chiapas.

  • text and pictures ©Richard D. Perry 2002
  • for more on the Spanish colonial buildings of Chiapas, consult our guidebook, MORE MAYA MISSIONS and other webpages on this site.
  • map of Zoque area missions of Chiapas.
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