If you drive along the expressway, now I-2, heading south from Pharr – which I coverd last week – you will find Pharr’s neighboring cities, that all share a school district with, San Juan and Alamo.
The most distinct thing about San Juan is the Our Lady of San Juan del Valle shrine. It was designated a national shrine in 1998 and the following year, Pope John Paul II designated it as a minor Basilica. The history of the shrine begins in 1920, when Reverend Alfonso Jalbert, OMI, built a small wooden chapel in San Juan as a mission church of St. Margaret Mary Church in Pharr.
The origins of the devotion to Our Lady of San Juan del Valle can be traced back to Mexico in the 1600s. The devotion sprung from a child being brought back to life after a fall and using an image of the Virgin Mary and prayer for that miracle.
In 1949, the Rev. Jose Maria Azpiazu, OMI, was convinced that fostering a devotion to Our Lady of San Juan would benefit the people of the area of San Juan. Upon receiving permission, a reproduction of the statue in San Juan de Los Lagos was reproduced and placed in the San Juan chapel. A shrine was built five years later and dedicated to the Virgen de San Juan.
It was a miracle in 1970, when a small low-flying plane crashed into the roof of the shrine and exploded into flames. The miracle was, that even though there was a mass of 100 people (including priests) in attendance, and 100 school children in a nearby cafeteria, that the pilot was the only fatality. The statue was rescued from the Shrine.
A new, bigger, shrine was dedicated in 1980 with an estimated 50,000 people in attendance.
Today, there are statues around the grounds depicting the stations of the cross. There is a walkway around the Shrine for easy viewing of each station. Mass is held in the Shrine on a regular basis.
Established in March of 1910, the City of San Juan was incorporated in 1917. San Juan is referred to as “The Friendly City” and the heart of the Rio Grande Valley. The Oblate Fathers that helped found other Valley cities by spreading Christianity along the border also visited the area before building missions in Mission and other cities. In 1908 they built a church on the grounds of San Juan Plantation that was dedicated to Saint John the Baptist.
When visiting Alamo, you have to make a stop at the Alamo Museum, 130 S. 8th St. The museum showcases the history of Alamo and several amazing and interesting exhibits.
When you first walk in you are greeted by the history of the fire department, the press (Alamo News), and the agriculture of the area. Nativities are displayed on the main floor of the museum. The nativities represent different cultures and eras.
Along the back wall you will find the information about a truck-train accident in 1940. There are copies of papers from all of the state and nation that carried the news of the horrific accident. There is a historical marker on Tower Rd. and Bus. 83 where the accident happened.
An oncoming train collided with a truck carrying more than 40 agricultural workers. 34 of those workers were killed. The workers ranged in age from ten to 48. A neighboring citrus packing plant served as headquarters for the rescue operations.
The accident resulted in renewed attention to safety issues surrounding railroad crossings and the transportation of agricultural workers.
Also, at the museum, are some dresses that were donated. A local man bought a vehicle from someone and included in the exchange was a trunk full of dresses from 1900-1920. The dresses are full of lace and details from the time.
Another area of the museum features their angel display. There are angel lamps, bears, and so many cherubic faces to see.
Be sure to talk to the museum curator Alex Oyoque while you are there. He can tell you so many more details about other items they have that are not on display and exhibits he is looking forward to getting on the floor someday. He is a wealth of knowledge.
Some other buildings of history in the Alamo area are the old First State Bank and Saint Joseph Catholic Church.
Saint Joseph Catholic Church was completed in 1924, the same year Alamo was incorporated.
The old First State Bank, which now reads Alamo Land and Sugar Co. (which was established in 1914) was built in 1919. It is on the same block as the museum. Also housed in this building is the Alamo Inn, a special little bed and breakfast.
The Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge is also in Alamo. It is sort of claimed by Donna and San Juan as well because of its proximity to the other two cities.
The park is open from sunrise to sunset. Over 400 bird and 200 butterflies have been seen in the area. The refuge attracts over 200,000 visitors from across the U.S. and world. It features three lakes, rare tropical river forest, 12 miles of trails, butterfly gardens, a tree top tower and canopy walk, and bird feeders. Bird walks, tram rides and canoe trips are offered in season. For more information, call (956)784-7500.