[Update] I learned today from a friend in San Benito that the Stake President recently announced the construction of a new stake center–in San Benito. It is due to be completed in 2013. I spoke to Brother Maya about it. We rejoiced together in the news that finally, the San Benito Saints will have a place to rest their feet. I inquired after Sister Garza. “She’s alive and kicking,” he reported. Into her 92nd year, we shared the hope that she as well as other pioneering Saints from San Benito would be able to see this as only the latest of many fruits of their faith.
[Originally posted Oct. 5, 2009]
While I visited San Benito, Texas this past May, a family friend, member of the church, and long-time resident of San Benito, Brother Maya, took me around town and showed me the different buildings where services of the San Benito Branch had been held in its history. I’m still working on the details, and there’s a lot even from the interviews that I conducted that I haven’t mined yet, so I’ll offer a few points here as a very preliminary exploration of the locations and history of Sunday meetings among Spanish speaking members of the Church in San Benito. In addition, there is more to unpack about the implications of what I’ll present here than I am able to treat at this time. Suffice it to say that the absence of a permanent LDS building for worship in San Benito, has affected worship and attendance among the San Benito Spanish-speaking Saints.
Spanish-speaking missionaries opened San Benito, Texas in 1957. Providentially, I have been able to speak with one of the elders who opened it, and am in the process of locating his companion. At the time of its opening, an English speaking branch met in San Benito in a three story building that was demolished at some point. A Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall now stands on the lot.
My dad remembers attending Church there, often going with the Garza children, who were a bit older than he. Brother Garza, Sister Garza’s son, said that his first contact with the LDS Church took place while attending a religious service across the street (at the corner where the picture was taken) and he heard singing from the 3 story building and went over and walked in on a service. That stuck with him, and not too long after, Spanish speaking elders came knocking at the door.
In addition, some early meetings, including relief society meetings, were held in the home of Sister Garza, the matriarch of the first (known) Spanish-speaking family baptized in San Benito in 1957. My grandma, one of the first Spanish-speaking people contacted in San Benito, and living just yards from the Garzas referred the elders to them. Sister Garza still lives in the same house and is now in her 90th year.
At some point, this house on Crockett St. was rented for services. As I went by the house, not wanting to unnerve any current residents, I knocked on the door and asked if I could take a picture of the house as I was studying old religious meeting places in the area and had heard this had been a meetinghouse. The owner was very friendly and said that the house had been his aunt’s and that she once told him that she had rented the house to the Mormons back in the 50s. His wife seemed to think it was more recent, but a 50s, early 60s timeframe fits better with the data I have.
Likely in the mid to late 60s (maybe early 70s) the branch was moved to the Harlingen Building on M Street. Where the Harlingen Spanish branch held its meetings. San Benito’s and Harlingen’s Spanish branches were combined at this time. I talked with the owner of this meat market, and he was kind enough to let me walk into the back where some lighting fixtures were still in place. He identified them as old church lights.
I am a little ambiguous at this time about the chronology, but I understand that with the move, no Spanish meetings were being held in San Benito until the early 1980s when the Spanish Branch was reopened. The branch met in the old San Benito Library building on Stenger St.
After a while the San Benito Branch, reorganized by the Gibsons, a missionary couple, met in this home on Dick Downing St. Approximately $10,000 was available from the previous building fund, which had been accumulated pervious to the reopening of the branch, and this house was bought and used for about a year and a half to hold meetings. The double doors led to the room that was used as the chapel.
Apparently, the branch was moved again to Harlingen. This time, however, to the LDS Chapel on Haine Drive where my family was attending the English ward. My dad was called as branch president of the Spanish branch, so we began attending that unit.
More recently the branch was again opened, at least partially to see if members would attend in larger numbers in San Benito as opposed to Harlingen. They met here on Crocket and Heywood.
This did not last long and the branch was moved yet again to the Harlingen building on Haine Drive.
In 2008 the San Benito Branch was reopened and located in the old Water District Building.
This historic building, built in 1910, just a few years after the City of San Benito was founded, had just undergone a renovation and been placed up for rent when the Stake President, who had been looking for a place to house the soon-to-be-opened San Benito branch, got word of it and wasted little time procuring it.
This is probably the nicest building the San Benito saints have been able to call home (with the possible exception of the more apt Harlingen Chapel). In addition, its historic nature gives the place a distinctive San Benito identity, one that these saints could be proud of. However, like all the rest, this is still rented space. They know that this isn’t home, just another stop along the way.
However, the current Stake President, who procured this building and reopened the branch, mentioned that since opening last year, the branch has experienced strong growth, and his hope is that the time will come for an LDS chapel in San Benito.
The details and chronology of each of these moves is still sketchy to me, and as you might imagine, it’s hard to keep track of, and there’s more to unpack about the implications of this history than I have the time or ability to explore at present. This is complicated by the fact that at times the San Benito Saints were combined with the Harlingen Spanish Branch, thus having an English Ward and a Spanish branch. At other times, there were two English wards in Harlingen with Spanish translation in each. When meeting in San Benito, it was its own branch again. More recently, an English ward and a combined Spanish ward. And finally, currently, an English ward and a Spanish ward in Harlingen and a Spanish branch in San Benito.
As Brother Maya took me around, he himself took stock of the many moves and meeting houses. In quiet wonder, he said, Sometimes we feel like Moses, wandering in the desert for 40 years. I counted them up: 1957-2009, 52 years. I told him, actually I think it’s more than that. He laughed, Yea, you’re right.
In an interview not long after, Brother Garza, Sister Garza’s son, used almost the exact same words to describe the San Benito Branch: like Moses wandering in the desert. I was struck by the longing expressed for a building of their own and a permanent place to meet and worship. I had long taken for granted that building on Haine Drive, and most every other building I had met in since.
Hopefully, their sojourn is nearing its close. I can only hope that the Garzas, my dad, the Mayas, and a few others who remain that remember the first 3 story meeting place will be able to finally see an LDS meeting house in San Benito.