Article first published in Vol. 10, 1992.
By Bernice Zuniga & Terri Fout
As the dawn rises over his left shoulder the triumphant Christ looks over the valleys below. The statue of Christ the King, rising majestically over his domain, opens his hands in greeting to his children. Here at a crossroad of culture and heritage stands a risen Christ to bless the people of North and Central America.
Image caption: Mount Cristo Rey, Photo courtesy of the El Paso County Historical Society through digie.org
The statue on Mount Cristo Rey (Christ the King) was the idea of Reverend Lourdes F. Costa from the San Jose del Rio Church in Smeltertown, now only a memory. This tiny community straddled the Rio Grande near the slag heaps of the El Paso Smelting and Refining Works, now known as ASARCO. In 1933 Father Costa began investigating ownership of the Mule Driver's Mountain, Cerro de Muleros, which overlooked his small parish.
Father Costa had been priest of the Smeltertown Church of San Jose for twenty years when the Pope summoned parishes in all parts of the world to built sacrosancts or material monuments. These monuments were to symbolize the Nineteenth Centennial of Redemption.
With the approval of the Bishop of the El Paso Diocese, A. J. Sheller, approximately 200 acres of land from the peak were bought from the Public Land Office of New Mexico. On February 13, 1934, men of the parish erected a 12 -foot wooden cross. It was placed on the summit where Texas, New Mexico and the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, meet.
Southwestern writer Pamela Bamert, in a New Mexico Magazine article recounts Father Costa's words at the dedication of the new monument: "This spot is now consecrated and will become a place of pilgrimages in a short time, and the big multitudes will come from all parts of the country and Mexico."
These were hopeful words for a country plunged into the Great Depression and in an area where many were unemployed. The parish placed Stations of the Cross on the pathway to the newly named Sierra de Cristo Rey purposely for prayers to be said for improved economic conditions.
Although the cross was already erected, Father Costa had a vision of a greater shrine. On Palm Sunday of the same year a temporary iron cross was made by the Smelter Vocational School with donations of materials and engineering from ASARCO.
Father Costa was not completely satisfied with this monument either and approached Bishop Schuler of El Paso for help. The bishop enthusiastically agreed and requested the diocese to help rise funds for construction. Those who could not donate money donate their time and labor to assist in building the road and parkway.
The creation of the current shrine then began. Father Costa asked Bishop Schuler to consider an internationally known sculptor and childhood companion from Spain, Urbici Soler, a master sculptor who had also worked on the Christ of the Andes monument, began to design clay models of the statue.
Image caption: Father Lourdes F. Costa - El Paso, Texas Photo courtesy of the UTEP Library Special Collections Dept through digie.org
When the final model was chosen, Soler traveled to a quarry in Austin, Texas, to handpick the Cordovan cream limestone he would use to carve the statue. He even helped cut the best limestone for his creation. Thirty tons of this limestone was trucked up to the mountain crest over a winding mile of rough roads and applied to a concrete reinforced cross.
Soler, holding onto a scaffold, used an air chisel to carve the statue. A helper was positioned down the mountain to help Soler with the proportions of the facial and body features. Through blowing winds, lightning and storms, Soler labored over a year on his masterpiece. He finished in 1939.
The statue stands on top of a nine-foot base in front of a 33 1/2-foot cross. The entire monument stands 42 1/2 feet high. This is the largest monument of its kind in North America and compares in size to the Christ of the Andes. The face of Jesus as portrayed in an eight century painting looks out on the valleys below. Instead of the traditional suffering Christ on the cross, Soler portrays Jesus with outstretched arms and palms facing down, "in a sublime gesture of peace."
On Sunday, October 28, 1939, the Reverend Emeterio Diego celebrated a five-hour dedicatory mass during the sixth annual pilgrimage to the shrine. Twelve thousand people made the trip up the mountain this last Sunday in October, the Feast of Christ the King.
In October 1940, the completed shrine was internationally dedicated on the feast day of Christ the King. The tiny town of Smeltertown welcomed pilgrims from around the world as well as prominent Catholic leaders. In the largest congregation of religious leaders in El Paso history, the Most Reverend Emieto Giovanni Cicognani, the Apostolic Delegate to Mexico from the Vatican, attainted the dedication given by Bishop Schuler.
After completing this project, Soler stayed in El Paso for two years, left, and returned in 1945 to Smeltertown to a house within view of his creation. He could see the thousands who climbed the mountain and came to worship at the mountain that he says was his life's greatest work. In 1953 he died at his house in Anapra, New Mexico.
Each year since the first pilgrimage in 1934, faithful worshippers have climbed the path, which begins at the end of McNutt Road at the base of the mountain. Some worshippers carry wooden crosses, rosaries and flowers in the tradition they learned from parents or grandparents. Still others walk barefoot over the rough path; some climb on their knees, fulfilling a promise made during the year. The winding dirt trail is 5,650 feet up the mountain. Young or old, an individual in good condition can walk up to the summit in about two hours.
The anniversary mass each October is observed at noon on the mount's summit. It is said in both English and Spanish so everyone can understand the ceremony. The celebration ends with the proclamation, "Viva Cristo Rey!" (Long live Christ the King!"). Celebrants respond with, "Viva!" which resounds softly over the valley below.
Pilgrims are numerous. Approximately 10,000 trekked up the mountain in 1988. On the golden anniversary of the shrine in 1989, about 33,000 people attended, including more than 24 church officials from Mexico and various states in the western United States. The Vatican's representative to the United States, Reverend Pio Laghi, attended as well.
The statue itself was prepared for the occasion. A giant crown decorated with 40 crosses was added to the base of Mount Cristo Rey's statue. The crown was in the original design of sculptor Urbici Soler.
Then in February of 1991 tragedy struck the cross when a storm dislodged pieces of limestone weighing several hundred pounds each. Months of arduous work followed the misfortune. Locating pieces of limestone slabs was difficult for the restoration committee. Working trough the hot summer months and transporting some 1,500 pounds of limestone in July was a gift of reverence for the laborers. Six men worked continuously with the help of families and other volunteers to restore the statue in time for the anniversary mass in October 1991.
Restoration was still underway on Palm Sunday of 1991 when 3,000 people gathered at the summit of Mount Cristo Rey to give thanks for the end of our most recent war in the Persian Gulf. Petitioners gave thanks for the safe return of loved ones. Soldiers from Fort Bliss and their families received a special invitation to attend the procession.
This spring local artist Anita Price began hand painting 900 tiles that the Mount Cristo Rey Restoration Committee will sell to raise funds for the restoration. The tiles will be set into the north and south sides of the shrine's base and will match those already set in the east and west sides. Interested parties may purchase tiles for $100 each and dedicate them to friend or family or their memory.
Father Costa had the vision and Urbici Soler had the means to inspire the people who live at the crossroads of three states with a lasting symbol of hope and peace. Now Anita Price lends her talents to further enhance the beauty and power of this border landmark. Through daily trials as well as during war and crisis, we of the borderlands need only to look to the mountaintop for a beacon of peace and hope for our homes and lives, Mount Cristo Rey.