A Dream comes true

by Fr. Rafael Garcia, S.J.

When I met Str. Armida and Str. Maru at the Casa de los Pobres in 1985, when I was a Jesuit novice, they shared with me the dream that they had: a city of mercy, where impoverished persons with various chronic illnesses could be cared for. It was a wonderful encounter since I am an architect, which back then, had only been away from active practice for less than two years.

The first priority for the sisters, given their experience in serving impoverished persons in various contexts in Tijuana, was the mentally ill. Untreated mentally ill people who roamed the streets often ended up in the inadequate and inhospitable city jail in downtown Tijuana, where the Casa de los Pobres took meals daily for those who were detained.

The sisters had acquired a beautiful parcel of land south of Rosarito, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean from its higher altitude. The site had no electricity nor adequate water supply. Access was through meandering dirt roads which were quite affected when it rained. But this was the site for this new facility.

As a novice in 1985, in discussion with the sisters, I started doing some sketches of various buildings could be located: for people with leprosy, for handicapped persons, for tuberculosis patients and, of course, for the mentally ill whom they would receive first.

The design concept: a modern day mission. Missions are part of the history of both Baja California, Mexico (these were the first missions) and then the ones in California USA, after which many cities are named

All of my architectural experience had been in Florida, where there are no earthquakes – only hurricanes – and flat land. Designing a building for this site forced me into a quick learning curve. This learning process was possible thanks to the professional advice from Dan Young, an architect in Los Angeles whom the sisters knew. This led to Dan and I forging a friendship, now of 35 years!

The shape and floor plan of the building would have a landscaped courtyard as its focal point. The building, wrapping around the courtyard provided a beautiful and therapeutic outdoor space that was generally accessible to the patients. The building created the boundaries for the protected and confined space. Dr. Jauregui, the director of the hospital prior to closing, always used to mention that this was a facility without metal bars for restricting movement.

The design and floor plan came about after consulting with psychiatrists and visiting 3 well-designed psychiatric hospitals in California and in Louisiana. There were many important considerations to be incorporated into the design. Various specialized areas. The need for supervision which demanded a certain transparency and accessibility by staff.

Given monetary restrictions and my own comfort level for designing and then building this facility, we went with very simple materials: concrete block, reinforced according to seismic design requirements per building code used in San Diego and simple work rafters for the roof. There were many challenges on the path to making this much needed hospital a reality. The first major investment by the sisters was to bring power lines from the main road that borders the coastline, a distance of about 1.5 miles. A reliable water source was needed, so exploration for a well began and a water tank was higher up on the property.

All construction material, such as cement, sand, concrete blocks, wood rafters, had to be trucked-in via the inadequate dirt roads. The concrete had to all be mixed on site. No cranes, so roof concrete beams were poured via buckets and a human ladder. A beam that could be poured in 20 minutes in the city would take 2 hours. I also had to teach some of the workers construction techniques that I wanted followed. They were very open to learning, and I learned much from the skilled bricklayers and carpenters.

From Sunday night to Saturday mid-day, the workers lived on-site. At times, a crew of 30. One of the paid workers was a cook. Food and drinking water had to be brought in. After receiving their week’s salary on Saturday mid-day, many travelled to Tijuana to be with family, returning on Sunday evening. The workers were paid a salary comparable to their counterparts in the city, and even better. Many shared how they liked working for a church project and living in a beautiful site where, after work time, they could hike, play soccer and enjoy the area.

From foundations to completion, the construction took about 10 years. The work stopped when the funds ran out. After months of fundraising the sisters would re=start. I was directing the construction for a year from the start, in the fall of 1988. Funds ran out around the time that I moved to start my first year of theology studies in Toronto. The following summer in May 1990, I returned to direct the construction of the roof and left again in August. Other architects directed the construction in the years that followed, including another Jesuit who was there for several months, Ron Boudreaux. From 1994 when I became pastor at our parish in El Paso, TX, where I am at now again, until completion, I would visit the construction site periodically and at times provided some direction to resolve situations that would come up.

Around completion time, a mass was held in October 1998, presided by the Bishop of Tijuana to celebrate completion.

Since its opening, I have visited the hospital, the patients and medical staff various times. The sisters and the staff devoted much energy to keeping the facility in excellent shape. This careful care along with the salaries for the professional staff, cost of medication, utilities and food, demanded much income. Many patients were not able to pay the very moderate amount of the full fee, which was a small fraction of what a psychiatric hospital would charge in the U.S.

Patients admitted were from the Tijuana area, other parts of Mexico and even some states from USA. Many continued the relationship with follow-up care. Families were taught appropriate care for a person with the health needs of their family member. Patients with mental illness are very often stigmatized, even by family members.

What I would often hear from staff was that they felt they were working in a very unique place of healing that felt like a resort, due to the beauty of the landscape, the design of the building, the quietness of the area, and the view and breeze from the Pacific. There was a kind of magnetic quality to Hospital San Ignacio that was produced by many factors: spiritual, professional care, beauty. Discharging a patient was often difficult since he/she might not want to leave. They could be returning to inadequate housing in the middle of the noise and pollution of Tijuana.

When I learned in mid 2019 that the hospital was closing due to the financial situation, I was very sad to say the least. Thousands of persons received crucial care at this hospital in the approximately 20 years of its operation. The need continues. In a city the size of Tijuana, 4th largest in Mexico, there was and there is no psychiatric hospital that offers this holistic care that takes into account the whole persons body, mind and spirit. There is no care facility with this design, setting and view.

I hear from the Sisters that more that a year after its closing, people and families are still showing-up at the now closed down building, surprised, saddened and shocked that medical care there has ceased.

It is my hope that the hospital can re-open and again serve those with mental illness, especially the poor, so many in the Tijuana area, who hold a special preference and place in the Heart of God. May a dream come true again! May the inspired words of Prophet Ezekiel apply to our now empty “lifeless” building so that it may revive and again be a life-giving center:

1 The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he led me out in the spirit of the Lord and set me in the center of the broad valley. It was filled with bones. 2 He made me walk among them in every direction. So many lay on the surface of the valley! How dry they were! 3 He asked me: Son of man, can these bones come back to life? “Lord God,” I answered, “you alone know that” 4 Then he said to me: Prophesy over these bones, and say to them: Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Listen! I will make breath enter yo so you may come to life. (Ezekiel 37:1-5)