Monument Fire burns popular chapel

Couple who built Our Lady of the Sierras are safe but 'in shock'
2011-06-16T00:00:00Z 2011-06-17T00:02:38Z Monument Fire burns popular chapelBy Carmen Duarte and Kimberly Matas Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Tom Felix and his family say they lived through a miracle Tuesday - driving through 5-foot-flames to escape the Monument Fire that burned on their property, near Our Lady of the Sierras in Ash Canyon.

So did Pat and Gerald "Jerry" Chouinard, the Catholic couple who built the chapel and the surrounding shrines that burned south of Sierra Vista.

The elderly couple fled their home with just the clothes on their back as firefighters rushed to their aid Tuesday after the wind shifted and the blaze quickly devoured everything in its path, Felix said.

"We survived it all. It is truly a miracle," Felix said.

Felix is a close friend of the Chouinards and the manager of La Purisima Retreat Center. The center is about a mile away from the chapel of Our Lady of the Sierras.

Jerry Chouinard, an unassuming multimillionaire who made his fortune through a patent he held, spent millions of dollars building Our Lady of the Sierras.

The Chouinards were not up to talking yesterday, said Felix.

"They are in shock and literally sick over this," he said. Both are staying with their daughter, who lives in Hereford.

"Pat did tell me that this is not going to keep them down," Felix said. "She said they will rebuild."

"The hotshot crew did a great job saving the retreat center. The fire got right up to the wall, but the crew did an excellent job," Felix said.

"We were up at the prayer house of Our Lady of the Sierras, and the hotshots were digging a firebreak at the Chouinards' residence when the wind shifted. The guys threw everything and started running.

"They got both Pat and Jerry out and brought them down from the chapel area. Jerry didn't even have time to get his boots," Felix said. "They lost everything. Their house was about 100 yards from the chapel."

"The fire continued to the chapel. We could see the flames coming out the windows and roof. Flames were shooting easily 20 feet in the air.

"I then drove to my house, which was about five minutes away and the wall of fire hit our property. We drove our vehicles right through the fire," recalled Felix, 47. He drove a work truck, and his wife, Martha, 51, followed in a Hummer and their daughter Cristy, 26, followed in an SUV.

The fires burned on the property through Tuesday night, and Felix said he saw the walls of the chapel still standing. Also standing is the 75-foot Celtic cross, 31-foot tall statue of the Virgin Mary and two angels.

Mary's Knoll, the Stations of the Cross out on the hill and the grotto were destroyed, he said.

"We haven't been allowed back in because the fire jumped into Miller Canyon and evacuations are going on. A Border Patrol agent I know who works in Douglas told me that it is raining ash in Douglas from this fire," he said.

There were many families that did not want to leave their homes, Felix said. "We are praying that no one died."

He said officials are not letting him and others back on their properties because of hot spots and authorities are checking houses to make sure no one was left behind.

"They are checking houses and making sure they are clear. Then they are putting yellow ribbons on those homes to show they are evacuated," said Felix.

Our Lady of the Sierras attracted tens of thousands of religious pilgrims each year.

La Purisima Retreat Center is being used as a command center for firefighters.

The shrine sits halfway up a hill at the front of the Huachuca Mountains. The stone chapel sat beneath the cross.

Each month an estimated 3,500 faithful, more than 80 percent of whom are from Mexico, trekked to the shrine. Believers arrived hoping to receive a message from the Virgin Mary, whom they believed spoke through Pat.

Some asked for healing from cancer, childhood maladies, arthritis and other ailments. Some prayed for an improved economy.

Pat converted to Catholicism when she married Jerry in 1984. When the couple retired to Hereford in the 1980s, Jerry hired an architect to build his dream house. Their faith led them to add the cross, the statue of the Virgin and the chapel.

It was during an illness and high fever in the mid-1990s that Pat said she first was visited by the Virgin Mary. After that, the visions began coming regularly, she said.

"The fire continued to the chapel. We could see the flames coming out the windows and roof. Flames were shooting easily 20 feet in the air."

Tom Felix, close friend of the Chouinards and the manager of La Purisima Retreat Center

Contact reporter Carmen Duarte at 573-4104 or cduarte@azstarnet.com and Kimberly Matas at 573-4191 or kmatas@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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