By Greg Niemann
Big lotteries have always been a source of fascination and unbridled hope with many ticket holders dreaming of the mega-millions in the offering. Countries around the world have been sponsoring major lotteries for years, dangling the carrot of hopeful visions, all while buffering government coffers.
Back in the 1950s, the Mexican National Lottery appealed to a hard-working and distinguished Baja priest in Loreto. It turns out the padre, Father Modesto Sánchez Mayón, bought the winning ticket and selflessly used the funds to restore Baja’s first mission to its historical prominence.
The indomitable Father Modesto Sanchez had not been in Loreto long either, having served all over the Baja peninsula.
He was born in 1897, in San Luis Soyatlán, a farming community in the state of Jalisco, the eldest of a large family. While preparing for the priesthood, he studied in the seminary of Guadalajara where he lived four years, and was ordained a priest in September 1925. Shortly after entering the priesthood, he was sent to Baja California Sur, and accompanied by his mother and brothers, arrived in Santa Rosalía on December 8, 1925.
He became known for his relentless missionary work in every corner of the Baja peninsula, including small and remote ranches, as well as various established mission towns. Spreading his faith, in addition to Santa Rosalía he visited Loreto, San Javier, Todos Santos, rancho El Coyote, El Carrizalito, San Andrés, Agua Verde, Los Dolores and even by boat to the parishioners who lived on Isla del Carmen.
In December 1939, while serving in the northern town of Tecate, Baja California, he founded a chapel, the church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, as well as the Missionary Seminary there. He held the positions of vice-rector, pastor, and professor in Tecate from 1940 to 1941.
He was sent to Loreto in 1950 and discovered that a lot of work needed to be done, both in assisting the parishioners and shoring up a church building that had fallen into disrepair. It took a few years, but thanks to his winning lottery ticket, he got the job done.
The historic mission was considered the “Head and Mother of All the Missions of Baja and Alta California,” an inscription that today is emblazoned above the door.
Loreto was the only 17th century development in the Californias as it came into being over 325 years ago, on October 25, 1697. The Loreto Mission became the first of a system that would colonize and settle not only Baja California but all the way up to Northern California.
At Loreto, under Jesuit Mission President Padre Juan Maria Salvatierra’s direction, a church was constructed of stone laid in mortar of clay, all enclosed within a hardwood timber stockade topped by cactus thorns. Thatched palm leaves made the first roof.
Later a permanent chapel and three small houses and storage rooms were built. Hand-hewn cedar timbers were cut and dragged down from the mountains by oxen. The Roman bricks, forming a decorative motif in the mission walls, were contributed by an Italian patron and shipped over as ballast.
The original mission church was completed in 1704. The stone Loreto mission building was constructed in 1748. However, the hurricane of 1829 caused so much damage to the town that the territorial capital was moved to La Paz. Earthquakes had also rendered damage on several occasions, and an 1877 earthquake destroyed the mission’s bell tower.
By the mid-twentieth century, the mission building was in a state of disrepair, including the absence of a roof, which had fallen in.
According to author Marquis McDonald (Baja: Land of Lost Missions), referring to his 1949 visit with Glenn Oster, he noted, “Although it is an impressive large stone building, it is not too well constructed, and we found it lacking a roof.
“The bishop informed us that it would soon have much-needed repairs. At one time it had been elaborately furnished and still has 14 of the original paintings. Measuring four by six feet, these are probably invaluable....He informed us that he had recently uncovered one of the five bells from the litter in the center of the floor formed by the fallen roof.”
That bishop was hopeful and optimistic, but really didn’t have a clue as to how the necessary repairs would be financed. It turns out that the onus fell on the priest who arrived the next year to oversee the parish. That priest was Father Modesto Sanchez, who was not only determined, but also lucky.
It turns out Father Sanchez occasionally purchased tickets in the National Lottery of Mexico. When the good padre hit, he hit big, winning 500,000 pesos. In his prayers, he promised that if he ever won a major prize, he would spend all of it on restoring and refurbishing his church.
He kept his word and in 1955, along with adding a new tower, many other repairs were made.
Writer Norman Phillips notes in 1974’s Baja Highway One as he visited the Loreto Mission:
“A great deal of restoration has been done on it recently. The padre at the time was Father Sanchez, a good friend of mine whom I very much admired. It was he who had the altar regilded; who had the workmen renew the gold leaf on all the statues; who had brought in religious artists from all over Mexico to freshen the paintings on walls and ceiling. A lot of stone repair was done, too, and done beautifully, quite like the original.
“Father Sanchez paid for all of this work, many millions of pesos, out of his own pocket.
“Where did he get the money? Well, believe it or not, he bought a couple of tickets on the Mexican National Lottery. … And he won. I don’t remember how many millions of pesos he won, but it was a potful of them. True to his word, he spent all of them over the next several years restoring his church to what it was when built by the Spaniards.”
Phillips’ report implies that buying the tickets was a one-time occurrence, but other reports have indicated that Padre Sanchez had bought lottery tickets more than once. Phillips also admits he couldn’t remember how many pesos, but other documents reveal the 500,000 pesos to be more accurate. Regardless, it was enough to restore the first mission in the Californias to the prominence it deserved.
The distinctive mission tower was added at that time too. A 1949 photo by Glen Oster in McDonald’s book shows the façade of the church building, sans tower. To this day it can be noted that the belltower doesn’t quite match the church building.
Father Modesto Sanchez’s influence in Baja went beyond the reconstruction of the Mission of Loreto that was in ruins.
In 1960 Pope John XXIII granted him the honorary title of Monsignor. While in Italy, Father Modesto Sanchez visited the Basilica of the Holy House of Loreto in Ancona province. The religiously significant Holy House impressed the padre so much he decided to build a replica in Loreto, BCS.
In 1974 construction of the scaled down "Holy House of Loreto" replica began, giving the Baja California Sur city a more modest version of the original church in Ancona, Italy.
For his historical and spiritual legacy disseminating in every corner of the Peninsula he was recognized as Baja’s last missionary. He died on June 26, 1987, shortly after his 90th birthday. His remains lie in a tomb inside his final project, the Holy House of Loreto.
Today a Loreto high school is named Secundaria Modesto Sánchez Mayón in his honor. And it’s easy to find as the school’s street address is on Calle Modesto Sánchez Mayón. The lucky padre who kept his promise to his Loreto parishioners is not forgotten.
Greg Niemann, a long-time Baja writer, is the author of Baja Fever, Baja Legends, Palm Springs Legends, Las Vegas Legends, and Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS. Visit www.gregniemann.com.