San Jose Building With Chávez Ties Named National Historic Landmark

Back in the 1950s and 60s, César Chávez and others organized Mexican-American farm workers out of this building, McDonnell Hall in San Jose, now a National Historic Landmark.

Back in the 1950s and 60s, César Chávez and others organized Mexican-American farm workers out of this building, McDonnell Hall in San Jose, now a National Historic Landmark. (Photo: Beth Willon/KQED)

Before Cesar Chávez became a national civil rights and labor leader, he worshiped at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in east San Jose.

Now the hall on that church campus where Chavez learned to organize impoverished farmworkers is a national historic landmark, recognizing its status as a property of “exceptional value to the nation.”

The designation of 24 new National Historic Landmarks this week, “ensures future generations have the ability to learn from the past,” wrote Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in the announcement.

The former Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission Chapel in East San Jose, California, was originally built as a parish church in West San Jose in 1911. When the original owners sold the church building in 1953, it was moved to the current parish’s location in East San Jose, reconstructed, and reconsecrated as a mission chapel.

There have been multiple modifications to McDonnell Hall over the years, but it remains a tangible link to Cesar Chavez's activism in San Jose.
There have been multiple modifications to McDonnell Hall over the years, but it remains a tangible link to Cesar Chavez’s activism in San Jose. (Photo: Courtesy of the California State Parks Office of Historic Preservation)

At that time, the Mayfair neighborhood was filling up with Mexican-American Catholics, and they asked the Diocese of San Francisco for their own church and a Spanish-speaking priest. Rev. Donald McDonnell was an activist priest, who encouraged his parishioners to get involved in politics, especially with issues that affected them directly. One of the parishioners who took McDonnell’s teachings to heart was Chávez, whose farmworker parents had moved the family there from Arizona.

Chávez later said his education began with the parish priest, according to Marc Grossman, who knew the civil rights icon for the last 24 years of his life and still serves as communications director for the Cesar Chavez Foundation. Chávez was in his early 20s when he met Father McDonnell, but the young man had only an eighth grade education at the time. Father McDonnell introduced to social justice literature in the Catholic Church as well as secular authors like Tolstoy  and Machiavelli.

Grossman says the priest “did, in a very quiet way, change the world.”

Later renamed McDonnell Hall, the modest chapel became a center for grassroots activism on several social fronts and a training ground for community leaders like Chávez. It was at the mission that he and others got involved with the Community Service Organization in the 1950s and ’60s as it conducted voter registration drives, civil rights lawsuits and legislative campaigns, as well as citizenship and literacy classes.

Chávez would later apply what he learned in San Jose alongside Dolores Huerta to launch the United Farm Workers Union and organize the famous grape boycott that launched him to national prominence as a civil rights leader and advocate of nonviolent protest.

In the application for national historic status, El Teatro Campesino founder Luis Valdez (whose family members were parishioners at the mission in the 1950s), is quoted as saying McDonnell Hall not only still resonates as a symbol of the farmworker movement, but also serves as a broader symbol of an “ongoing struggle in the heart of humanity” for “social justice.”

Watch a KQED Newsroom feature on Chávez in San Jose

The national status for McDonnell Hall follows a successful bid for state status as a historic landmark a few years ago.

Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) applauded the federal designation in a press release. “I’m so proud of the communal effort that has led to such a great recognition for this simple chapel where one of our greatest civil rights champions began a movement that changed lives throughout our nation.”

Historic landmark status, bestowed on more than 2,500 spots nationwide, comes with federal grants for preservation, program assistance and free publicity in National Park Service tourist and educational materials. For instance, the properties are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Two other landmarks were designated in California:

Chicano Park in San Diego, which locals occupied on Apr. 20, 1970 to prevent the construction of a California Highway Patrol substation on land the city had promised would become a neighborhood park. The park is now home to the Chicano Park Monumental Murals, an exceptional assemblage of master mural artwork painted on the freeway bridge supports.

• The Neutra Studio and Residences (VDL Research House) in Los Angeles is associated with Richard Neutra. During the 1940s, Neutra helped launch what we think of today as mid-century “California Modern” architecture.

San Jose Building With Chávez Ties Named National Historic Landmark 17 January,2017Rachael Myrow

  • avantichamp

    It’s too bad the “modifications” can’t be called improvements. Shortcut fixes for percieved problems frequently degrade the long term value and integrety of the structure.

    That, too often, is the fate of otherwise interesting and quality buildings.

Author

Rachael Myrow

Rachael Myrow is KQED’s Silicon Valley Arts Reporter, covering arts, culture and technology in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Counties. She regularly files stories for NPR and the KQED podcast Bay Curious, and guest hosts KQED’s Forum.

Her passion for public radio was born as an undergrad at the University of California at Berkeley, writing movie reviews for KALX-FM. After finishing one degree in English, she got another in journalism, landed a job at Marketplace in Los Angeles, and another at KPCC, before returning to the Bay Area to work at KQED.

She spent more than seven years hosting The California Report, and over the years has won a Peabody and three Edward R. Murrow Awards (one for covering the MTA Strike, her first assignment as a full-time reporter in 2000 as well as numerous other honors including from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Radio Television News Directors Association and the LA Press Club.
Follow @rachaelmyrow

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor