On April 19, 1999, Viequense security guard, David Sanes, was killed
by a 500 pound bomb that missed its target and exploded near the
observation post where he was working. The incident led to the establishment
of civil disobedience camps in the bombing range. The occupants
of one of these camps built a chapel on the beach called Playa Icacos.
The chapel became the spiritual center of the movement. Priests
gave mass there, holy water was sprinkled on bomb craters and unexploded
ordnance in the target zone. The Archbishop of San Juan, Roberto
Gonzalez gave a sermon at the chapel about civil disobedience. The
Bishop of Caguas, Puerto Rico, Monsignor Alvaro Corrada del Rio,
brought a statue of the Virgin del Carmen, the patron saint of fishermen
and blessed it.
The chapel was damaged by Hurricane Lenny, but was rebuilt as soon
as the storm had passed.
On May 4, 2000, the day when all those present at the camps were
arrested and removed from the bombing range, the chapel was occupied
by nuns and religious leaders who were inside praying. Heavily armed
agents of the Navy, the FBI, Federal Marshals and the Puerto Rico
Police Department, many wearing helmets with plastic shields or
gas masks and jackboots and bulletproof vests, stormed the church,
handcuffed the priests and nuns and threw them into military vehicles.
The chapel was torn down by navy bulldozers.
The chapel bell, however, was preserved.
In 2002, with the support of the government in Puerto Rico, a replica
of the chapel was reconstructed on the hillside directly across
the street from the Capitol building in San Juan. The original church
bell was recovered and placed in the new chapel.
The chapel became the scene of confrontations between pro navy
supporters and those who wanted the navy to leave Vieques as well
as between statehood advocates and separatists.
In 2003, the governor of Puerto Rico decided to send the chapel
back to Vieques where it was to be relocated across the road from
the Camp Garcia gate and serve as part of the transfer ceremonies
on May 1, when the navy was to leave Vieques.
Unfortunately, Big Island officials did not include Viequenses
in the church relocation plan, which resulted in logistical complications.
The Ecumenical Chapel arrived at Isabel Segunda on a barge leased
by the Puerto Rican government.
Meanwhile, as anyone who has spent time in Vieques could tell you,
it is impossible to move something as wide as the chapel through
the narrow streets of the town. This problem soon became apparent
to those in charge of the relocation who now realized that the chapel
would have to leave Isabel Segunda by sea and be offloaded somewhere
else on the island. (A better alternative, for example, might have
been Playa Caracas inside the camp)
But it was too late. The government leased barge was long gone.
Many times things on Caribbean Islands move at a slower pace than
they do elsewhere. A slower pace can also be expected for government
related activities, not only in the Caribbean, but just about anywhere
in the world. Such was the case with the chapel relocation.
A second barge was eventually sent from the Big Island to Vieques.
The barge turned out to be too small to safely carry the chapel,
so back it went to the Big Island.
By the time a third, and this time more suitable barge arrived
in Vieques, it was too late to follow the original plan of locating
it across from the camp gate. Alternatively, the Ecumenical Chapel
was taken to the Rompeolas, offloaded, and trucked to the former
Navy lands on western Vieques, where it stands today, overlooking
the beautiful Vieques Sound, a symbol of peace standing on a site
where war was once the order of the day.