Portuguese prayer chapel now on National Register of Historic Places

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The tiny Portuguese prayer chapel in Point Loma stands much taller today – it has been accepted for the National Register of Historic Places.

John and Geri Lauriano, who headed the intense three-year effort to gain the designation, and Carl Silva, past president of the United Portuguese S.E.S., were ecstatic.

“Only a half-dozen buildings on the Point Loma Peninsula have gained that national designation,” Silva said.

The chapel has been cherished by the Portuguese community ever since it was built in 1922. Surprisingly, it was the building’s authentic and well-preserved architectural style, not its religious significance, that gained it the national designation.

The chapel at 2818 Avenida de Portugal measures just 20 feet by 12 feet. It is regarded as the sole remaining faithful example of Azorian style design in all of Southern California.

Prayer chapels are common in the remote countrysides of the Portuguese Azores Islands. They serve as convenient places for meeting halls, to pray, refuges from the outside world and sudden storms.

Point Loma’s chapel has served a much different role. Its primary function is to house the crown and other objects central to the annual Festa celebration of Queen Isabel’s sacrifice for her starving people during a famine in the late 1200s.

There are stained-glass windows, a Latin Cross, Gothic arches and three symmetrical alcoves at the front. Yet, there are no pews. The chapel is not available for weddings, although on occasion, the little building is the destination for a wedding party wanting special photographs.

Tours are available by appointment, although most Point Lomans have never been inside. That’s about to change for one grand celebration in September, Silva said.

To mark the acceptance to federal and state registers by the National Park Service and the California Office of Historic Preservation, food, music, dancing, speeches and, yes, public tours are planned.

The clapboard chapel and its stained windows are an abrupt contrast to a modern apartment house on one side and the massive UPSES Social Hall on the other.

The federal and state designations give it an extra layer of preservation and the historic significance coveted for so long. In 1922, the building was almost at water’s edge – that was before Shelter Island even existed.

No architectural drawings ever existed for the chapel. Lines were scratched in the dirt, Lauriano said. Yet carpenter Joseph Athaide, painter Frank Brown and stone mason John Lucas were able to capture the architectural style of Portuguese chapels half a globe away as well as the niche prayer alcoves on the tuna boats that sailed from San Diego Bay.

The story of the struggle to pay for the chapel has been passed down from generation to generation in the Point Loma community. Two $500 loans were taken out, both for the chapel and a social hall next door. Tunaboats each provided a crew member as necessary for the construction work. An assessment of 25 cents a ton was levied on the entire catch from one trip to help pay off the loans.

“Our celebration in September will be quite special,” Lauriano said. “All of the community is invited.”

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