Restoration Update: Record-Breaking Rain Threatens Little Flower Basilica

Walls and foundations are cracking.

At the end of October, San Antonio had already surpassed the record for the rainiest fall in recorded history. Over 23 inches of rain fell in September and October. Even if we hadn’t gotten any more rain in November, the city had already beaten all records for precipitation in those three months. However, rain continued, the total rising several more inches in November. This abundance was great news for Texas farmers, who so often suffer from drought, but it’s terrible news for the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower.

This fall’s overflow of rain means increasing damage at the Basilica. Water infiltration from all directions is destroying the Basilica, according to a full engineering assessment completed in 2016. Since the assessment, the visible damages to the buildings have continued to extend their reach.

Heavy rain accelerates the damage dramatically. The stormwater runoff is causing both internal and external damage to the Basilica, dedicated in 1931. Continued water infiltration is a menacing prospect. Making the needed repairs to save the Shrine is becoming ever more urgent.

Causes of Damage

Inadequate surface drainage, damaged storm drainage systems, and possible underground water migration into the foundations are chief causes of deterioration of the Basilica as well as the attached monastery and college building. The grassy areas adjacent to the buildings on the approximately 2.7-acre site have eroded. The slope of the ground in many areas is directing water toward the foundations of the buildings rather than away from them. Many of the concrete pavements have numerous cracks; portions of the walls and foundations are showing signs of cracking. Inside the Basilica and monastery, this water infiltration is causing extensive damage to below-grade walls and foundations, adding to the destruction of interior walls, floors, ceilings, and the finishes.

Furthermore, this rainfall has only increased the moisture content in the naturally expansive clay soil beneath the buildings. The swelling of the ground is causing movement of basement walls and visible heaving of the floor slabs in the monastery. This moisture content also appears to be contributing to distress and displacement in some of the deep pier foundations near the center of the building as well as outer walls.

Inadequate surface drainage is damaging the Basilica’s foundations. Eroded soil is leading water toward the foundation instead of away from it.

Water Infiltration

To make matters worse, water is coming in through the roofing, exterior walls, and window systems in all buildings. The roofing systems exhibit varying levels of deterioration or inadequacy, from the clay tiles on the golden domes to failing sealants at metal flashings and gutters. Aging roofs are compounded by lack of overflow drains and improper gutter construction. Water infiltration from roofing is manifested in severe damage to the ceilings and wall finishes in the 12,000-square-foot Basilica.

The windows were shown in water spray testing to be further sources of leaking in all three buildings. Water infiltration from windows is contributing to damage in the ceilings and walls as well as deterioration in wood window frames.

The exterior walls on all three buildings, including the Basilica towers, are additional sources of infiltration. As was common during the period of their construction, the walls lack any moisture barrier. Even the addition of air conditioning to the old buildings years ago has contributed to this part of the problem. Humidity can be drawn through the walls by the drier air inside. Cracked or missing grout and deteriorated sealants in wall openings aggravate the issue.

Water infiltration is destroying interior walls, floors, ceilings, and finishes.

The Solutions

The recommended plan for turning around this disturbing trajectory include installing a below-grade French drain around the Basilica and monastery and re-grading the majority of the site. The Basilica’s front entry steps and sidewalks and all the paving around the buildings must be replaced.

A below-grade storm drainage system must be installed, which will consist of strategically placed grate inlets, connections to roof drains, and underground piping to capture and redirect the stormwater and groundwater from the French drains to the city’s stormwater main below the street.

Modifications to the Basilica basement walls are to be made during excavation. The monastery’s floor slab should be replaced with a suspended floor slab on new drilled piers.

Next Steps

Renovations of the Basilica and attached Carmelite monastery will lay the necessary groundwork for a full restoration and remodeling in the future. Nothing can be done to restore the Basilica to its original beauty until the water infiltration behind the degradation is adequately addressed. Plans are to begin the engineering design work for the project as early as possible in 2019.

We are now consulting with experts in capital improvements fundraising. We are also in discussion with city, county, and state leaders to advance the process of bringing together the multitude of funding sources that will be needed to complete this project. The entire community has a stake in preserving this local asset, also listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated by the City as a landmark of “exceptional historic significance.”

Cracking in interior walls.

Moreover, as a National Shrine to St. Thérèse, the Basilica is more than a local treasure. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Basilica’s elevation to the status of Minor Basilica within the Catholic Church, the highest permanent designation for a church building, by St. John Paul II. A framed lambskin decree stamped with his official seal hangs in the Basilica verifying its status.

It is one of only 86 in the United States and one of four in Texas bearing the papal designation. While a cathedral is the church home of the local bishop, a Basilica is the church home of the pope on a visit to the city.

Essential to the restoration of the Basilica is strengthening and renewing the Shrine in its function of keeping alive the Carmelite charism in this region of the US. The Basilica was built during the Great Depression with contributions of all sizes from devotees to St. Thérèse from around the country. It will once again be through the help of many who love the Little Flower that the Shrine can be saved for future generations.


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