SAN JOSE -- If U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren and several of her colleagues can muster their forces, McDonnell Hall, a humble wood-frame building in East San Jose closely associated with the life of civil rights leader Cesar Chavez, will become a National Historic Landmark.
As head of the California Congressional Delegation, Lofgren, D-San Jose, is spearheading the effort with 26 other members of the group to ensure that the hall, previously used as the Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe, is preserved as "a significant historical resource that will benefit future generations."
In a letter dated Friday and addressed to Sally Jewell, secretary of the Department of the Interior, Lofgren and the group wrote that "this simple chapel nurtured one of our greatest civil rights champions and a movement that changed the rights of immigrants throughout our nation."
San Jose was Chavez's home for 14 years during the time he started his family and began his transformation from farm laborer to civil rights leader. He and his wife settled in 1948 in the East San Jose barrio known as Sal Si Puedes -- "get out if you can" -- and raised eight children.
By 1962, Chavez moved his family to Delano, an agricultural hamlet north of Bakersfield, where he founded the United Farm Workers of America and organized the grape boycotts and strikes for which he is renowned.
But relatives and others say the former chapel in San Jose is where Chavez was introduced through his Catholic faith to the ideas of nonviolence, self-sacrifice and social justice by the Rev. Donald McDonnell, for whom the building is named.
Chavez relatives and others say they are hopeful that this effort to honor his memory through a National Historic Landmark, which parish members also have been working on for the past few years, will soon become a reality.
"I think it's very deserving since this was the starting point of his activism with the help of Father McDonnell," said Rachel Chavez Garcia, a Chavez niece who works at the parish at 2020 E. San Antonio St. as an administrative assistant.
"It's a legacy for our community," said longtime parishioner Maritza Maldonado of the hall, which today is used for catechism classes and meetings.
The Diocese of San Jose, which owns the building, is among other stakeholders, including the city of San Jose and Santa Clara County, that have worked to nominate McDonnell Hall as a National Historic Landmark.
San Jose has designated other sites in Chavez's honor, including downtown's Plaza de Cesar Chavez, Cesar Chavez Elementary School, just blocks away from the parish, and his former home on Scharff Avenue.
Chavez was born March 31, 1927, in Yuma, Ariz., and died April 23, 1993, in San Luis, Ariz., at the age of 66. His birthday is now a holiday in California and seven other states.
Contact Tracy Seipel at 408-275-0140.