MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
To Mexico now where the death toll from last week's earthquake has climbed to well over 300. Structures have been damaged throughout central Mexico, including more than 150 churches. That's according to the country's archdiocese. Hardest hit were churches in the state of Puebla, the epicenter of the quake. NPR's Carrie Kahn sent this report from the town of Cholula.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: In the center of town sits Cholula's ancient pyramids said to be the widest in the world. It's never been fully excavated, but to get to what is visible involves a steep climb.
Fifty-three, 54, 55 - I'm climbed at the top of Cholula's ancient pyramid where the Church of the Remedies sits on top of the pyramid. Two of the beautiful churches' domes have collapsed, and they're not letting us go to the top. Instead, they're holding mass outside.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: Dozens of parishioners have made the climb in search of solace in Sunday mass.
GERARDO LOPEZ RAMIREZ: (Singing in Spanish).
KAHN: Gerardo Lopez Ramirez is the church's organist and tenor. He says his town is in mourning.
RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "Sad because we've lost so many sanctuaries and aren't used to holding mass outside," he says. Legend has it - well, there are a few to choose from - that during the conquest after a particularly violent battle in Cholula, Hernan Cortes ordered there be built 365 churches here, one for each day. There aren't quite that many, says Mayor Leoncio Paisano Arias, but there are a lot. He spent his Sunday inspecting Cholula's other important buildings, like this underground transformer in front of the city's modern hospital. Thankfully no one died, he says. Just the churches were damaged. Less than 10 are currently open for mass. He says it was the city's oldest homes which withstood the quake the best.
LEONCIO PAISANO ARIAS: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "The ones made of adobe - and there are many - are still standing," he says, "and that's because our grandparents knew what they were doing." Cholula's churches, though, are mostly built of stone and date back to the colonial era, many more than 500 years old. Paulino Garrido oversees the parish church in Cholula's town square. He shows me inside the sanctuary with its tall, ornate walls, gold-covered domes and rows of empty wooden pews. Garrido points to the top of one of the church's smaller domes.
PAULINO GARRIDO: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: He's showing us that there's one little crack that you can see at the top of this ornate, amazing dome, and you can just barely see the fissure.
Garrido says until engineers can examine the church, mass will be held in the parish's tiny auditorium. Meanwhile, authorities have prohibited all of Cholula's churches from ringing their bells or from lighting fireworks. Parishioner Angelica Huetle says she understands the ban on bells is for everyone's protection.
ANGELICA HUETLE: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: We don't want the remaining domes to fall, but without church bells, she says, Cholula just isn't the same. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Cholula, Mexico.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANA OLGICA'S "ATOMS")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.