Little Flower Church copes with the relocation of Interstate 40

The Little Flower Church building in south Oklahoma City, completed in 1926, maintains its original splendor complete with a two-story ornate altar in the sanctuary, even as the surrounding neighborhood has declined. Outside the building, an uninviting chain-link fence topped with barbed wire had to be erected around the perimeter of the historic red brick church to deter break-ins. In the next decade, however, many things are set to change around Little Flower with the relocation of Interstate 40, and implementation of the city's Core to Shore plan.

Just a stone's throw to the north of the church, the realigned highway, set for completion in 2012, will bring thousands of vehicles whizzing by day and night. On the other hand, the crumbling neighborhood around the church is also slated for an eventual face-lift to bring higher-end housing and amenities. According to the Oklahoma County Assessors Office, the average market value for each house in the cluster around the church is about $48,000.

Father Juan Evangelista Cabrera lives a life of prayer and meditation in the church's monastery. For Cabrera, the future of the area is uncertain. But while the floor may be sagging in the sanctuary, the church is on solid ground in its commitment to the community it serves. Little Flower has been invested in south Oklahoma City's Hispanic community since it was founded in 1921 and has about 1,500 families that attend the church.

In 2007, the church built the Centro Guadalupano behind the main church with seating for up to 1,000. A free clinic on site is open to patients two evenings a week. Little Flower is hoping to expand with the purchase of the former J.B. Battle Uniforms building across the street. It is sitting vacant until funds are raised to renovate it for additional space for church activities.

Looking north from the church's front door toward the interstate construction, and with a sweeping view of the downtown skyline, Cabrera hopes as the neighborhood improves, the fence around the church will come down to welcome the church's longtime parishioners and its new neighbors.

"Hopefully, it will be more inviting," he said.

As work continues on the interstate, access to the church from the north is blocked. Those coming south on Walker from downtown can see the bell tower of the church peeking over the top of the interstate construction, but it is inaccessible. To get there from the north, one must take Shields Avenue south to S.W. 15th Street and then head to Walker Avenue and turn north.

"Even though it has been more difficult for people to access, we have not had a significant reduction of people coming," Cabrera said. "They find their way somehow."

Brenda Perry, spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation, said the plan is to have Walker Avenue reopened in early 2011, barring any unexpected winter weather that might delay the project.

Cabrera said the church also has concerns about the noise from the interstate. At the city's request, the area of the interstate near Walker Avenue would be about eight feet lower than other areas of the realignment to lessen the impact to those visiting several planned parks near the church, Perry said. At Walker Avenue, the highway will include retaining and screen walls, she said, to lessen the noise and the view of traffic.

"Neither of those are designed as a noise barrier, but both will end up serving that purpose a little bit," Perry said. "And you won't see the tops of really large vehicles."

Cabrera can live with the highway just to the north of the church since it will dip down in that area and not be right at his doorstep.

"That's better than having it right here," he said, pointing toward the north side of the church.

While the Core to Shore steering committee members determined most of the buildings in the area would eventually be razed, Little Flower always had a place in the final plan, said Russell Claus, city planning director.

But Claus said it would be at least five years before the city begins eyeing the area south of the new interstate alignment. Most of the public improvements in that area are probably at least 10 years away. The first priorities for the city, Claus said, are acquiring the land for a planned 70-acre park, and determining the location of a planned convention center.

"I can't imagine we're going to direct a lot of effort south of the new alignment until probably past 2020," Claus said. "For the short term, we're just focused on the north side of the alignment."

In the meantime, Cabrera said the church would continue to provide a place of worship to Oklahoma City's Hispanic Catholic community. The church holds seven mass services each weekend, five of which are in Spanish. With all the changes, Cabrera hopes the church will remain a beacon in the community for its longtime parishioners and a welcome place for its eventual new neighbors.

"We're called to preach the gospel to all people," he said. "Kelley Chambers

top photo Father Juan Evangelista Cabrera in the spacious new sanctuary at Little Flower Church. Photo/Mark Hancock
bottom photo Little Flower Church is seen from behind Walker Avenue construction barricades. Photo/Mark Hancock

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