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The Nuestra Señora de la Piedad Church may be among the most jaw-dropping of 20th-century structures in the city. Begun in 1945, the church replaced an older temple and monastery. The church is the work of architect Enrique Langenscheidt, from the Faculty of Architecture at the Autonomous National University of Mexico (UNAM). The older church was considered the center, the Parish Church for the old original village of La Piedad Ahuehuetlan.
As it was a small island-based fishing village, there’s no real evidence of it prior to 1550. The island was offered to the Dominican order in 1595. This later became the Imperial College of La Piedad and Porta Coeli. It became a parish church in 1607.
By the end of the 18th century, the temple opened here in 1652 grew to be one of the most important Marian centers in the City. It remained so until after Mexican Independence in 1821. The town of La Piedad began shrinking thereafter and lost its indigenous name.
When the Reform Laws set-in (1857-61), the monastery was forced to close. It famously continued some operations clandestinely. At about the time of the building of the French Cemetery, (1872) then on the other side of the river (today in Viaducto), the Piedad River was formed by the shrinking of the lake. The river and the cemetery wall acted as further cut-offs from the city to the north. By the very end of the 19th century, the Narvarte area began developing in its own right and as part of a very different city.
In the 1940s, the neighborhood became the Colonia Piedad Narvarte. It remains a mystery why the original temple was totally demolished in 1935. By 1940, only the side arch leading to the atrium remained. Around 1941, its altarpiece was discovered in the basement of the Churubusco Monastery. It was re-installed in the Saint Sebastien Chapel in Chimalistac.
In 1945, work began on this most “Mid-Century Modern” Church. The 8th police precinct building had already covered the last remnants of the old temple. That building coincided with the building of the Social Security baseball park, today the Parque Delta Shopping Center, and the Centro Médico Complex. The Miguel Alemán Viaduct began at the same time, and this required the piping of the old Río de la Piedad.
Perhaps we can explain the Nuestra Señora de la Piedad church in terms of the “big” mid-century public works projects being realized all around it in those years. The crosstown Viaducto opened to traffic in 1950. Mario Pani, a colleague of Enrique Langenscheidt, was already completing the monumental works that would define the age. This may not be one them, but it remains a unique and remarkable temple. But part of the reason it’s not discussed more must surely be that many still remember the temple that preceded it. Something of the angst of that loss must surely be expressed in the concrete of today.