The Chapel of San Sebastián Mártir was laid-out in the 16th century. Originally, and for many years, the site was an open-air chapel on the edge of the Carmelites’ orchards and gardens. These made up most of the land today occupied by the neighborhood of Chimalistac. The open chapel is first mentioned in 1553.
Towards the end of the 17th century, a roof was built and the side arches were closed. The chancel and tower were added soon after. The chapel continued in service until the application of the Reform Laws of 1867. It was then confiscated by the government and abandoned. The temple then served as the set for a number of movies, most notable the 1931 version of Santa, based on the novel of the same name by Federico Gamboa and set in the neighborhood.
The entrance to the atrium was built in the 17th century. This includes a central arch with angels on either side. A figure in the center represents San Sebastián. The town shield of San Sebastián de Axotla is painted on the walls. This depicts axolotls in a lagoon and a poem. A centennial cross can be seen from the atrium. The trees on the plaza conceal what had been a graveyard for many years.
By 1938, the chapel was in ruins and the residents of the neighborhood organized and financially supported its reconstruction. In about 1941, Antonio Palma, a Chimalistac resident who worked in the city’s Department of Historical Monuments, discovered an 18th century altarpiece in the cellars of the former Monastery of Churubusco. In the Baroque style, the altarpiece had been in the original Church of La Piedad, (not the one we see today). The original church had been inexplicably demolished in 1935. With supported from the neighbors, Palma had the altarpiece moved to the San Sebastián chapel. It depicts the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary.
In 1955, the Chapel of San Sebastián Mártir was restored by the German painter, diplomat, and architect, Alexander von Wuthenau. He built the choir, sacristy, and church offices.
This chapel is dedicated to Saint Sebastian, a protector from epidemics and plagues. Sebastian’s feast day is celebrated on January 20th, and the Saint is still walked on procession through the neighborhood among dancers and fireworks. But don’t wait for January. Chimalistac is one of the city’s great historical and tree-shaded neighborhoods. With a good half-dozen things to see, it’s brief, but deep.