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  • Natalie Taylor

STORIES OF SAN MIGUEL: Dry lightning on a clear afternoon

Not even a small cloud passed across the clear, blue afternoon sky. It was a Thursday, June 29, 1943 and all was calm in San Miguel de Allende. Although it was the beginning of the rainy season, there was no sign of possible rain that day. Men, women and children walked along Juarez Street, some returning from mass at either the Oratorio or La Salud, some on their way to or from the Ignacio Ramirez Market—the huge stone structure which then stood in the Plaza Civica. They walked on the east side of the street, because along the other side men were working on the cobblestones, digging a hole in the street besideSan Francisco Church. There was nothing particular about this afternoon as it drifted toward evening.


The Ignacio Ramirez market, where now stands a statue of Ignacio Allende on a horse

Suddenly there was a flash of light, and an explosive sound. The bell tower of San Francisco church shook, and large pieces of cantera stones broke off and fell, instantly killing two of the workers below.

What had just happened was a strange natural event called dry lightning. It is a phenomenon that occurs in very dry conditions, without rain. The biggest danger is that it may cause major fires because the ground is usually quite dry already, and the powerful electrical discharge of a thunderbolt can set buildings and trees on fire.

Imagine throwing a burning match onto a bunch of kindling, then imagine that kindling hit by upwards of 300 million volts. The power is hard to fathom.

Many San Miguel residents were witness to this, and related their stories either in writing, or by telling others about it, preserving it as oral history. One of the more detailed retelling was done by the parish priest who served in the Parroquia during those years, his name was Father Jose Mercadillo. Here is his story:

Suddenly there came the sound of thunder and the earth shook. Not even five minutes passed when a man came running to ask me to take confession of two people wounded by lightning.

“Lightning? I asked.

“Yes, lightning,” he said, terrified.

“But what lightning?”

“The one that just struck. On San Francisco!”

“Let’s go,” I said, taking into my hands the vials of holy oils.

                Illustration by Lorenzo Barajas, San Miguel artist,  (1912-1974)

We left running and when we arrived at the place, the mayor had given orders that no one should come close to the place. When he saw me, he warned that I should proceed with caution because there were still rocks falling off from the dome of the church tower.

Everyone’s faces were filled with surprise and fear. After the wounded had been taken care of, and after administering extreme unction to the dead one, I tried to find out what had happened.

The mayor, whose nickname was Piquin, explained that dry lightning had struck the tower of San Francisco and had destroyed its southern end. Rocks had fallen precisely in the area where some workers were opening a hole in the ground next to the sidewalk. One died instantly when a rock hit his head, and the others were wounded.

They went inside the church to check on any further damage, and found a lot of damage in the interior, although the choir was untouched. Then he found out that a new priest had arrived to San Francisco that afternoon, and walked to the adjoining convent to meet him. He met the new priest, Fray Francisco de Landaverde who had just arrived from Tlapujaua.

He explained that he had been sitting by the window looking out at the gardens, and after a while heard an explosion. He had no idea what could have happened. Then I explained everything to the reverend Father, adding:  what a way for San Miguel to greet you, Father, striking no less than the tower!”

Another anecdote about that day comes from Luis Miguel Villarreal. He says that his uncle, Agustin Sautto, was leaning on a light pole, watching the workers break down the rocks in the street, when the lightning bolt hit the bell tower. The powerful explosion threw his uncle to the middle of the street.

My grandfather was at the desk at home and saw him fly away and fall. My grandfather ran and said to him: “What happened to you, Agustín, what happened to you?” And my uncle said: “Nothing, dad, just a scare.”

But the injury must have been graver that appeared at first, because Agustin Sautto died a few days after the incident.

Soledad Gonzales was another witness to that afternoon’s event: I was very little when the lightning bolt knocked down part of the San Francisco bell tower. My mom had a stand outside the church, and I was with her. Although it was a cloudless afternoon, suddenly we heard thunder, and the lightning bolt hit the tower and knocked down some pieces of quarry. When she heard the roar of thunder, my mother, leaned against the wall and I ran to her. We wanted to go into the church, but it was closed at that time. The pieces of quarry could have killed us because they fell almost on top of my mother's stall. The stand next to us was covered with dust. Then the stretcher bearers came running to pick up the person who was lying in the middle of the street.

And Maruja Gonzalez, whose family has lived in the city for several centuries, recounted: My aunt Lupe told us that when lightning hit the bell tower of San Francisco, she was in the garden with other people. The clapper of the bell fell on the edge of her skirt. She used to wear those long skirts then, and that’s what might have saved her, because if it had fallen on her she would have been killed.

These were the firsthand accounts of that incredible afternoon, when nature decided to play a nasty trick on San Miguel de Allende. No rain, but a strong thunderbolt lit the sky instead.

For us residents, who are familiar with the church and gardens of San Francisco, a walk on the grounds today can allow us to remember an event that we only know through secondhand accounts. And incredibly, some things have not changed over those 80 years. Certainly the trees in the garden are much bigger, and perhaps better trimmed, most of the women no longer wear long, flowing skirts—though some still might. But the building is the same, as is the blue sky above, and incredibly, we still see workers tearing up the cobblestones, and sidewalks along Juarez Street, just as was taking place on that eventful day in 1943.

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Danita Brisson
Danita Brisson
Mar 25

Wow! What a fascinating story! How fortunate that you are capturing this oral history and preserving it for future generations. More, please!


Danita Brisson
Danita Brisson
Mar 25

I appreciate learning about Mexico's cultural rites, rituals and forms of entertainment, but am also happy that bullfighting is no longer a part of San Miguel's celebrations. Along with dog or cock fights, the use of stockades, stonings and public executions, its place is in the history books rather than in our daily lives.

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