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Saving their chapel

Nestled among the big rolling hills just outside Crows Landing is a little chapel that stands as a testament to one man's faith and a community's connection to tradition and history. And when a raging wildfire began a rapid approach towards the chapel, it was a community that banded together to save it from the flames.

The chapel — Ermida De Nossa Senhora Do Pilar — was completed in 1981 by Manuel Sousa, with the help of his brother-in-law Manuel Mendes Cardoso, on a small hill among the 6,000 acres of grazing land Sousa had purchased years after immigrating from Portugal. 

The chapel was a replica of the church Sousa had attended in his village and was a religious link to the bloodless bullfights held at the property named Pico Dos Padres. But for Sousa and the Portuguese community in the area, the chapel meant so much more.

"All immigrants, as happy as they are to immigrate and start their lives in the United States, they want to have some tie to their homeland," said Liliana Sousa-Downs, Manuel Sousa's youngest daughter. "This was a way to have that tie to his homeland, having a chapel on the hill. It brought him and others closer to their culture."

"He was always a very spiritual man," said Maxine Sousa-Correia, Manuel Sousa's eldest daughter. "This was his favorite place and he would come here every weekend."

Whether it was for the bloodless bullfights, special occasions like weddings, baptisms and masses, or just for a picnic on the hillside, the little chapel quickly became a gathering place for many people.

"As a kid, I took it for granted," said Sousa-Correia. "Now as an adult I run into people who tell me about coming out here with their families and how much it meant to them."

"A lot of the people would work their jobs during the week and then come out here on the weekend with their children and grandchildren and they were able to show them what their life was like in their homeland, at least some part of it," said Sousa-Downs.

After Manuel Sousa's passing a new generation has continued to gather at Pico Dos Padres, shepherded by his son, Manuel "Kool" Sousa.

"It's not just a ranch out here," Manuel Sousa said. "It's a community."

Never did those words ring more truer than in August when Manuel Sousa was notified that the lightening fire that had ignited in Del Puerto Canyon was now headed in his direction.

"They didn't think there was anything that could be done to stop it," Manuel Sousa said. 

Reflecting on all the work his father had done to the property, from the chapel to the 25 miles of fencing he had put in, Manuel Sousa couldn't imagine the heartbreak if it was all lost to the flames.

"I came in here," Manuel said of the chapel, "and lit some candles and said a few words asking for some help."

He then got to work to try and save the land his father had nurtured and it wasn't long before help arrived. Family, friends and neighbors, without being asked, began arriving with tractors and shovels and undertook an effort to keep the flames at bay.

By day the tractors would scrape the land to create fire barriers and at night they would patrol the land with shovels looking for any embers and keeping a wary eye on the glow burning ever closer. 

"It would move off in one direction and then the wind would shift and drive it back toward us," Manuel Sousa said. "The scariest part were these old trees that would be smoldering and then the limbs would break off and roll down a hill throwing embers everywhere."

Over six grueling days and nights this makeshift group kept their efforts going and finally on the seventh day they were rewarded when the winds died down and they were able to rest.

in the end, not a single fence post was charred and the chapel stood untouched by the flames.

"It was a real eyeopener to see all these people that came out here to help," said Sousa-Correia. "It was really quite beautiful."