Friday, January 8, 1999 Published at 18:46 GMT
Saving Mexico's sinking cathedral
The cathedral has been sinking for almost 500 years
By Peter Greste in Mexico City
The Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City is the oldest of its kind in the Americas - but it's in crisis.
It is a spectacular monument to Catholicism in the heart of the world's biggest city, but like Italy's Leaning Tower of Pisa, the building has been sinking since the day it was built almost 500 years ago.
The problem is not so obvious from the outside, but for the clergy and the devoted Catholics who worship there, it is deeply disruptive.
Archbishop Padre Luis Avila Blancas says: "It is hard to express the feeling that working here evokes, because it involves people's faith.
"There's been centuries of co-operation to build this house of God. Even the artwork is from the 17th Century, which was a time when artists showed their love of God. This whole building is an expression of love and faith of all believers."
Amid the engineering works the cathedral remains the focus for thousands of Mexicans who depend on its religious support to help them through the country's social and economic troubles.
In a tunnel underneath the cathedral, archaeologists have found the building that originally stood on the site - the Aztec Pyramid of the Sun - their main temple of worship.
The Conquistadors chose to use it as the foundation for the Cathedral Sacrament, an audacious attempt to show just whose God was superior, and a breathtaking example of the clash between Aztec and European cultures.
The man who heads the team trying to save the building is Architect Sergio Saldivar. He has been studying it from every conceivable angle for the past decade knows the problems well.
The water is still there beneath the metropolis but Mexico City's inhabitants are drinking the supply dry and the entire city, not just the Cathedral, is slowly collapsing.
The crisis is most obvious in the south wing - it has dipped almost a metre more than the rest of the structure.
But if the problem is underground, so is the solution. Workers began digging shafts under the cathedral in 1993 to try to straighten and level the building. Now they are slowly shoring up the sludge with shafts of concrete, to try to give the 127-thousand tonne edifice a solid base to rest on.
One man with a front-row view of events is chief bell ringer Rafael Parra. Each day he treads the same route that five centuries of his predecessors have made to mark time across the city.
He says: "Tolling the main bell is a great pride - it fills me with a great spirituality. And it makes me aware that I am part of the history of this Cathedral."
"The restoration and maintenance work is vital for this colonial jewel. It is an edifice we cannot lose and it is Mexico's responsibility to protect and take care of it."
Millions of Mexicans also hope and pray that the Cathedral's bells will not be tolling its own death knell for many more centuries.