SAN JUAN — The crowd sang, cheered and prayed as Bishop Daniel Flores and Father Amadeo Garza blessed the newest addition to the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle: a welcome plaza with a fountain and a 10-foot bronze statue of the Virgin Mary.

“The welcome plaza will be a landmark to the grounds of the basilica — a place of reflection and prayer, and a beautiful addition to the city of San Juan,” said Garza, director of the basilica.

The welcome plaza, which has been in the works since 2013, was unveiled in a ceremony Thursday evening at the basilica. This project is just one of the many improvements being made to the shrine, including the repaired mural and plans to expand the east parking lot.

Originally, the plan was to install an electronic billboard facing the expressway. After several people told Garza the idea sounded “gross,” he ditched it and took inspiration from Mexico City.

“We visited the basilica there and we saw the statue of Pope John Paul in the front, and I said, ‘Why don’t we make a statue of La Madre at our basilica?’” Garza said. “That little conversation about the mother of God is what brought us all here today.”

He met with Edmund Rabanser, an Italian artist who sculpted each installation for the Stations of the Cross. Rabanser created a 16-inch wooden prototype, and with suggestions from Garza, created the full statue. It was completed in April of 2014.

Although the statue was completed, the money was not immediately available to build the platform where it would sit. So Garza took the suggestion from a friend to sell replicas of Rabanser’s small-scale model, which sold like “pan caliente.” And he was right — the money made from those sales helped the project move forward.

However, Garza emphasized that the unveiling ceremony would not have been possible without the help of Charles Butt of H-E-B, which donated a $25,000 to the project.

“We are elated to see such an amazing project come to completion,” Garza said. “And we are overwhelmed with the support of our patrons to make this possible.”

Garza, who was been director of the basilica since 2010, said its past and present leaders take on projects to improve the environment in some way. He knows how devoted the basilica’s community is and how hopeful it can be for people to have a physical manifestation of their faith.

“There’s a sense of healing these people find with La Madre, because she’s a source of comfort and love,” Garza said. “And as for the statue, I truly believe that art elevates our spirits. What we do with our hands is an attempt to imitate the beauty of the work God has put before us.”