Ep. 019: Ancient Churches in the City of Holy Faith

A visit to Santa Fe, New Mexico

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In writing this episode, I have leaned heavily on one of the jewels of my collection of 3,000 or so books. I bought John L. Kessell's The Missions of New Mexico Since 1776 back in the early 90s for the princely sum of $45.00; one copy of this magisterial work is available on Amazon now for over four times that!

Three of the churches I discuss here--the Cathedral of St. Francis, the Castrense, and San Miguel--are well covered by Kessell; the other three--the Santuario de Guadalupe, Loretto Chapel, and Cristo Rey--are mentioned by Kessell only in passing for a rather peculiar reason.

Kessell's book is the follow-up to a document by one Fray Francisco Atanasio Dominguez, who wrote a report for the church authorities on the condition of New Mexico's missions in 1776. Kessell thus includes only those churches which Dominguez saw in that year. So the last three churches are too "new"--even though the Santuario was built sometime between 1795 and 1803!

(Dominguez, by the way, is remembered today in the name of the Dominguez-Escalante expedition, which--also in that banner year of 1776--sought an overland route from Santa Fe to the mission at Monterey in central California. The expedition returned to Santa Fe without reaching California, but some of the route they traversed became part of the "Old Spanish Trail" from Santa Fe to Los Angeles--actually, to the suburb of L.A. next to the one where I grew up. "Dominguez-Escalante" is also a National Conservation Area in western Colorado, named for these two intrepid explorers.)


Santa Fe, the "City Different"

Santa Fe prides itself on being different from most American cities. For one thing, it's commonly called "the oldest state capital in the US." That's a stretch, as New Mexico only became a state in 1912, number 47 of our 50. Only Arizona (by just over a month), Alaska, and Hawaii are newer.

But it did become a capital city in 1610: the capital of the Spanish province of New Spain. With Mexican independence in the early 1820s, it became capital of the Mexican territory of the same name; in 1848, with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the end of the Mexican-American War, it became capital of America's New Mexico Territory (which at one time embraced much of modern Arizona as well); and finally, in 1912, it became a state capital.

Today, it's a tourist mecca, with its fine architecture and artsy atmosphere; its summer outdoor opera and winter skiing; and the museums around the plaza and on "Museum Hill."

Oh, and that "City Different" thing? Many take it to mean that Santa Fe is different from other cities. But the original nickname was coined in the 1930s to distinguish the newly "pueblo-fied" city's environment from what British explorer and travel writer George Ruxton called in the late 1840s "miserable, mud-built Santa Fe."


The Churches of Santa Fe

Santa Fe's original name was La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asís, or "The Royal Town of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi." Despite its shiny modernism, it's still a city whose main attractions include a number of ancient churches. Three were included in Padre Dominguez's 1776 tally, but one of those is gone. In addition to the two survivors, there are three more worth a visit; four of these five are within walking distance of the Plaza.


From La Parroquia to The Cathedral of St. Francis

The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi and its most famous occupant, La Conquistadora

Padre Dominguez described the adobe parroquia, the parish church built from 1713-1717 just east of the Plaza, and facing toward it. The church largely collapsed in 1798, and was shabbily rebuilt by 1806.

When the French bishop-to-be Jean-Baptiste Lamy arrived in the now-American city in 1851, he was not invested right away, as the local Mexican clergy refused to recognize his authority. He had to travel to headquarters in Durango, Mexico, and show his papal credentials. In 1853, New Mexico became a diocese, and Lamy its first bishop. He built numerous churches, including the tasty little chapel we'll visit next, and turned crumbly old St. Francis Church into a stone cathedral. His struggles are fictionalized in Willa Cather's evocative book, Death Comes for the Archbishop. (Lamy indeed died nearly eight years before his cathedral was finished.) If you haven't read Cather's book, stop reading this and go read it right now!

Anyway, in 1868 Lamy began clearing the ground around the old church. The stone walls went up around the adobe ones, and in August of 1884 the six-foot-thick adobe walls were torn down and carried out the new front door.

The original conception for the Cathedral's towers (thank goodness this didn't happen!); from Kessell

The Romanesque architecture of the "new" building (dedicated in 1895) would be more shocking if it hadn't been built of stone showing an almost adobe-esque ruddy color. In a fortunate change of plan, the original 160-foot towers never made it above 85 feet. The final flat-topped twin towers are immeasurably more appropriate.

The north transept of the Cathedral contains a statue of the Virgin Mary called "La Conquistadora." She was credited with the Spanish victory in retaking the city after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. In a not-too-surprising white-washing of history, in 1992--the 300th anniversary of the re-conquest--she was re-dubbed "Our Lady of Peace." Most people ignore the title.


The Loretto Chapel

The out-of-place Chapel of Loretto and its "miraculous" staircase

We interrupt this more-or-less chronological tour to insert a church not completed until 1878.

In the early 1850s, then-Bishop Lamy invited an order of nuns with the evocative name "the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross" to come out from Kentucky and start a girls' school. Loretto Academy (which is no more) commissioned the chapel in 1873. Lamy lent them two French architects, who designed the shocking (for its environment) Gothic Revival building, basing it on the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris with spires and buttresses, and stained glass windows brought all the way from France. The chapel was used by the school until its closing in 1968, and today is used for cultural events.

You may have heard something about this building because of one unique feature. Here's the story as I heard it.

When the chapel was built, access to the choir loft was to be by ladder, as is typical for pueblo-style churches. But this was not appropriate for a girls' school chapel run by nuns. There was no room for a stairway inside, and one on the outside would have marred the beauty of the exterior. So the Sisters said a novena to Saint Joseph (the carpenter, father of Jesus) for a miracle.

One day in 1877 an old man appeared and built a staircase that seems to defy the law of physics: It has a double-turn, and no central pole. There was no glue or nails in its construction. All that was holding it up was--God?

And to add to the mystery, the wood does not seem to come from any local source!

The old man asked for no pay, and when asked his name, answered simply, "Soy el carpintero"--I am the Carpenter. The Sisters believed it was Saint Joseph the Carpenter himself.

Beautiful as it was, the Sisters and the girls used it with fear, as there was no stair rail. (It's said they used to descend on hands and knees. There's a picture!) A rail was added ten years after construction, and a strut was added connecting the staircase to a nearby pillar--just in case. It seems that, until the strut was added, the staircase worked sort of like a spring!

Never mind that nail-free joinery was a standard carpentry technique; that the wood has been identified as spruce; or that at least one investigator has identified a potential builder. It's a miracle, by golly, and that is that!

But it truly is gorgeous.


La Capilla Castrense, the Military Chapel

The Castrense; from Kessell, with his caption

You won't be seeing any photos of the Church of Our Lady of Light (Nuestra Senora de la Luz) because I'm not a time traveler.

Built by Don Francisco Antonio Marin del Valle, Governor of the Province from 1756 to 1760, the church was on the south side of the Plaza, facing right into it. This was to lead to its downfall later.

Despite its formal name, the locals called the church the "Castrense," shortened from La Capilla Castrense, or the Military Chapel. Though never formally belonging to the military, it was the church of choice for the governors, military officers, and ordinary soldiers. Likewise, the long-time vicar of the church was a military chaplain. On his arrival Lamy called it "the finest chapel we had here." A few years later, in 1859, he deconsecrated and sold it. (For quite some time, the site was a department store--in one period, JCPenney--and now it's a boutique. A plaque on the front wall marks the spot.)

Why did Lamy sell? It seems that the churchgoers were being harassed by the lay-abouts in the Plaza across the street. The source doesn't say this, but it's easy to imagine that these may have been Americans--adventurers and whatnot--pestering the good people of the town. Just as likely, I suspect, is that Lamy was trying to get his cathedral off the ground, and the Castrense was major competition.

Anyway, to Governor Marin's lasting credit, when the chapel was being built, he had commissioned a 30-foot high white stone reredos by anonymous Mexican Indian carvers, to go behind the church's altar. When Lamy had the church demolished, he moved the reredos to the parroquia, where it stood behind that altar until permanently hidden by the design of the Cathedral in the 1890s. It was boxed up in a small museum/storeroom, described by one visitor as looking like a "mineshaft," until its resurrection in the late 1930s.


San Miguel, the "Oldest Church"?

San Miguel and its altar and reredos

Here's part of a passage from the Wikipedia article about the San Miguel Mission:

San Miguel Mission ... is a Spanish colonial mission church in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Built between approximately 1610 and 1626, it is the oldest known church in the continental United States. The church ... was rebuilt in 1710 following the Spanish reconquest... Though the church has been repaired and rebuilt numerous times over the years, its original adobe walls are still largely intact despite having been hidden by later additions.

Let me add a very romantic quote from an 1881 visitor, a U.S. Army officer named John Gregory Bourke: "With a feeling of awe, we left a chapel whose walls had re-echoed the prayers of men who perhaps had looked into the faces of Cortés and Montezuma or listened to the gentle teachings of Las Casas."

I hate to be a buzzkill, but, in fact, Mr. Kessell says that there is no doubt: though older foundations were found, a 1955 survey proves that no part of the church pre-exists 1710, making it far from America's oldest church. You can drop the "re-" from "rebuilt in 1710"--it was just "built." The "Oldest Church" claim came from city (and church) boosters.

The church is located on the south side of the now nearly-nonexistent Santa Fe River, and served a Native population. It started as a "hermitage" (sub-church) of the parroquia, and was destroyed and rebuilt several times before the 1710 "rebuild." The front tower was formerly much higher; a heavy bell may have contributed to the downfall of its upper portions in a storm during the winter of 1871-1872. And its hallmark buttresses were added to the front in 1888 to prevent an imminent collapse.

The church's gorgeous altar screen, first painted in 1798, was subsequently (gasp!) covered with house paint!par This inadvertently protected it over the years; its 1955 restoration may not have been possible without this sacrilege.

In July of 1972, a couple of teenage thieves stole the 1709 statue of San Miguel from over the altar, along with some paintings; in March of 1973, the same culprits nabbed La Conquistadora from the Cathedral. One of the confederates led authorities to the goods in an abandoned mineshaft the following month, where they were meant to serve as part of an unsuccessful $150,000 ransom plot.

The faithful believe that La Conquistadora went out of the Cathedral to find San Miguel and guide him home.

Incidentally, the purported "Oldest House in the USA," right across the lane? Nope.


The Santuario de Guadalupe

A shot of the Santuario de Guadalupe before its replastering, and the modern statue of the Virgen

Probably built in the late 18th century, this is the oldest shrine dedicated to Mexico City's Virgin of Guadalupe in the U.S. (No! Really!) In 1961 the chapel was in such disrepair that a new church was built next door; the old church is now used primarily for cultural events, and functions as a museum.

Unlike the reredos that had lived in both the the Castrense and the Parroquia, the one in the Santuario was painted in Mexico City and transported by ox cart up the Camino Real. It's dated 1783. A 12-foot modern statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe stands in a courtyard slightly to the northeast of the old church.


Cristo Rey Church, Current Custodian of the Reredos

The asymmetrical front of John Gaw Meem's Cristo Rey Church, where the reredos has reached its final home (maybe). Lighting on the altar is tricky in some New Mexican churches, as a window--positioned to light the reredos--often leaves the altar in the dark.

So, remember Governor Marin's gift to the Castrense, the 30-foot carved stone reredos? And remember how it was moved to the parroquia, and hidden when the Cathedral replaced the old church?

Well. In 1932, a group of concerned citizens, with the solemn name the Society for the Preservation of New Mexico Mission Churches, Inc., raised $10,000 (in the Great Depression!) to build a new home for what some have called "the most important piece of ecclesiastical Eighteenth Century sculpture in the United States."

Ground was broken on tone-y Canyon Road in 1939, and construction was completed the next year--the 400th anniversary of Coronado's 1540 entrada into New Mexico, the beginning of the state's Spanish history. The building is said to be made of 180,000 individual adobe bricks, and claims are made that it is one of largest adobe buildings in the U.S. It's 125 feet long, 40 feet wide, and 33 feet high; the walls are up to nine feet thick in places. It has been called "the last, great adobe mission."

The architect was the celebrated Pueblo Revivalist John Gaw Meem, whose resume includes work on the churches in several actual Pueblos (Native American towns); the expansion and remodeling of Santa Fe's famous La Fonda Hotel; and many of the buildings (and inspiration for the overall design) at Albuquerque's University of New Mexico.

I haven't been inside in years, though I saw the exterior in 2015. (Same with the Santuario, but we did go inside the Cathedral, the Chapel at Loretto, and San Miguel on our one-day visit to Santa Fe.) But I still remember the queer feeling of both age--all that adobe, and the revered reredos--and modernity (the walls are supported by an invisible steel frame, but I knew it was there).

And that is a pretty good summation of Santa Fe itself: age and modernity, with a laid-back atmosphere--and a steel spine.

I hope you've enjoyed this quick tour of one of my favorite cities in the world.

Until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


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In the next episode: We'll take a quick look at one of the wonders of Japan: the Great Buddha at Kamakura, whose temple was washed away from around him in a 1498 tsunami, and whose 103 tons moved over a foot and a half in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. And there he serenely sits to this day!