Land Water People Time

Ancient and modern churches reflect enduring faith

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No public spaces in Northern New Mexico are more reflective of local customs, the skills of homegrown artisans and particular traditions than are churches. In our ongoing look at various means and methods of religious faith in the area, in this issue we visit three iconic churches: San Gerónimo of Taos Pueblo, San Francisco de Asis in Ranchos de Taos and San Cristobal del Rey in Santa Fe.

San Gerónimo de Taos

Taos Pueblo was the site of the northernmost Franciscan mission in the Spanish colonial period. The original 17th-century San Gerónimo Church did not survive the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. The replacement, begun around 1706, was destroyed by the U.S. military in 1847. A third church stands here today, offering testimony in muted tones to the endurance of a people’s faith.

San Gerónimo de Taos sits just off the pueblo’s plaza, adjacent to the iconic, multistoried north house block. The diminutive single-nave church has two large buttresses in the back. Today it is painted white and the color of earth, although over the years it has worn other color schemes. The front of the structure features a surrounding retaining wall enclosing a tiny flagstone-paved camposanto (burial ground), which visitors enter through a portal of stair-step design. On a recent visit, I went in the church and found myself quite alone, the perfect occasion for a moment’s contemplation of the confluence of cultures that was immediately apparent. Rather than wearing the traditional Eastertide liturgical colors, the Virgin Mary, who dominates the altar, was attired in delicate pink, because Taos faithful dress her according to the seasons: pink for spring, green for summer, yellow/gold for fall and white for winter. However, the colors have changed over the years, varying according to the wishes of the priest and the women who care for the church’s holy figures.

The church was completed about 1850, with its facade undergoing alteration several times since. In the late 19th century, the church looked like a typical Northern New Mexico village church. Photographs from the turn of the 20th century indicate that it had a single wooden bell tower. By the late 1920s or early 1930s, the church had a single bell tower of stepped adobe. In the 1950s the facade gained an exterior balcony, and two large bell towers at the corners of the façade, with a stepped wall between them, replaced the single central bell tower. 

A Franciscan priest, Fray Andrés García — who was also a talented santero (a maker of carved and painted saints) — served in New Mexico from 1748 to 1778. His image of Cristo en el Santo Sepulcro sits here in the chancel, and his Nuestra Señora de Dolores is on the main altar. Native artists have decorated the interior walls with images of saints, as well as cornstalks and other nature imagery. Nichos (niches) hold images of San Gerónimo and the Virgin Mary, the latter the work of famed santero José Rafael Aragón. 

Taos Pueblo is located at 120 Veterans Highway in Taos. The pueblo is open daily but closes for religious activities every spring for a month, and for the deaths of community members. Admission is $16 for adults ($14 for groups of eight or more adults) and $14 for students; children age 10 and under get in free. For more information call 575-758-1028 or visit http://taospueblo.com/.

San Francisco de Asis in Ranchos de Taos

The most frequently photographed and painted religious structure in the Southwest, and perhaps in America, is the sculptural-like adobe form of the church of San Francisco de Asis in Ranchos de Taos. Every major classical photographer of the region — from Ansel Adams and Paul Strand to Edward Weston — and countless living photographers, as well as painters as famous as Georgia O’Keeffe, have tried their hand at capturing the structure in imagery. Here is a thriving Roman Catholic parish, and when I visited the church on Cinco de Mayo, worshippers thronged it and spilled into the camposanto.

Official documents granting permission to Fray José Benito Pereyro to erect the church were completed in 1813, and the structure was ready in 1815. Such a massive edifice could not have been built in such a short time, and tree-ring dating of vigas hints that construction began around 1806, before the paperwork was finalized. Vigas span the 32 feet of the nave of the thick-walled cruciform adobe church and the 25 feet of the transept. In addition to these beams — transported from a great distance — building the church required more than 100,000 adobes. The structure features a transverse clerestory window, the most characteristic element of Spanish colonial New Mexico church architecture. Above the facade and roofline rise two small bell towers. Out front is a walled camposanto, and in the rear — the portion most often depicted by artists — are massive adobe buttresses built to support the thick walls, giving the structure an organic form that constantly seems to shift as the sun passes overhead.

Father Pereyro and Ignacio Durán funded and built the large reredo (altar screen). San Francisco occupies the center nicho of the reredo, which holds eight paintings on canvas, the work of an unknown artist. They may have come from outside New Mexico, although noted scholar E. Boyd reckoned them as early work of Antonio Molleno, a shadowy but prolific figure in the colonial art world of New Mexico. Painted swags (carved ornaments), spiral pillars and carved wooden moldings attached to the panels of the reredo separate the images. Among the images surrounding the central nicho are El Cristo de la Columna, Nuestro Padre Jesús Esquipulas Nazareno, Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria, San Lorenzo, San Francisco de Asis, San Antonio de Padua and the patriarch San José.

The church sits at 60 St. Francis Plaza, just off NM 68 at the blinking light on the south side of Taos in Ranchos de Taos. Masses are offered in Spanish and English on most days at various times. Parish offices can be reached at 575-758-2754. For details visit san-francisco-de-asis.org/. 

Cristo Rey in Santa Fe

I recently visited Cristo Rey Church in Santa Fe, which captures the grandeur of a bygone era with a modern interpretation of ancient mission architecture. On a Saturday before 4:30 Mass, the church was all but empty, and the afternoon light filtering through the clerestory window showed off to great effect the magnificent reredo, without question the most spectacular work of art from New Mexico’s colonial past. 

On Easter Sunday 1939, Archbishop Rudolph Aloysius Gerken announced plans for the construction of a new church in Santa Fe in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Spaniards in New Mexico. Renowned architect John Gaw Meem and his associate Hugo Zehner designed the building. The plans incorporated many of the elements of the Pueblo revival style for which Meem became famous, drawing on New Mexico missions for such features as the exterior balcony, the low tower, the portal and the transverse clerestory. 

After a ground-breaking on April 26, 1939, the church was blessed on June 27, 1940. Local men labored on the project, making adobes on site; they used around 180,000 in the church’s construction. The walls are from 2 to 9 feet thick. The structure had to be very solid to house the stone reredo, which measures 20 feet wide and 40 feet high. Colonial New Mexico renaissance man Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco had originally carved the work for La Castrense, a military chapel formerly located on the south side of the Santa Fe Plaza. Governor Francisco Marín del Valle (1754-1760) and his wealthy wife, Doña María Ignacia Martínez de Ugarte, were the patrons of the chapel and Miera’s artwork. The beautiful white stone came from a quarry some 24 miles north of Nambe Pueblo. 

In the middle of the first of three sections of the reredo is an oil painting of Nuestra Señora de la Luz, which Governor Marín had brought from Mexico City. Another image of particular note is San Ignacio de Loyola, founder of the Jesuit Order. His unexpected presence in Franciscan New Mexico reflects the devotion of the governor’s wife to the Jesuits. All the images of the saints are carved in high relief.

Cristo Rey is located at 1120 Canyon Road in Santa Fe. Visitors are welcome when the church is in service, when confessions are heard and by prior arrangement with the church office at 505- 983-8528. Masses are Sundays at 10 a.m., Saturdays at 4:30 p.m. and Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 12:10 p.m. For more information, visit cristoreyparish.org/. 

Rick Hendricks is the New Mexico state historian. He researches, writes about and lectures on the history of the people of New Mexico and Mexico, especially on matters related to religion and land. This is his second piece for Land Water People Time.

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