Two years ago, on a temporary, plain wooden door at the main entrance to San Antonio del Río Colorado (St. Anthony’s of Red River) Church in Questa, New Mexico — just a few clicks north of Taos on State Road 522 — the word “welcome” was handwritten in black marker. Inside the historic sanctuary it smelled of sawdust, hay and cooled earth. Scaffolding reached to the pitched roof, and new wooden slats strengthened ancient arched windows. The ceiling was lined with original dark wood planks, 23 vigas, 44 corbels and two double corbels. New adobe bricks were being painstakingly placed, with modern electrical wiring seamlessly weaving around them. New plumbing and heating were next to be installed. San Antonio del Río Colorado was finally coming back to life.
This Catholic church has served as a place of worship and as a beacon of community spirit for many generations. It was built in the mid-1800s by the first families of what was then the village of San Antonio del Río Colorado. Emotional debates followed after the Archdiocese of Santa Fe suggested tearing the church down after the east wall collapsed in the fall of 2008. Some members of the community agreed with the archdiocese’s view that no more of the parish’s money should be spent on the broken structure. But others — such as Malaquais Rael, former Questa mayor and chairman of the board of the Questa Economic Development Office — believed they could, and should, rebuild it.
The supporters wouldn’t take no for an answer. Things got a little testy between the archdiocese and church supporters for a while, but they just kept fighting the good fight.
“It wasn’t its time,” says Rael, who was a construction volunteer and puissant organizer on the project and is a descendant of some of the church’s original builders. “This place wasn’t done yet. It’s the oldest building in town. It is the true heart of the community.”
First a political struggle
It turned into a two-year struggle by parishioners to gain the Archdiocese of Santa Fe’s permission to restore the damaged church, but their “dogged persistence” was at last rewarded.
In an interview with The Taos News in November 2010, then Questa mayor Esther García expressed her feelings about the restoration victory: “That church means a lot to the people. It really does. There’s a connection to that church that everybody has. It’s not just a building. It’s something that holds these people [together].” And she recently noted, “It was a big, big challenge. I had to threaten [the archdiocese] with eminent domain.”
In 2011, after the two sides finally reached an agreement, volunteers embarked on rebuilding the temporarily deconsecrated building. The agreement provided parishioners six years to carry out designs for rebuilding and renovating the old adobe structure. They got the green light but had no money. The estimated cost for the project was $1 million to $1.5 million, Rael said.
Bake sales & donors
Not to be stymied, they held car washes, garage sales, bake sales and two Valentine’s Day dances. They hosted silent auctions and raffled off a 1948 Ford pickup and an Indian motorcycle. They also sold some of the old adobe bricks from the church to add to the pot. It was a nickel-and-dime approach, but the pot grew to more than $600,000. The Catholic Foundation chipped in $12,000. An unnamed woman in Durango, Colorado, donated money for the new stained glass windows. Another individual gave $25,000. The largest single donation, Rael said, was $30,000 from a private donor. And they acquired nearly $500,000 worth of donated equipment and materials — much of that coming from Chevron, which operated a nearby mine.
“We tried everything under the sun to raise money,” Rael recalled. “And there was not a single day that we had to stop work because of lack of money. That in itself was an accomplishment.” With a light glowing at the end of the financial tunnel, the next goal was to bring the church back to its original state with some modern updates — on time and under budget.
Once the restorers got into the crumbling structure and took a hard look at its condition, it was apparent that more than one wall needed fixing. The church was built before electricity, plumbing and central heating were options. A foundation was never laid because that’s not how structures were built more than 170 years ago. Buttresses were in desperate need of replacing. The church’s exterior needed to be strengthened. The choir loft needed to be rebuilt. Fortunately, the original fixtures inside the church were not damaged, and the beautiful Stations of the Cross were all spared.
While working in the rafters, Rael spotted the name of one of his grandfather’s relatives beautifully scribed on a viga. Soon, workers were finding other names and initials of laborers who in 1899 covered the original latillas and mud roof.
In less than a year, two new walls went up under the supervision of foreman Mark Sideris.
The local staff of the Questa Ranger District of the Carson National Forest directed volunteers to a tall Douglas fir that needed to be removed from one of their campsites. This timber helped rebuild the choir loft.
The restoration’s art focus in 2015 was on Marcus Rael, a local stained glass artist, deacon and descendant of one of Questa’s founding families. For him, the project mirrored the structure’s renovation — keeping with tradition but adding improvements. His inspiration for new designs on many of the windows came from old santos and retablos he found during a pilgrimage he walks every year. During a stop in Córdova, some beautiful images caught his eye. They were small but dramatic pieces. They gave him a vision.
“I thought we should do what these guys did, but just bigger,” Marcus Rael told The Taos News in May 2015.
Volunteers then began sketching designs for four windows on the church’s west and east sides. San Antonio, the church’s patron saint, is portrayed in one window. The other windows represent Our Lady of Guadalupe, San Ysidro and the Christ child.
A few new windows were added, giving the structure’s original design a little facelift. The windows are finished with a patina of copper sulfate, which gives them an older look, in keeping with the plan of new yet not shiny. Volunteer Paul Lacombe created one of the new windows, which is circular, measures about 5 feet, features a dove and is surrounded by an oak frame. It now adorns the church entrance. Another new window was placed over the altar after parishioners expressed how much they loved the streaks of sunlight streaming into the building during the renovation. This window illustrates the resurrection of Christ.
40,000 volunteer hours
Volunteers from Questa, Taos County and even Colorado descended on the church every week over approximately five years. Many of the volunteer laborers — or “workaholics” as Malaquais Rael and Sideris call them — were retired. Some 20 to 50 ready, willing and able hands came to the church during any given week. Volunteer hours reached more than 40,000. “People come from all over,” Sideris beamed during the restoration in 2015. “They find the joy of being here.”
No contractors had a role in the reconstruction. Sideris and friends liked it that way. “That’s the neatest part — not hiring a contractor,” Malaquais Rael stated. “It takes a little longer [with volunteers only], but the work is much more meaningful.”
On Aug. 14, 2016, San Antonio del Río Colorado Church was rededicated during a heavily attended noon Mass led by the Most Rev. John C. Webster, archbishop of Santa Fe. Funds for the ceremony were partially provided by the Northern Río Grande National Heritage Area. Again, volunteers and parishioners rose up to fill the gaps.
Malaquais Rael, with almost a song in his voice, recalls, “That was a great day for me. It was a high-emotion day — such a joyful day. It felt good to know that we were persistent enough to start and finish. Our word was on the line and we lived up to it.”
With leftover funds, volunteers put down about 4,000 new bricks in the courtyard. In May the outside stucco color coat was finished and new flagstone planters were added in the courtyard. This summer, a $15,000 bronze sculpture of St. Anthony — created by artist Huberto Maestas of San Luis, Colorado, and purchased with funds raised by parishioners — was also placed in the church’s courtyard.
People who visit the church will be struck by a clear sense of history and by the unwavering faith and the undying devotion of a small Northern New Mexico community.