San Miguel Mission Church is open daily from sunrise to sunset (generally 7 a.m.–7 p.m., though it depends on the season). The museum and gift shop are open Mon.– Thurs., 10 a.m.–4 p.m.; Fri., 10 a.m.–noon; and Sun., 8:30–11:30 a.m. Check the website for the schedule of masses and other religious observances, either to attend or to avoid interrupting those services. (575) 835-2891;

All events will be held at San Miguel Mission, unless otherwise noted.
January 30 “History of the Roman Catholic Church in Socorro Through the Diocese,” presentation by Monsignor Jerome Martinez y Alire. 7 p.m. February 22 “Passio Domini—The Passion of Our Lord,” concert presented by SCHOLA Cantorum of Santa Fe. 4 p.m.
March 22 “Music from Across the Ages,” concert by the Celebration Ensemble of Albuquerque. 4 p.m.
April 5 Easter Masses. At the San Miguel Mission (in Spanish) at 8 a.m., in the Capilla de Todos Angeles at San Miguel Mission at 10 a.m., and at St. Mary Magdalene at 12:30 p.m. April 25 San Miguel Gala. Mass at 4:30 p.m. with Monsignor Lambert Luna presiding. Followed by a formal dinner/dance at the New Mexico Tech Fidel Center. Advance tickets required.
July 26 “History of the Piro Native American People,” presentation by Piro descendant Anthony Morjado. 4 p.m. September 25–27 San Miguel Fiesta and close of the 400th anniversary celebrations.

In the fall of 2010, repairs were underway at Sagrada Familia de Lemitar, an unassuming church rising above the banks of the Río Grande in central New Mexico. The adobe had suffered water damage, and workers were doing what they thought were routine repairs. One day, just as they traded tools for tacos on a lunch break, a wall collapsed and a cascade of bricks narrowly missed burying the men.

“That no one was hurt was miraculous,” says Reverend Andrew Pavlak, pastor of this and eight other parish churches, as well as the “mother church,” San Miguel Mission in nearby Socorro.

The discovery of deterioration in Lemitar had, months earlier, prompted investigations into the structures of all the churches in San Miguel Parish. The diagnosis at the 400-year-old landmark church was particularly devastating. As workers removed a checkerboard of plaster to expose the adobe-brick foundings, they saw that the building’s structure was slowly washing away. In previous restorations, well-meaning craftsmen—looking to prevent the costly and time-consuming mudding process to maintain adobe—had covered the walls in concrete, suffocating the adobe. Over time, the mud bricks had soaked up rainwater, but instead of drying naturally, the sand had drained out of the wall as if from an hourglass. In places, exposed wiring sat in wet adobe, along with evidence of several small fires. The roof of the church was likely to collapse.

“It was like a rotten onion, where we kept peeling back new layers of the problem,” says Father Pavlak.

With the dust still settling in Lemitar, church officials weren’t taking any chances. Father Pavlak shuttered San Miguel on November 7, 2010.

Danny and Marliss Monette remember that weekend well: It was just six weeks before their daughter’s wedding. Danny had been baptized and confirmed in the church’s sheltering walls. “I was an altar boy. I would yawn during services and Father would give me a dirty look,” says Danny, a mischievous glint still present in his eyes. He and Marliss raised their children in the church. Then, weeks before one of the most memorable days in their daughter’s life, Marliss was scrambling to find draping fabric to disguise the walls of the wedding’s new location: the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic School gym. (Built on the San Miguel campus, the school closed in the nineties.)

That November weekend, the parishioners collected from the sanctuary the Stations of the Cross and other statues, carrying them in solemn procession into the gym, not knowing if they’d ever be able to take them back where they belonged.

“I knew there were going to be people who had been part of this church for their whole lives and were going to die before they could come back to the church. And they hardly had a chance to say goodbye,” says Pavlak, his voice still thick with regret.

The Heart of New Mexico
Father Pavlak gathered Socorro’s movers and shakers to decide the church’s future. Although he asked the group to consider razing and rebuilding the church, they quickly arrived at restoration as the path forward. According to Rosie Tripp, who was tapped as co-chair of the 400th anniversary committee, a group that became the church’s fundraising arm, “If it could be done, we were going to do it. It wasn’t only for the church, or even for Socorro. We see the church as a gift to all of New Mexico and the Southwest.”

Indeed, the history of San Miguel is the history of New Mexico; it’s a place where the cultures of the state converge and the tenacity needed to create a life in rugged country is plain to see.

In 1598, the native Piro Puebloans encountered explorer Don Juan de Oñate when his beleaguered expedition arrived at their bustling pueblo of Teypana, five miles south of present-day Socorro. The Spanish who survived El Jornada del Muerto—the Journey of Death—were starving. The Piro tribe gave (or were compelled to give) corn that sustained the expedition as it pressed north to settle at Ohkay Owingeh, launching the initial period of Spanish influence over these lands. In his journals, Oñate called the pueblo Socorro, which means “help.”

Although popular and scholarly accounts differ about whether Franciscan priests established a church in the valley in 1615 (the commencement of San Miguel’s 400-year history), the stories converge in 1926, when a church was dedicated as Nuestra Señora del Perpetuo Socorro (Our Lady of Perpetual Help).

When, in 1680, the Pueblo Revolt erupted in the north, Spanish settlers abandoned the church and fled south. The Spanish forced some Piros south with them; other members of the tribe scattered to the winds, says Henry Torres, governor of the Piro-Manso-Tiwa tribe of Las Cruces. (Although this tribe is sometimes thought to have vanished and isn’t federally recognized today, Torres and his fellow tribe members trace their ancestral roots to Socorro and to San Miguel, where today a glass portal in the wood floor provides a glimpse of the Pueblo foundation.) The church sat derelict for a century until, in 1800, Spanish settlers returned and built the double-bell-tower monolith that stands on the site today. After a winged figure wielding a sword was said to have protected settlers seeking sanctuary from raiding Apaches, the faithful dedicated the church to Saint Michael the Archangel in 1821.

Four centuries into the Catholic influence in this valley, the church remains a touchstone for the Socorro community at large. Set 74 miles south of Albuquerque, where the landscape rises from the Río Grande to the Magdalena Mountains, Socorro is popularly known as a waypoint to the nearby Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and the Very Large Array astronomical radio observatory, 50 miles west of town. The town’s nine thousand residents are farmers and scientists, many of whom work for the VLA or the town’s university, the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology.

Daily life, however, revolves around the church, even for those who don’t share the faith. Beneath the multihued light of the San Miguel stained-glass window in the sanctuary, residents chatter in a fusion of Spanish and English about whose baby will be baptized and whose bake-sale goods were worth becoming a little gorda. “The church is the heart of Socorro,” says Mayor Ravi Bhasker, who happens to be Hindu.

That’s why Socorro residents gave all they could for the restoration—even if their pockets weren’t deep. “We’re a poor community,” says Father Pavlak. “We didn’t have the savings to fix this type of problem. All of this has been done on the backs of the people.” A golf tournament and a casino night paid for builders to remove the concrete walls, allow the adobe to dry, and rebuild the gaps in the brickwork—sometimes with bricks recycled from the church in Lemitar. Residents bought charms to place in the wall of the church, raising cash for the new subflooring that gave the walls breathing room and protected the graves of those buried in the church’s footprint. When the basket was passed yet again, the residents searched their couch cushions for spare change to reinforce the roof. Throughout the restoration, Pavlak called upon his training in church architecture, which he had coincidentally, or perhaps blessedly, studied in seminary.

Gradually, the church also shed the French Provincial décor acquired in a 1970s renovation, returning to its Spanish Colonial roots. The altar and ambo (podium) are made from travertine quarried in Belén. Local craftsman Frank Lewark fabricated the unadorned wooden pews and kneelers.

But the impressive $600,000 fundraising effort came up short: The exterior was unpainted, the stained-glass windows unprotected, and the floors were built in laminate instead of solid wood. Still, Pavlak remained positive. “We were always going to finish the church somehow,” he says, his native Chicago grit showing through.

The Loyal Son
It was time to call upon the town’s famous son, Conrad N. Hilton. Born in nearby San Antonio, New Mexico, in 1887, the future hotelier was baptized at San Miguel. He grew up working in his father’s general store and took over the Socorro County mercantile when he was 21. Throughout his childhood, the faith and philosophies of the Roman Catholic Church molded Hilton’s philanthropic inclinations. In 1951, the New Mexico Tech grad honored his parents, A. H. and Mary Hilton, with a financial gift that helped establish the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic School.

In the summer of 2013, the restoration committee submitted a grant application to the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, for a gift that would shape San Miguel’s future yet again. Holm Bursum III and his son Holm IV, who was involved with the 400th anniversary committee, reached out to their cousin, Steven M. Hilton, chairman of the foundation and Conrad’s grandson. Although this insider nudge and a September 2013 site visit from the foundation seemed promising, Father Pavlak didn’t get his hopes up. There was prayer, of course, but there was also practicality.

In November 2013, Father Pavlak answered the call that left him once again praising God. San Miguel would receive $1.1 million—the largest single gift in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe’s history. He shared the news first with his office staff. That trio of church ladies cried at the news—with joy and relief. Their prayers had been answered. The stained-glass windows would be protected, and new ones purchased, the outside would be painted, and more.

A $200,000 portion of the Hilton funds will also outfit a smart classroom for an after-school astronomy program aimed at helping Socorro’s at-risk youth. Professors from New Mexico Tech, who teamed with San Miguel on the grant application, will plan the curriculum, and students will teach the program beginning next fall. Dr. Van Romero, vice president for research and economic development at Tech, anticipates the program will serve 50 to 100 kids per year. Romero and Pavlak hope the partnership will allow students who may see the university as out of reach to overcome the “town and gown” divide. “It’s an environment where [the university] can reach out to students where they’ll feel comfort- able,” says Romero.

Rites of Renewal
Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan rededicated the church to San Miguel on September 26, 2014. He blessed the new altar—placing under it relics of Saints Thomas Aquinas and John Bosco—and anointed it with myrrh. The archbishop and concelebrant priests carried these blessings into the church, dipping their fingers in holy oil to rub the forms of crosses into the walls, to be absorbed and become one with the mission.

Father Pavlak’s salt-and-pepper hair has slid into silver dur- ing the past year, but his steps to the podium that September evening were sure. He paused a moment, taking in the faces of his parishioners, his community, who looked back in quiet awe that all they had envisioned was now tangible. Father Pavlak reflected on his announcement four years earlier, telling these same faces they had to leave their church and he didn’t know if or when they could return. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” he said to the group, his voice cracking. Now, however, the hopes of the whole community were being realized.

Here, the Monettes’ future grand-children will be baptized, just as their grandpa was, within these walls that have so faithfully been rebuilt—with a couple of additions. In the side chapel, a new stained-glass window depicts a green Franciscan cross resting near markings of the Piro tribe, uniting groups whose histories have been woven inextricably in this place, as they have been throughout New Mexico.

¡Viva la Fiesta!” Father Pavlak exclaims from the podium, releasing the crowd to the annual fiesta activities, which have a special glitz in this, the beginning of the parish’s 400-year anniversary celebration, which will include pilgrimages to Mexico and Europe. “¡Viva San Miguel! ¡Que viva!

With San Miguel now standing firmly once again, the parish is turning its attention to another of its flock. Using a portion of the funds the parishioners raised for San Miguel, Father Pavlak signed a contract in October to begin rebuilding the collapsed mission of Sagrada Familia de Lemitar, where San Miguel’s safekeeping first began.

Contributor Ashley M. Biggers is the author of The New Mexico True Adventure Guide.