IN 1986, SERVICES AND PARISHIONERS at Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria, in Doña Ana, moved to the new Our Lady of Purification, across the parking lot. The new church was larger and held amenities like restrooms and meeting space. Among the problems besetting the older church were cracks in an ill-advised cement plaster that had allowed water to seep into the adobe walls. By 1988, their collapse seemed imminent.
Mary Jane Garcia, who was soon to be sworn in as a state senator, asked the bishop of the Las Cruces Diocese about repairing the original church, which had sustained her family for generations. He said no.
“They were going to tear it down,” Garcia says, her voice trembling. “I started asking the legislature to help save it.”
She came up with a plan to hire at-risk youths and teach them building skills. She rallied her neighbors. Cornerstones Community Partnerships, a historic preservation organization, and Albert Pat Taylor, a respected adobe preservationist in Mesilla, stepped up. “We got every able-bodied person,” Garcia says.
Read more: St. Joseph Apache Mission reflects the traditions—and the care—of Mescalero people.
Shortly after the work commenced, one of the two-foot-thick walls collapsed. Taylor had shored up the building’s transepts, though, which helped the roof hold tight while they rebuilt the wall.
When the crew pulled a drop ceiling that had been installed as a 20th-century beautification project and found the building’s original vigas intact, they rejoiced. “We would have matanzas when we were working on the church,” Taylor says. “People from the community would bring lunch some days.”
“It’s such a part of the people of Doña Ana and New Mexico,” Garcia adds. “This church is our heritage. We have to preserve whatever we have, not only Catholics. It’s important to everybody.”
Spanish colonists on the Camino Real passed through the heart of what’s now Doña Ana, north of today’s Las Cruces. The region was then the province of Apache and Comanche people, making it a hit-or-miss resting place. In 1843, under Mexican rule, the village was established for 14 families who endured tough times. A small chapel served double duty as a defensive torreón while construction on Nuestra Señora began, in stages, in 1852.
As with village churches throughout the state, it became the place to gather for religious rites as well as community celebrations. Work to revive it continued into 1999.
Now retired, Garcia still lives in her parents’ house, kitty-corner to the church, and has joined efforts to revive the village’s historic plaza.
This fall, Cornerstones and Nuevo Mexico Profundo, another historic preservation group, plan to replace the white lime plaster on the church, to restore some of its original beauty.
“My family is from here,” says DeAngelo Nieves, who joined the youth crews in the original restoration and became one of the church’s fiercest defenders. “So many people say, ‘I never heard about this place.’ Passing on the stories is what brought me into this game.”
Read more: The most common building material on earth comes with a few catches.
A FEW MORE
Continue your exploration by visiting these historic churches.
After closing during the pandemic, the Mission Church of San Rafael, in La Cueva, reopened this September for Saturday afternoon Mass. “Everything is the same inside,” says longtime parishioner Florence Gurule, whose daughters serve as the church’s mayordomas. The original pews for the Mora County church, however, were given to other places of worship when the Gothic-style adobe structure, which was started in 1862 and completed in 1870, was abandoned in 1952. Cornerstones Community Partnerships helped the locals repair and revive it in the 1990s. Donations from other churches filled it once again with pews. “Thank God,” Gurule says. “He’s so good.”
The small San Francisco de Asís Catholic Church tops a hill in Golden, along the Turquoise Trail, drawing photographers with its classic architecture and commanding view. Father Bill Sanchez says its rare construction—mud and stone—also sets it apart, but he fears for the condition of its walls, originally built in 1830. Between the pandemic, funding issues, fewer community members, and debates over using mud or cement plaster for repairs, its care took a backseat. “I’m not sure what will happen to that parish,” he says.
When an exterior wall fell down in 2006, Questa’s San Antonio de Padua Church appeared doomed. The Archdiocese of Santa Fe declared the mid-1800s structure near Taos too damaged. Community members—non-Catholics included—thought differently and banded together to rebuild it. “It was incredible,” says Marcos Rael, a church deacon. “We had 60,000 volunteer hours, and it was the most pleasant place to be when the work was going on. There were little boys to older men, women, children. We were bringing back our church, and we were bringing back our community.” The church is open to the public daily.