FATHER ALBERT BRAUN SO LOVED the Mescalero Apache people that he dedicated decades of his life to creating a Romanesque church with rock walls that soar as high as 90 feet. The cornerstone was laid in 1920, with work completed in spurts as money and labor became available. (It stood roofless during World War II, when Braun served as a chaplain to his fellow New Mexicans imprisoned in the Philippines after the Bataan Death March.)
Inside St. Joseph Apache Mission Church, Braun veered away from an idea popular at the time that Native people should give up their culture and adopt European-American ways. Instead, he melded their traditional ceremonies with Catholic rites. That blend persists today. A gilded image of an Apache Christ backdrops the altar. Every Christmas, a tepee rises near it, and Mescalero girls who have recently completed their ceremonial puberty rites bring the baby Jesus, strapped on a cradleboard, to its nativity scene.
Twenty-five years ago, Harry Vasile was a priest assigned to St. Joseph, but he soon fell in love with a Mescalero woman. He left his vocation but remained devoted to the local church. It needed him as much as he needed it. Lime-putty mortar between the thousands of locally quarried stones had deteriorated. Rocks fell on parishioners during services. Bats took up roost. “There were places where you could put your hand all the way through the wall,” Vasile says.
In 1997, he and a small crew of supporters undertook what became a 14-year restoration. With funding tight, the church could hire only a few workers at a time, which lent a meditative quality to their task. “We would be up on the scaffolding, throwing mortar into the joints,” Vasile remembers. “Sometimes we would sing, sometimes we were quiet. It was like praying.”
The tribe lent equipment to haul limestone, and the church purchased a restaurant-grade Hobart mixer to prepare the mortar. Mescalero people held fundraisers, including the sale of roof tiles originally crafted at the nearby La Luz Pottery. “There’s 4,000 people on this land, and they all own this church,” Vasile says. “They may not attend it, but they own it.”
Bennet Martine began attending as a boy in the 1960s and took his first communion there. “As far as I know, they’re about the only church that interacted with the tribe in traditional doings,” he says. “The other churches, they don’t participate in anything like the puberty rites. The Catholic church is always there among the people, dancing with the people, cooking for the feast.”
Father Braun likely was aided in his service by how well Catholic doctrine mixes with the Mescalero cosmos. In the latter, White Painted Woman gives virgin birth to a son who slays a dragon, saving the world. Apache motifs appear in the church’s stained-glass windows, and light fixtures echo elements of the Apache Crown Dancers’ regalia. A retablo of St. Joseph bears a witty homage to the work of the masons who rescued the church: The holy carpenter carries a trowel.
Open year-round, the church welcomes visitors, especially during the Christmas Eve service. “Sometimes,” Martine says, “we get all our dancers together and we bless the church. Not just the congregation. It’s everyone in the tribe.”
Continue your exploration by visiting these historic churches.
The third time San Geronimo de Taos Church rose on Taos Pueblo, it stayed. Its first iteration was destroyed after the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. The second was bombarded during an 1846 battle over American rule; its eroded walls surround the graves of the Native and Hispano people who had sought shelter within it. The doors of its 1850 replacement today welcome visitors. “It’s one of the oldest churches in New Mexico,” says tribal spokesperson Evan Trujillo. “You can visit it whenever the pueblo is open.” Currently, that’s Thursday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
San José Mission, a 1699 treasure of white-plastered stone and adobe, rises 105 feet high on Laguna Pueblo. Inside, a mix of Indigenous and Spanish colonial art draws visitors from throughout the world. A roof leak has temporarily closed it, and parishioners are raising money for repairs, but they hope visits can resume soon. “You walk in and you feel the spirit of the people that built it, our ancestors,” says church secretary Charlene Riley. “It gives you a good feeling knowing your own people built it and it’s still standing and still in use, hopefully for many more years.”
The buttresses of St. Augustine Church help it reign over Isleta Pueblo’s historic plaza. Rebuilt after Spain’s 1692 reconquest, the church mixes the Tiwa language into its services and welcomes visitors to attend a Mass (masks required) and even register as members. “That makes it really special,” says parish secretary Denise Lucero. “It’s real homey. People have been coming here since they built it.” Outside of Mass, the historic village remains closed as a pandemic caution.