THE LITTLE CHAPEL IN THE PASTORAL Gallinas River Valley had seen decades of cherished rites before it began to crumble. In 2019, historic preservationists undertook lifesaving actions to firm up San Agustín’s adobe walls, seal its roof, and chase out its resident bats. Now a group of potential donors stood before it, eager to peek inside. But a new hitch arose: No one remembered who had the new key to the front door.
Anticipating that, cultural historian Frank Graziano, a founder of the preservation organization Nuevo Mexico Profundo, had asked the priest at the mother church, in nearby Las Vegas, New Mexico, if he could remove the lock with bolt cutters. Permission in hand, he purchased the largest set he could find. While eyeing the lock and struggling to balance the weighty tool, Graziano realized that a simple electric drill applied to the lock’s mounting plate would do the trick far faster.
“These are the kinds of problems we run into,” he says with a chuckle, once the door opens and his patient guests can stream past the two-foot-high red-rock foundation, the words SAN AUGUSTINE expertly inlaid in white stones across its face.
San Agustín’s stabilization work was aided by several pluses, the absence of which bedevils the preservation of other historic churches, which adorn nearly every pocket of the state. It still had community members interested in using it. It attracted a generous grant from the Eugene V. and Clare Thaw Charitable Trust. And it drew technical and physical help from Cornerstones Community Partnerships, a Santa Fe–based savior of historic buildings.
Elsewhere in New Mexico, standout examples of a humble but beloved architectural tradition draw daily visitors. Havens like the Santuario de Chimayó and, in Ranchos de Taos, San Francisco de Asís enjoy international fame. Santa Fe’s San Miguel Chapel reveres its status as the oldest church in the United States. In Las Trampas, San José de Gracia reflects the height of colonial craftsmanship. San Esteban del Rey, which perches atop Sky City, on Acoma Pueblo, has outlasted the centuries since its 1629 founding, thanks in part to a 1920s restoration by famed architect John Gaw Meem.
“These churches are certainly among New Mexico’s most important monuments,” says Spanish colonial scholar Robin Farwell Gavin. “First and foremost, they’re parish churches. But they’re also important artistic and architectural examples. The fact that they’re there and being preserved—and that the community comes together to do that—tells you something about them. They were the center of the community, whether it was a Hispanic town or a pueblo. A lot of life events revolved around them.”
In the 1980s, a statewide survey turned up nearly 700 historic churches, of all denominations, not including private chapels and the moradas of the Penitente Brotherhood. Catholic churches account for the lion’s share of that total, and many were built before Anglo settlement in New Mexico. Preservationists can barely estimate how many require critical work, even as other forces combine to outmaneuver even the holiest of intentions. Primary hurdles are the dwindling populations of small towns and the high costs of preservation.
Still more challenges endanger their future. The two poorest dioceses in the nation are based in Las Cruces and Gallup. The Archdiocese of Santa Fe is currently straining to pay a $121.5 million settlement to survivors of sexual abuse. A shortage of priests has required larger churches to consolidate services, leaving chapels to fend for themselves.
This past summer, wildfires roared perilously close to some of the remote chapels in northern New Mexico. Every year, monsoonal rains exact a toll on adobe walls and aging foundations. The venerable skill of mud-plastering churches by hand has few practitioners. Inside some of the churches, precious statues and paintings made by santeros are at risk of permanent damage or being sold to raise money for other needs.
“These churches are so important to the communities and to the New Mexico landscape,” says Jake Barrow, program director at Cornerstones, which began working with the Trampas community in the 1980s to stabilize their church. “If they hadn’t been able to do that work when they did, the Trampas church wouldn’t be there now.”
WHEN HE WAS STATIONED at a northeastern New Mexico parish, Father Larry Brito helped repair the steeple on the 1894 Sacred Heart Chapel in Bueyeros. He later spared a historic morada in Taos from being sold to a developer and hired Taos Puebloans to repair its adobe walls. “When you go into an old church,” he says, “there’s something that tells you this is an old place. You can feel the antiquity and the spirituality, all the prayers of our ancestors.”
Brito now presides over St. Anne Parish, in Santa Fe, and leads the Archbishop’s Commission for the Preservation of Historic Churches in New Mexico. Within the archdiocese, any plans for renovations must have the commission’s approval. Its members look for historical accuracy and the long-term stability of proposed repairs. They have no funds to bestow upon that work, however, and depend on communities presenting plans to them rather than seeking them out.
“There’s a lot of communities that don’t have people anymore,” Brito says. “There might be one person interested, and that’s not enough.”
As modern materials became easier to obtain in New Mexico, many communities chose to build new churches and buy mass-produced art for them. To people of her generation, says Mary Jane Garcia, a retired state senator who fought to save Doña Ana’s Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria, near Las Cruces, the older churches were somehow tied to an image of poverty, of a past to rise above.
“But I was baptized here,” she says of the church, built in the 1850s. “I took my first Holy Communion here. This was the first church in southern New Mexico. It’s so important.”
Other churches held firm, adding new spaces and covering dirt floors with wooden ones. (A few changes were regrettable, including the addition of drop ceilings.)
The architecture of New Mexico’s historic churches looks different from that of Spanish missions in Arizona and California, Graziano says, because those were built by friars steeped in European design. “Here, villagers built those churches the same way they built their houses—out of dirt and devotion,” he says. “They’re inherent to the places and the people. They’re humble. They’re integral to a certain lifestyle. And that lifestyle is dying.
“I think all the churches are worthy of saving—even if no one uses them ever,” he says, before referencing one of the units at Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. “It’s like going to Quarai. It doesn’t matter that it’s a ruin. It’s part of our cultural heritage.”
Given the wealth of stories each church holds, choosing just some to highlight in this issue forced us to make hard decisions about which ones to leave out. Consider their omission a lesser sin and make this guide a starting point for explorations of your own.
Attend a Mass. Meet a mayordomo, a small church’s caretaker. Place your hands against a mud wall. Notice the sun glinting off bits of straw embedded in it and feel the heartbeats of the people who came here before you. Inside, a parent grieved a child’s early death. A couple celebrated a wedding. A person made a promise of eternal devotion in thanks for a heavenly intercession.
With their hands, they crafted prayers that might now look like worn pews and cracked plaster. But those prayers stand, even today, in walls that soar and roofs that can weather a biblical flood, holding fast to the power of faith in a community of hope.
Three Ways to Help
Nuevo Mexico Profundo raises money for preservation projects, partly through paid excursions to historic churches. An ongoing project collects oral histories from community members for a public archive.
Cornerstones Community Partnerships works to preserve historic structures and has numerous opportunities for hands-on experience making adobe bricks and assisting with other types of labor. Sign up for the newsletter to get info on upcoming endeavors.
Based in Albuquerque, the Catholic Foundation helps fund parishes, schools, and organizations. Its grant program includes projects that improve and preserve churches.