Historic St. Augustine Church recognized for restoration project

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The Pueblo of Isleta’s St. Augustine Catholic Church has been recognized by The Cultural Properties Review Committee and the Historic Preservation Division of the state Department of Cultural Affairs.

On Friday, May 18, the pueblo accepted an award in Santa Fe in recognition of their preservation of the historic St. Augustine Church. The award coincides with Heritage Preservation Month, which is held nationally each year.

Ungelbah Daniel-Davila-News-Bulletin photo: The Pueblo of Isleta was recognized by The Cultural Properties Review Committee and the Historic Preservation Division of the State Department of Cultural Affairs for the 16-month long restoration of St. Augustine Catholic Church.

“It’s just a wonderful feeling to be recognized,” said Isleta Pueblo Gov. Frank Lujan, who says the church has been a strong influence in the history of the pueblo.

“The church plays a significant role — back in the early 1500s and throughout history up until present,” says the governor, who said their feast days are in honor of the pueblo’s Patron Saint Augustine.

Lujan says that the church was built by the Spanish with “the intent to influence and convert us into the Catholic religion of the time and take away our traditional ways and cultural ways, which resulted in the Pueblo Revolt.

“Since then, we have a strong belief in (Catholicism) and at the same time, we still hold on to our (traditional) beliefs,” he said. “We were baptized, we have Sunday services, we have weddings there. Everything that the church does, we’re right there taking part.”

The governor said it was the church renovation contractor and project manager, Neal Carter, that nominated the church for the award.

According to the award application, the church, originally built in 1680, is one of the oldest and largest of the Spanish missions in New Mexico. It states that the church “reflects Iberian aesthetics by incorporating new elements, such as carved corbels, enlarged windows and a clerestory.”

During the 16-month long restoration, evidence was discovered that areas of the church had been destroyed during the Revolt, and then reconstructed in 1717.

“I think it was just by nature of the age of the church first of all,” Lujan said. “And, secondly, for the history of the church. I think the award was because of when we stripped the church down and the findings, and the significance of the findings.”

During the renovation process, some of these historic findings included Colonial murals in the walls that had been covered, burials within the church, medallions, and the discovery of different types of adobe from different periods in time when the church had previously undergone certain restorations.

Lujan said that originally they thought about cutting the murals out of the walls — some of which he said resemble kachinas — and incasing them in glass, but after discussions with pueblo elders and spiritual leaders, it was decided to leave them intact and cover them in protective glass.

The governor says the community is excited and proud to be recognized for their church, which was announced through their pueblo newsletter.

“I’m sure if I went out and found one of my elders, they would probably relay back to me that this is a wonderful thing for the Pueblo of Isleta for this to happen,” said Lujan.

He remembered that when the church was down to its bare bones during the renovation and “looked awful,” they held their Sunday services across the plaza in the courthouse.

“When people would look across the plaza at the church, there were some tears running down their eyes because of how it looked,” he said. “That, to me, is an indication of how much the church means to our people. And not just to our people, but to the citizens — everybody.”


-- Email the author at udavila@news-bulletin.com.