Historic Catholic churches in Valencia County are being preserved


Many of the historic adobe Catholic churches in New Mexico have literally melted away through time or were destroyed by fire during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.

Deborah Fox-News-Bulletin photo: Kevin Duran, left, Andres Hernandez, center, and Richard Holguin, right, UNM students working for Fox Builders, work to add mud to build up the adobe walls at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Tomé. A free tour and slide show of the restoration work at the church is scheduled for 5:30 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 26.

Those that remain and how to preserve them was the topic of a lecture given by local historian John Taylor and University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus teacher Martin Romero last week at the Student Community Center.

The event provided the public with information about the churches and new technologies for restoration, such as the infrared camera used in the UNM-VC sustainable building program.

The lecture, “Adobe Churches — History, Preservation and Diagnostic Technology,” also raised money for the university’s scholarship fund.

All of the state churches built before 1920 or 1930 are made of adobe, only mountain churches were made from stone, and adobe structures require careful annual maintenance, Taylor said.

The only actual adobe church buildings remaining in Valencia County are the San Antonio Mission in Los Lentes, Immaculate Conception in Tomé, Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Peralta, and Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe in Los Chavez, albeit with modifications over the years.

The San Antonio Mission was restored last year, and Immaculate Conception in Tomé is currently under reconstruction.

A common problem among the old adobe churches is the steeple separating from the nave, probably caused by weak footings under the steeples, and water damage when pitched roofs started to be used, Taylor said.

Past efforts to preserve historic churches haven’t always been very successful because, as Martin Romero explained, one of the methods used cement stucco bunkers or stucco coating.

“The thinking was, ‘Let’s go and shore up the base of the adobe walls with this concrete material,’ not knowing that concrete material was going to help retain moisture behind the walls and actually accelerate the decay, rather than promote longevity,” Romero said. “It has become one of the modern day ills in the churches.”

Water can’t penetrate the cement, but adobe bricks are permeable and ground water wicks up from underneath, when the water table is higher.

“It gets trapped behind the concrete,” Romero said. “It builds up pressure — actual water pressure builds up behind the concrete. It doesn’t have anywhere to go, so it starts blasting the adobe.”

Romero, who teaches classes in the sustainable building program, is involved with the restoration of the Immaculate Conception Church.

About all that remains to be done on the exterior of the church is to build the towers.

A total of 7,000 adobe bricks, made in the traditional manner, are being made and purchased for the base of the towers.

A free slideshow and tour of the restoration work is scheduled at 5:30 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 26.

Romero, along with Alex Sanchez and Sandra McCardell, will be involved with the tour of the church. All three are involved with the campus’ sustainability program.

Taylor presented background information about each of the historic churches in the Rio Grande Valley — those that are in trouble or have been lost, and a brief religious history of the state.

“The earliest Catholicism was Franciscan Catholicism,” Taylor said. “The Franciscans were the representatives of the Catholic Church that came in with the earliest explorers and colonizers.”

Later, the Diocesan priests from Durango, Mexico, pushed out the Franciscans to the outer areas, mostly on the Pueblos, and then out almost completely, Taylor said.

A time frame of the various orders dates Franciscan Catholicism from 1540 to 1847, Diocesan Catholicism from 1729 to present and Protestant from the 1850s to the present

There are two understandings of mission churches. One is a church established through missionary work, such as the mission at Zuni Pueblo or the mission at Isleta Pueblo.

The other use of the word denotes a satellite of an original church, such as the Tomé church’s mission at Casa Colorada.

One of the earliest churches in the state was the mission at Isleta.

Taylor recounted the story of the Blue Nun, Sister Maria de Jesus de Agreda.

The legend is that she appeared to the Isleta Indians in spirit, while she was residing in Spain, and taught them about the Catholic faith. So when the missionary priests first came to Isleta they asked to be taught about the Sacraments. The astonished priests asked how they knew about the Sacraments.

“They said, ‘The lady in blue told us,’” said Taylor.

Some of the churches he talked about included the Jarales church, Saint Xavier, San Andres de los Padillas at Isleta, San Miquel — one of the churches in Socorro dedicated to our lady of refuge — and San José de Los Pinos, the church Henry Connelly, a former New Mexico governor, had built at his hacienda.

The Gothic style steeples from the latter part of the 19th century created a virtual forest of steeples in the Rio Grande Valley, Taylor said.

“About the only two remaining today are Los Lentes, San Antonio de Los Lentes, and Los Chavez, Our Lady of Guadalupe,” he said.

The historic adobe church restoration lecture was an effort to raise money for the UNM-Valencia Campus Scholarship Fund, and to showcase the University’s sustainable building program.

Some of the classes in the sustainable building program include renewable energy, computer-aided drafting, computer-assisted design and green building by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council to set a benchmark for design, construction and operation of high-performance green buildings.

The university is always trying to stay ahead of the curve in advancing educational programs and technologies that are relevant to the community, said Ann-Mary MacLeod, manager of development and donor relations at UNM-VC.

For more information about the UNM-VC sustainable building program, or to donate to the scholarship fund, call Ann-Mary MacLeod at 925-8552, or email her at annmary@unm.edu.

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