Celebrating Catholic faith and fiestas

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Every Aug. 15, parishioners of Our Lady of Belen Catholic Church are supposed to attend a very special Mass that the church’s pastor describes as “first and foremost a celebration of faith.”

Courtesy of the Valencia County Historical Society Collection; Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts:The fiestas at Our Lady of Belen Catholic Church have been in full swing for 219 years. This photo of people dancing under the carpa on a wooden floor in 1900 shows how fashion and times have changed.

The Mass is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the day is recognized as the feast day of the mother of Jesus. The evening before, the church celebrates vespers, a service traditionally held at sunset.

The Feast Day celebration includes a secular element as well, a carnival that begins on Friday night and lasts into Sunday on the church grounds, says Father Stephen Schultz.

Bands from around the state provide musical entertainment, and the many visitors have ample opportunity to enjoy typical carnival fare — green chile cheeseburgers, funnel cakes, soft drinks. Items such as toys and T-shirts can also be purchased, but the church checks to make sure no toy guns or shirts with inappropriate messages are sold.

Schultz, the church pastor for nine years, says thousands of people attend the annual fiestas, which begins on Friday night of the weekend closest to the 15th. The church also crowns a fiesta queen, whose identity is revealed at the Queen’s Ball, and two couples are selected as fiesta padrinos.

Schultz notes that the padrinos is an “honorary position, but also one that involves some pretty hard work throughout the weekend.” There is also a fiesta parade marshal.

Another part of the tradition, which in recent years has fallen by the wayside, is the burning of the devil, which Schultz likens to Santa Fe’s Zozobra festival. It involves burning a 30-foot-tall figure near the cemetery. The figure symbolizes the worries, or quejas, of life.

“We did that about three years and may bring it back,” Schultz says.

By all accounts, the fiestas are a joyous celebration. It is one of many Catholic traditions that over the centuries have been passed down from Spain through Mexico to believers in New Mexico and Valencia County.

All parishes in Valencia County celebrate feast days: In Tomé, Immaculate Conception recognizes two, Sept. 8 and Dec. 8. For Peralta’s Our Lady of Guadalupe, the special date is Dec. 12. And in Los Lunas, San Clemente recognizes Nov. 23 as its Feast Day, while Mission de San Juan Diego celebrates Oct. 11.

John Taylor, a local historian who lives in Peralta and attends Our Lady of Guadalupe, says the Feast Day tradition was once even more significant than it is today.

“In olden days, the feast was really important,” Taylor says. “Life was tough and a fiesta was a good way to help people forget just how tough it was.”

Feast days and their attendant fiestas are not the only traditions passed down from generation to generation. Another big one is Las Posadas, nine days of ritual Masses leading up to Christmas, strongly based on the gospel of St. Luke.

Other Catholic traditions include the widespread recognition of church seasons, such as Lent and Advent. Still others have been adopted even more broadly by the entire community, such as luminarias, which symbolically represent the lighting of the way for the Christ child.

Yet another tradition, that of Los Penitentes, the Brotherhood of Jesus the Nazarene, once flourished in New Mexico, according to Taylor. The Brotherhood was active well into the 19th century but only traces remain today.

Los Penitentes developed during a time when there was a shortage of priests. Based on early Franciscan practices, its roots go back at least 1,000 years to Spain and Italy. Following Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821, church authorities in Mexico withdrew the Franciscan, Dominican and Jesuit missionaries from New Mexico, replacing only some of them with secular priests.

Many out-of-the-way communities were thus deprived of their own clergymen and could expect only a once-yearly visit from a parish priest.

Without priestly guidance, Los Penitentes would come together for the purpose of prayer, gathering in meeting houses called moradas, simple buildings devoid of most decoration.

Los Penitentes were known for their hymns, called alabados, and for their ascetic practices, which included self-flagellation in private ceremonies during Lent, and processions during Holy Week, which ended with the reenactment of Christ’s crucifixion on Good Friday.

In the latter part of the 19th century, Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy tried to suppress the Brotherhood as a part of the “Americanization” of the Church in New Mexico, but succeeded only in driving its membership underground.

The Brotherhood reconciled with the Catholic Church in the mid-20th century and received formal recognition in 1947. Los Penitentes remain active in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, but with a much diminished membership.

Taylor calls the Brotherhood a “very intense (and) a very rigorous form of Catholicism.”

Edwin Berry, the man who placed the three crosses on Tomé Hill, was a Penitente. Las Carmelitas, the female version of Los Penitentes, carried out their rituals in private.

The history of the Catholic Church in Valencia County dates back at least as far as 1540 when Francisco Vázquez de Coronado began organizing his grand expedition into what is now New Mexico. There is no way he could have known how great and lasting his influence would become.

A year later, the conquistador — accompanied by some 300 Spanish soldiers and 1,000 Native American servants — departed from Compostela, Mexico, ostensibly in search of the mythical Seven Golden Cities of Cibola. In that sense the mission would go down in history as an abject failure.

After two years, Coronado and surviving members of his band would return to Mexico empty handed and deep in debt. But though he failed in his quest to find the fabled cities of gold, he succeeded beyond belief in changing the land and peoples of the American Southwest forever.

The mission’s two major cultural contributions were the Spanish language and Roman Catholicism, the primary religious faith and tradition of Mother Spain for more than 1,000 thousand years.

When Coronado returned to Mexico, he left behind priests to convert Southwest tribes to Christianity. He brought back extensive information about the area and its peoples that would prove invaluable to later Spanish explorers, including Juan de Oñate. The door had been opened, never to close. Half a century later, in 1598, Oñate formally established control of the Spanish crown when he became the first governor of the province of New Mexico.

Today, nearly half a millennium later, both the Spanish language and the Catholic religion are alive and well throughout the Southwest, at the heart of which is arguably Valencia County. One example of the lasting dual cultural influence is the name Belen, Spanish for Bethlehem.

The oldest church in the county was built around 1613 in Isleta Pueblo, a village of the Tiwa people before the arrival of the Spanish. Gov. Pedro de Peralta founded the Isleta Mission of San Antonio — later changed to San Augustine — as the Spanish headquarters in the Rio Abajo. It would become the mother church of several visitas, or missions, including Belen, Tomé, Sabinal and Pajaritos.

As is still sometimes the case today, the parish or mother church had missions, chapels in outlying towns that served those communities’ spiritual needs.

In more remote areas, many families had their own private saints, prayers and chapel areas, which they called visitas.

For example, the Luna family of Los Lunas had a chapel where they would hold devotions. It eventually became a mission of the Isleta Parish, but as the town grew — Los Lunas was founded in the 17th century — it became its own parish, San Clemente.

There was a mission every five miles or so, Taylor says, adding that missions became the center of village life, especially because the local priest was one of the more educated people in the area.

“To a large degree, you can see the residue of that today,” says Taylor, a nuclear engineer at Sandia Labs for 35 years before he retired.

Today, Isleta no longer has any missions, but San Clemente has one. Peralta, meanwhile, was once a mission of Tomé. Today, Casa Colorada is Tomé’s only remaining mission. Los Chavez was a mission of Belen, which today still has four, San Francisco Xavier in Jarales, Cristo Rey in Bosque, Our Lady of Guadalupe in Los Chavez and San Isidro Labrador in Pueblitos.

Oddly enough, it was technology that led to the demise of many of the missions. As transportation improved, people were able to make it to the mother church on Sunday. The remaining missions are now subsidiaries of the parish churches.

Coronado was not the only seeker of gold to leave an indelible mark on the Southwest. In 1563, Francisco de Ibarra, a gold prospector, reportedly invented the title “Nuevo México.”

Although the quest for gold and other riches was undoubtedly a driving force behind Spanish exploration, the importance of Catholicism cannot be underestimated. From 1542 to 1598 (the period between Coronado and Oñate) to the middle of the 19th century, Catholicism was the sole Christian religion in Valencia County.

Taylor notes that while the introduction of Catholicism was clearly an intrusion, the Native religions did not simply disappear. To suggest that the Spaniards “converted” the Natives would not be entirely correct, he says.

Instead, to this day, the two religious traditions coexist. As it turned out, allowing the Native people to retain Native religious beliefs and practices was a much more effective way to introduce the religion of Spain without imposing the Spanish will.

Today, traditional Native American religious practices can be observed at Isleta and “probably all the reservations,” Taylor says. In the pueblos, various celebrations and dances are part of the earlier, Native religions’ tradition.

As Franciscan priests departed and diocese priests began taking over, Native Americans began giving up many of their indigenous religious practices. About the same time, there was a huge decline in Native population figures, in part caused by disease. By the mid- or latter-19th century, there was a trend of Native converts known as “adaptionists.”

Spanish, “the language of power,” took hold partly because there was no single dominant or common language in the area. New Mexico was home to four main Pueblo language groups, each with its own subset of lesser tongues, as well as the Navajo, Apache and Hopi tongues.

Nonetheless, when the Spanish language was imposed on the Native people, it was met with resistance and was not accepted universally for quite some time.

“But because there was a real polyglot in the area, Spanish became the lingua franca,” Taylor says.

Officially, Valencia County was born midway through the 19th century when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, ending the Mexican War. The county is named after a 17th century government official from Valencia, Spain.

One of seven original New Mexico counties, Valencia once stretched all the way from California to Texas. It lost much of that area when Arizona became its own territory in 1863. The original eastern portion had already been ceded to San Miguel County and, in 1981, Valencia County lost four-fifths of its remaining territory with the creation of Cibola County in the west.

Sometime around 1740, two Spaniards, Diego Torres and Antonio Salazar, petitioned Gov. Don Gaspar de Mendoza for a land grant that stretched west from the Manzano Mountains to the Rio Puerco. The grant was officially known as Nuestra Senora de Belen, Our Lady of Bethlehem.

Over the next 60 years, Belen grew from land grant status to a formidable community complete with a fort and barracks. Because of the long distances between communities along the Río Abajo, Belen was situated at a strategic point on the Camino Real that led south into Mexico.

According to Father Schultz, for more than a half century after the land grant was issued, the padres of Isleta would serve the people of Belen. Then, in 1793, Belen’s first resident pastor, Fray Cayetano Jose Ignacio Bernal, established the new parish, also called Nuestra Senora de Belen.

It wasn’t long before the settlers built their own church at Plaza Vieja, a site which today occupies the northwest corner of Wisconsin Street and Campbell Avenue and still carries the name, which means Old Square or Old Town.

Severely damaged by flooding in 1855, the building was replaced five years later by a new church at Plaza Nueva, which is still the site of Our Lady of Belen today.

Meanwhile, a major rift over where to locate the new church building had rocked Belen, pitting Plaza Vieja proponents against those who favored building on higher ground at Plaza Nueva. A young priest, Father Eugenio Paulet, had just arrived in Belen and the final decision was dropped into his lap.

When Paulet opted for Plaza Nueva, angry supporters of the Plaza Vieja site pilfered sacred vestments and vessels from the old building. Up in Santa Fe, Archbishop Lamy — who had taken positions on both sides of the issue — was livid. He ordered that if those responsible failed to return the items or attempted to rebuild on the old site, they would be excommunicated. Any priest who celebrated Mass there would be suspended.

In the end, the articles were returned to Paulet, and Lamy allowed him to absolve those miscreants who repented before witnesses.

The community soon outgrew the 1860 structure. An enlarged and totally revamped church with only the bell tower and old roof was dedicated in 1919. According to Schultz, it was the largest church in the state with a seating capacity of 1,128.

St. Mary’s School, next door, was completed in 1928 and opened to 290 students the following year.

Fifty-two years later, a report found “a critical state of degenerating structural failure” and said the church “should be condemned from further occupancy forthwith.” It was demolished in 1972. Today’s Our Lady of Belen Catholic Church, which seats 1,066, was completed in 1974.

The original Catholic missionaries in the Southwest reported to the bishop of Durango, Mexico. Then, in 1850, a few years after the Mexican-American War, Pope Pius IX created the Apostolic Vicariate of New Mexico and installed its first bishop, Lamy, a Frenchman who a few years earlier had come to the United States to work as a missionary.

Any history of Valencia County and New Mexico would be incomplete without at least mentioning Lamy, so enormous was his influence, Taylor says. The new bishop was welcomed by many, but not all.

Juan Felipe Ortiz, an administrative official of the New Mexico church, told Lamy that he and the local clergy remained loyal to the bishop of Durango. Lamy issued an ultimatum: Stay and work under the rules of the new administration or go back to Durango. Many opted to leave, so Lamy returned to France to recruit new priests to fill an obvious shortage of clergy.

As bishop, Lamy built churches (including St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe), created new parishes and established schools. He also put a stop to the practice of priests marrying. In 1875, the Diocese of Santa Fe was elevated to archdiocese and he became an archbishop.

One of many young French priests he recruited in France was Jean Baptiste Ralliere, a man who ultimately would come to be known throughout Valencia County as “El Padre Eterno,” the eternal father. Ralliere was 23 when he took over the parish of Tomé in 1858. He continued to serve it for 55 years when he retired, reluctantly, in 1913.

Ralliere’s influence was remarkable, Taylor says. He was one of the county’s first superintendents of public education, he built churches, he witnessed terrible floods in Tomé. He was active in local, state and diocesan politics and officiated over births and baptisms, marriages and deaths.

For much of that period, Tomé was the political center of the Rio Abajo as the county seat. The parish and village were established in 1739 as Nuestra Señora de la Concepción de Tomé Dominguez. The original settlers were called “genízaros,” former slaves of more hostile Native tribes, particularly Apache and Comanche.

A mere five years after the founding, 40 genízaro families lived in Tomé. By 1766, the town had grown to 60 families, but at the same time had lost its character as a genízaro settlement. So many Spanish families had moved in that it had become a Spanish village; the genizaros were absorbed by the larger community.

A Franciscan visitor, Juan Miguel Menchero, reported that the genizaros got along well, even though they came from several different tribes. He was surprised that, contrary to the Spanish custom of the government helping to pay for a church in a newly established town, the genízaros began building a church on their own. Immaculate Conception church, started in 1739, was dedicated, or blessed, in 1750, according to Ramon Torres, a parishioner and local historian.

Much of the front and back walls of the original church are still standing, as is the transept. The north and south walls were rebuilt in the early 1900s. A major restoration of the entire church began three years ago. When it’s complete, new towers will adorn the front wall, says Torres, who heads up the church’s restoration committee.

Like the genizaros who built the church, Immaculate Conception today is relying in part on “parish crews” — volunteers from the church — to take care of some of the work. The church is hoping the restoration will last 200 to 300 years.

Off to one side in front of Immaculate Conception stands a landscape rendering of Golgotha, the hill near Jerusalem where Jesus is said to have been crucified between two thieves. The three crosses evoke a somber and moving reminder of the story of the crucifixion. It was built in 1947 by Edwin Berry and Fred Landavazo as an outdoor stage for the Passion Play — a reenactment of the trial, suffering and death of Jesus.

A Tomé Passion Play is said to have originated in the 1700s and passed down from generation to generation for well over two centuries.

Until the early 1950s, it was an integral part of Immaculate Conception’s Lenten Season observances. It has since been absorbed by the larger Good Friday pilgrimage up Tomé Hill, not officially a function of the church, but certainly one many parishioners are involved in.

The oldest tradition in Tomé is the parish’s feast day on Sept. 8, traditionally the birthday of the Blessed Virgin. In addition to celebrating Mass, much of the town turns out for a weekend fiesta that includes music, dancing and concession and food stands — smaller, but not unlike the Aug. 15 celebration in Belen.

“It goes back almost 300 years,” Torres says.

In the winter, the important celebration of Las Posadas, traditionally a Novena or nine-day event, is now enacted over three days in Tomé. Las Posadas represents the nine days leading up to Christmas as Mary and Joseph seek lodging along their route to Bethlehem.

For the first eight stops, parishioners open their homes for the 60 to 70 Tomé pilgrims who sing and pray. Each daily event lasts about two hours. The ninth and final stop is Immaculate Conception.

Then, in the spring, on Good Friday, an annual pilgrimage moves slowly and dramatically up Tomé Hill with thousands of people bearing the symbolic crosses, some crawling on all fours. Taylor calls it “a way of recognizing the importance of the Easter season.”

Citing the two commemorations, Christmas and Easter, he says, “Valencia County was an important part of early New Mexico. There is an enormously rich history here.”