The history of Our Lady of Belen

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The doublando of the church bells (ringing of the bells) at Our Lady of Belen Catholic Church in Belen had a startling effect on the pigeons that had perched on the bell towers overnight.

The doublando of the church bells (ringing of the bells) at Our Lady of Belen Catholic Church in Belen had a startling effect on the pigeons that had perched on the bell towers overnight.

Courtesy of Our Lady of Belen Catholic Church: This is the second of three churches at Our Lady of Belen parish. The first church, located in Old Town, had to be demolished after years of water damage.

They nosily took flight in the early morning air; their plumage iridescent in the morning light. The clarion ring of the bells was the calling of the faithful to Mass.

From the humble beginnings of the Belen Catholic Church, first in the dusty moonscape of Old Town (1793), and later in a new church building (1858) at New Town, people worshipped devoutly.

At daybreak, people filed silently into the church and knelt down for opening prayers. In past generations, people liked to attend an early Mass because they felt the light in the early morning seemed to come straight from heaven and had a special mystical effect.

People would raise their eyes to heaven under the vaulted ceiling of the church. Moments of light burst into the darkness as bars of lights filtered through the high windows.

Resplendent in their gold and silver gowns, La Nuestra Señora de Belen and Baby Jesus watched the people from their dais. The beauty of the statues of the young prince and his beautiful mother were astonishing and memorable.

The women of the parish saw to it that they were bedecked in assorted flowers, especially in the month of May with the beautiful Rosas de Castilla flowers. They surrounded Mary and Jesus with these assorted colored flowers. The roses were brought over from Spain when the first Spanish settlers came to the New World.

Originally, these flowers were brought by the Moors from Persia to the Iberian Peninsula and on to the New World. These Rosas de Castilla were the ones that Our Lady of Guadalupe gave to Juan Diego to carry in his tilma, an apron the Indians used.

In this year of faith, as proclaimed by Pope Benedict I, people show their devotion and faith to God by blindly honoring God. The church-going laity had shown a theological bent for blind faith.

For more than 200 years, the Catholic people worked and contributed to the cultural and theological aspect of their lives. In the beginning and afterwards, there was much work. But not all was work.

There were moments of entertainment and gaiety for the people. In such occasions as weddings and fiestas, people enjoyed themselves immensely.

The Feast of the Assumption is held every year on Aug. 15. The Belen Fiestas was the most anticipated event, with its many delightful festivities. The festivities would not start until vespers (beginning prayers) were held.

Viva las Fiestas de Belen!

Then the bailes (dances) started. Carpas were erected near the church. In the early days, these tents had low benches on the perimeter with a band situated on one of the corners. Two or three poles held up the cloth roof.

Usually, the dance floor was of hard wood or they danced on the dirt. When the music started, the men would walk up to the women who sat on the opposite side of the tent and ask her for the honor of dancing with her.

If she accepted, she would extend her hand to him so that he would lead her to the dance floor. In some cases, he had to gain permission from the parents, who usually sat beside her, before he could dance with her.

Each dance was a two-part affair. They would dance and, when the music stopped, all the couples would stand in the middle of the floor, usually conversing. An attendant would circle, collecting a dime from each couple and drop it in a tin can.

The music for the second part of the dance would resume with the same tune and, when the music stopped, the man escorted his dancing partner back to her original spot. This was repeated several times during the night. This was a good example of “the power of music.”

People danced until the wee hours of the morning. Countless stories have been told of people meeting their future spouses at the Fiesta dance. The lovers’ secret were whispered in the dark of the night as they danced.

The musicians were very talented. They played their instruments well and, of course, there was some vocal music accompanying the instrumental music. Rancheritas a type of Spanish-western music, was played and is still enjoyed today. Corridos, epic songs, were played as well as waltzes and other types of music.

Fiesta participants also enjoyed the variety of traditional food prepared at the Fiestas. The aroma of freshly-prepared food was in the air. Roasted green chile was perhaps the favorite food. It was perhaps the food that people had waited for all summer and now the freshly-harvested vegetables were available.

Funerals at Our Lady of Belen Catholic Church were another source of gatherings. Before there were funeral parlors, wakes were held at the homes of the deceased. If the death occurred in the winter, the men would congregate around a bonfire while the women were inside baking biscochitos. And before there was a stigma to it, the men would share a bottle of liquor.

Between sobs and prayers, people offered their condolences to the bereaved. A Holy Rosary was then recited and many candles were lit. Afterward, people went into the kitchen for coffee and cookies.

Belen, known as Bethlehem in Spanish, has a long list of Catholic priests who served the people. Many of these priests came from different parts of the world.

Many of the services were held in Spanish because this was the lingua franca of the time and place. The influx of English-speaking people from the eastern part of the United States changed this.

Delving into the church’s history, one can see the positive influence the priest had on the people of the area. This is well documented. In these early times it appeared as if there was a type of theocracy (religious) type of government. The city of Belen had its beginning closer to the river and was known eventually as Old Town. The area was prone to flooding.

The Catholic Church was built in 1793 in Old Town, mostly out of adobes with some bricks and rocks. Across the street was located a dance hall, also made of adobe.

On one occasion, there was a wedding dance after the ceremonies at the church. Everyone was invited to the dance. The gaiety of the occasion was affected by the solemnity of a heavy rainfall and the worry that the water would overflow river banks.

However, the dance hall was bright, noisy and effervescent with its hanging lanterns and music. The following day, it was discovered the water had done considerable damage to the church. And this was not the first time.

The young priest, Father Paulett, had a problem: whether to build a new church in a different location or try to repair the old and damaged one. Many people from Old Town opposed the moving of the church to the newer part of town.

The people of New Town wanted the church built in their area. The situation slithered completely out of control between the two factions. Finally, a man wearing a wide-brimmed hat arrived on horseback to help decide — the archbishop of Santa Fe.

Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy threatened people of Plaza Vieja with excommunication if they did not obey his orders on the new location of the church. The controversy between the people of Plaza Vieja and New Town eventually ended with the decision to build the church building in New Town.

The following men donated land for the new church in New Town: Gregorio Artiaga, Matias Baca (the author’s great-grandfather and name sake), Ignacio Garcia, a member of the Belen Land Grant and others.

To raise funds, Father Paulett received permission to sell the Glorietta Trees that were located in front of the church at Plaza Vieja, located on the corner of Wisconsin and Ross. One wonders if any of these trees, or off-shoots, have survived to this day.

Work on the new church started in 1858. The work was brought to a successful end on Nov. 19, 1860, when Archbishop Lamy rode down from Santa Fe and blessed the church.