Works of faith
David Zengerly was only 44 years old when he suffered a major heart attack and underwent open heart surgery in 1982. He survived, but his doctors ordered him to take some time off from work until he fully recovered. This was a real challenge because David was an energetic, talented man who had enjoyed being active his entire life.
David Leroy Zengerly was born in Socorro on May 23, 1938. His German parents, Henry and Josephine Zengerly, had eight children of which he was the youngest. David remembered that his father’s family had moved to New Mexico from Oregon with everyone and all their possessions packed in a single car.
David excelled in sports throughout his school years in Socorro. He lettered in basketball and enjoyed playing baseball.
He continued playing softball long after high school, excelling as both a pitcher and a hitter. He was so good that at least one former opponent remembers that he hated to hit against David because David struck him out so often.
David enjoyed dancing and especially liked to attend the Belen Fiestas, where the music and dancing were always good. It was there that he met a pretty young girl from Las Nutrias who had heard about David from her brothers, but had never met him until that day at the fiestas.
David danced with Terry Baca, paying the dime that couples paid to enter the dance floor before each song was played. David and Terry danced well together and soon began to see each other as often as possible, a challenge given the many miles between their homes.
Twenty-year-old David married 19-year-old Terry in the Catholic Church in Las Nutrias on a snowy day in 1958. David joined the Air Force and the newlyweds moved to Laredo, Texas, where David was stationed. Terry still remembers her relatives lined up in a row at the Belen depot to see her off with lots of hugs and tears.
Back in New Mexico
David served in the Air Force for four years before returning to New Mexico to raise his growing family in 1962. The Zengerlys would have five children: David Jr. in 1959, Mark in 1960, Ron in 1961, Annette in 1965 and Debra in 1970.
David worked in construction, a seasonal and irregular occupation. To make extra money, he made heishi jewelry that he and Terry sold to pawn shops in Albuquerque. Forming a production line, each member of the family worked on making the jewelry.
Debra, the youngest, remembers that her job was buffing the finished product. Their heishi was so popular that they sold some of it by mail and a lot when they visited David’s brother in Colorado Springs.
David was talented in making jewelry, but it was only one of his remarkable gifts. A musician, he could play almost any instrument, from guitars and harmonicas to pianos and accordions, without any formal training. For years he belonged to a band that entertained crowds at dances, matanzas and other events up and down the valley.
David was also good at building. Terry says that he could just look at something and go home and build it down to the smallest detail in his shop in the family’s large garage. He built his garage and added rooms to his house. He could fix almost anything once he figured out how it worked.
David liked making toys for his children, jewelry for Terry, 3-D targets for archers, belt buckles and even clocks with football team logos on their faces for his friends; his first clock featured the Dallas Cowboys, his favorite team.
Using the painting skills that he had first learned in the Air Force, he painted houses professionally and cars and other vehicles in his spare time.
Eager to find more stable employment, David went to work for the Southern Union Gas Co., north of Belen in March 1980. He worked so much with gas meters that he began to use old discarded meters to make items such as clocks, piggy banks and at least one lamp. His meter clocks were so admired that he was often asked to make them as retirement gifts for long-serving gas company employees.
David stayed active in other ways: raising his five children, dancing with Terry, fishing at lakes all over New Mexico, practicing archery, bow hunting, bowling and playing practical jokes at home and at work. His funny comments and stunts made people laugh wherever he went.
A new interest
After David suffered his heart attack in 1982, he searched for something new and less strenuous to keep him busy. He began to think of making miniature model buildings.
His first model was of a place he knew well: the gas company’s Manzano Meter Repair Shop where he worked. Having succeeded with the meter shop building, he turned to far more ambitious projects: New Mexico’s old adobe Catholic churches.
David began with the San Miguel Church in Socorro. The church had special meaning for him because it was where his parents had gotten married and where he and his siblings had been baptized. The church was within blocks of his childhood home and, as he later recalled, “I always admired its simple beauty.”
Working countless hours in his garage, David finished the model by mid 1985 and placed it on display in the First National Bank of Socorro building. A local woman was so fascinated by it that she paid David $550 for the church.
Experts told David that he could have gotten much more. He was astonished because he never thought his work was good enough to be sold.
Despite his lingering doubts, David continued making model churches, including a second model of San Miguel, completed by April 1986. He began his third church, Immaculate Conception in Tomé in July 1986.
His fourth church, the Santuario at Chimayo, was finished by July 1988. His fifth church, Our Lady of Guadalupe in Peralta, was completed a year later.
His procedure was much the same for each model church he constructed. With Terry and Debra’s aid, he would first visit a church to take pictures from every angle with his 35 mm and movie cameras. They measured the entire structure with a 100-foot measuring tape for large areas and rulers for items as small as candleholders.
Measuring took some time and patience, especially in one instance. The Zengerlys had just begun measuring the famous Santuario in Chimayo when several bus loads of tourists arrived, making the family’s work much harder. A perfectionist, David often returned to a church several times to make sure he had captured every detail.
Once a church was measured, David returned home to begin work in his garage. Using his talent to see an item and reproduce it later, he laid out his plans, using a half-inch to one-foot ratio.
David used his talent of using everyday items for his materials. His main building materials were balsa wood and masonite, but he’d use anything else that served his purpose. David improvised with everything from discarded gas meter parts and popsicle sticks to bread loaf ties and plastic balls borrowed from his grandson.
Whatever he used, those who looked at it could never guess what its original purpose had been. The craftsman had transformed it into a staircase, a pew or whatever item he attempted to replicate.
David returned to work at the gas company after several months of recovery from his heart attack, but continued working on his favorite hobby in his spare time. David enjoyed working alone in his garage, although he liked calling Terry to see finished parts that he was particularly proud of.
Nothing was too small to escape his keen eye. The smallest items were the most delicate and time consuming to make. Using clear Plexiglas for his roofs, we can see every intricate detail of the church interiors. A true artist, he worked with precision and passion.
Each church took from 600 to 900 hours to complete, with many more hours spent contemplating a project and its details. As David told a reporter, “Sometimes I can’t sleep because I think about it so much.”
Asked why he was willing to work so hard on his unusual hobby, he answered, “You do what you enjoy, and this is something I love to do.”
The time he dedicated to his churches seems impossibly long, but artists call their hours of most intensive work their “creative zone.” Once in this zone, they completely focus on their creative process and effectively tune out the rest of the world. Time loses meaning; hours seem like minutes.
David planned to make many more models, including Our Lady of Belen, San Felipe de Neri in Albuquerque, St. Augustine in Isleta, the church in San Antonio south of Socorro and even the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, “if I ever save up enough money.”
His greatest difficulty did not seem to be a lack of churches, but the decision “which one I want to do next.” As he told a News-Bulletin reporter in 1988, “I’m going to keep building. I’m going to go on and on.”
But complications arose. Our Lady of Belen had been demolished in 1971 and David only had old pictures of the church to rely on. Photo taking was restricted by pueblo rules in Isleta, and David never raised the money to travel to the Alamo in San Antonio. San Felipe de Neri, with its elaborate exterior design, was nothing like the adobe churches David had built before.
David had no interest in building models of modern churches, calling them “miniature Tingley coliseums” made of bricks and cement. Instead, he began work on the small adobe church in Las Nutrias, his wife’s home parish and the site of their wedding. He built about half the model, but never got to complete it.
David won public acclaim of all kinds. His churches won blue ribbons, starting at the Valencia County Fair in 1985 and later at the New Mexico State Fair, the Socorro County Fair and the gas company’s annual fair in Albuquerque.
On June 22, 1986, Joe Diaz, of KOAT TV, arrived in Belen in a helicopter to interview David about his remarkable creations. Chris Shuler, of KGGM’s TV show “Stopwatch,” came for another interview months later. Several feature articles appeared in the News-Bulletin and the Albuquerque Journal.
David became known as the “church man” of Belen. His son, Ron, recalls that he often said his hands were blessed. He remained a humble craftsman — a modern santero — to the end.
Preserving churches, large and small
David Zengerly went to work as usual on Wednesday morning, Dec. 8, 1993. But later that morning, Terry got a call from a friend at the gas company that David had suffered another heart attack. His fellow workers attempted CPR and he was transported by ambulance to Albuquerque, but he died that same day. David was only 55 years old. This year marks the 20th anniversary of his death.
David’s family has wonderful memories to share about their dad, including about three of his often-funny traits: sleeping late, being late (except for work) and bad luck. His family had always joked that he would be late to his own funeral.
It turns out that with his typical bad luck he was late for his own funeral: the hearse broke down en route to the church. When the military sent his headstone to his gravesite in Las Nutrias, they had incorrectly engraved that he was a veteran of the U.S. Army rather than the U.S. Air Force. They later corrected the mistake.
Debra Zengerly did not want her father’s bad luck to affect his famous churches. She feared that if the churches remained stored in his garage they might crumble and eventually be destroyed.
So Debra contacted the Belen Harvey House Museum and asked if the museum would like to have the models on a loan basis. The museum jumped at the opportunity; docent Ken Gibson came by to transport the models in his truck.
The four church models are now on permanent display in a secure, but accessible room on the museum’s second floor. They are taken downstairs to the museum’s “big room” on special occasions, including this Christmas on the weekend of Dec. 21-22.
David hoped that in building his models he was helping to preserve the old churches he admired so much. In his words, “We take them for granted” when there is a danger that they might deteriorate and be condemned. David knew this was possible; he had seen it happen at Our Lady of Belen just blocks from his home on North 12th Street.
Many churches are in grave danger of collapse today. We hope that they survive, but David’s models will help us remember their importance and glory if they do not. Leave it to David Zengerly to take his misfortune — a heart attack in 1982 — to make something beautiful and lasting long after his productive life ended where it began, in the Rio Abajo.