Formation of faith in family’s chapels

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Strung like pearls on rustic twine, four small chapels quietly sit along N.M. 47 as it winds its way through the heart of Tomé.

Two are old, one is new and the fourth isn’t even a building.

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: The alter of Charlie Sanchez’s small family capilla could double as a museum display of Spanish colonial artwork. Sanchez finished the chapel in 1993 and dedicated the spiritual space to his mother.

The four capillas, personal chapels, are owned by four brothers — Ramon, Joe, Charlie and Antonio Sanchez. The chapels came about at different times, in various ways and for numerous reasons.

But the four brothers all say the capillas serve one primary purpose — to be a tangible connection for themselves and their community back to the valley’s rich religious culture and history.

“We’re not religious zealots; that’s not our shtick,” said Antonio. “This is about more than just about the physical objects. There’s a deeper story about why and what we’re hoping to effect with it. I do think our shtick is promotion and preservation of colonial New Mexico culture, religion, art and history. This is the place for that.”

To really get a grasp of the “why,” Antonio said you have to go back about 40 years to a family discussion among the brothers. Having all grown up making the pilgrimage to Santuario de Chimayo, they hit upon the idea of santurio de sur, a religious pilgrimage in the southern part of the state.

“If you really look at New Mexico history, especially when related to religion and culture, history is described as anything north of Albuquerque as being significant. Anything in the Rio Abajo had seemingly been lopped off,” he said.

By taking that approach, New Mexico history and focus has been turned on its head, Antonio said.

“The whole state owes its history to what happened in the south and moved north. People think of New Mexico as Albuquerque and north,” he said.

With that idea perhaps in the back of their minds, the brothers developed different family chapels in the valley. Antonio has worked for years to restore the morada-style chapel built by his grandfather between 1910 and 1920 near the intersection of N.M. 47 and Patricio Road.

Along with the capilla, Antonio has tried to preserve other adobe buildings on the site to varying degrees of success.

“The idea was to take the buildings and put them back into their original uses or as close as possible,” he said.

The brotherhood of the Penitentes used the morada for their Lenten services, and when there were no priests in the area, the building was used by the community as a town hall.

Antonio said Edwin Berry is the one who revived the morada, brought back its membership and gave it life.

When looking at the “why” of keeping the building intact, Antonio said he might get a “little esoteric.”

“You can ask why but why not. We are building on something that could be an anchor. You don’t lop off a whole half of the state and disregard it, and think you’re telling the whole story,” he said. “By keeping the chapels open and available, that will complement the village in a way to remind people of history.”

He credits Berry with starting some of that remembrance of history with his establishment of the three crosses on Tomé Hill.

“This is sort of following in his footsteps adding geological landmarks that punctuates the camino to the santuario de sur,” Antonio said. “There is a broader purpose to what we are doing. No one is into this for personal gain. It is a way to remind the younger people and future generations of the history and importance and our place in history.”

The chapels are a way to bring a very broad history into focus.

“This is a theme that can unite and bind people, a theme that can save a people. This is really a way for a community to believe in itself,” he said. “It will never believe in itself by wrapping its arms around a dollar store and other outside elements. There is a time when people need to understand where their feet are planted and if they have their feet planted, they know where they are going.”

While the capilla Antonio is preserving started as a place of worship, Ramon’s did not. Built in the 1890s as an almacen — dry storage for crops and food during the winter — the building just north of Tomé has been transformed into a miniature Spanish colonial church, complete with cross-topped towers.

Ramon bought the property near the Valencia Y about 45 years ago, unsure what to do with the old adobe buildings. But he knew they had a purpose.

Then this year, as Good Friday approached, he knew what had to be done. Within a week, the building was repaired and renovated, opening its doors to pilgrims that day making their way to the top of Tomé Hill.

“It’s something that emanates the spirit for some people, especially people who are looking for that,” Ramon said. “They come in with Santa Fe, with holy faith and leave with esperanza — hope.”

Renovations to the building only took a week, something Ramon appreciates for the almost miraculous aspect. Almost from one day to the next, the structure went from a ramshackle terron adobe mess to a rustic chapel.

“I want to rekindle a concept that has fallen by the wayside,” Ramon said.

The visage of the capilla is in a way a tribute to the Franciscan builder scholars who brought so many things to the area, he said.

The monks brought Spanish and European architectural knowledge with them to a territory where buildings were regularly constructed from mud bricks. And with that knowledge, they were able to make structures that hold you in awe of their ability to simply stand.

With knowledge of architectural devices such as flying buttresses, the monks could construct thick, tall walls to allow for soaring ceilings and cathedral bell towers unlike anything ever seen in the Southwest.

“If you look at history, they really aren’t mentioned for their contributions,” he said. “They brought so much.”

As Good Friday pilgrims passed by the chapel, some stopping to take a respite in the cool interior of the chapel, Ramon said the community needs more places like this.

“We did this in the spirit of brotherhood, as brothers of light,” he said.

Calling himself a two- to three-year person, Charlie says there was never any doubt he would build a chapel on his Tomé farm. After completing his family’s house, Charlie spent the next two-and-a-half years planning his family capilla. To say he is a planner is probably an understatement.

“This was always a dream of mine. Once I decide to do something, I’m driven to complete it,” he said. “It might take a few years, but it will get done.”

Finished in the early 1990s, Charlie describes his chapel as contemporary Spanish colonial.

It is dedicated to his mother Trinidad Chavez de Sanchez and named the Capilla de Santisama Trinidad.

The small serene chapel is hardly bigger than a bedroom, yet it holds a wealth of religious artwork made by Charlie, his daughter, Vanessa, and friends. Recent pieces adorned straw applique mix with old family santos.

It’s a place for family and friends to meditate and reconnect spiritually. For Charlie, faith and family — familia and Fe — are inseparable. To illustrate his point, Charlie fans out his fingers and brings them together, the fingers of one hand filling the voids of the other hand.

“It’s all connected,” he says, his voice taking on a passionate tone. “Faith, family, the connection to the land — con agua es vida — it’s all tied together.”

No matter who you are, Charlie says the connection can be felt.

The alfalfa farmer on his tractor feels that connection when he turns the dirt every spring

“One cannot exist without the other; water is the sustenance of life,” he says.

And just as water sustains life, faith sustains family and community, and faith and family are tied to the land and community.

A small outdoor place of worship sits on the edge of a verdant alfalfa field. To get to the rough-hewn nicho made out of an old cottonwood stump, you have to cross a small footbridge over an irrigation ditch that carries that life-giving water.

The creation of Joe’s “chapel” came as a bit of an accident. One spring, as he was burning his field, a large, dead cottonwood on the edge of the field caught fire.

“I couldn’t put the flames out, so I just had to let it go,” Joe said.

After the embers had cooled, all that was left was charred wood and inspiration. Using a chain saw, Joe carved out a large nicho and in it placed a statue of the Virgin Mary. Next to the roughly hewn stump is a statue of St. Francis.

A tiled mosaic scene at the end of the short walkway to the stump mirrors Tomé Hill to the north. Joe said mother and mother-in-law would often come and sit on the steel benches before the nicho and enjoy the quite solitude.

A small garden on the side will soon be filled with chile, squash, tomatoes and corn.

As birds dip and flit over the field behind the virgin, landing in the nearby cottonwoods, Charlie’s passionate insistence that water is life, that faith and family are inextricably intertwined is echoed in the greening of the field and the rich smells of life abundant.


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