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Saving the state’s old rural churches is ‘getting harder and harder’

The San Jose de Garcia church in Las Trampas is believed to have been completed in the late 18th century. It will be a part of Nuevo Mexico Profundo's High Road church tours in July. (Courtesy of Carol Highsmith)

The San Jose de Garcia church in Las Trampas is believed to have been completed in the late 18th century. It will be a part of Nuevo Mexico Profundo’s High Road church tours in July. (Courtesy of Carol Highsmith)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The Santa Teresita Church in Mora County has a special place in Rebecca Montoya’s heart.

The 66-year-old retiree from Las Vegas, New Mexico, has family ties to El Turquillo, an unincorporated village off N.M. 434 that is home to the old Catholic church, built in the 1920s.

The Santa Teresita Church in El Turquillo, an unincorporated village in Mora County. (Courtesy of Rebecca Montoya)

The Santa Teresita Church in El Turquillo, an unincorporated village in Mora County. (Courtesy of Rebecca Montoya)

Montoya’s grandparents lived in the village when she was growing up. In 1934, her mother made her first holy communion at Santa Teresita. Her grandfather was one of the community members who helped pay for and build its sacristy in the 1940s. And the entire maternal side of her family, she said, is buried in the church cemetery.

For about a decade, Montoya says, the church – one of 16 mission churches that are part of Mora’s St. Gertrude’s Parish – went in and out of various phases of abandonment before she took over as the mayordoma, or the church’s caretaker, in 2008.

Since that time, she has raised thousands for church maintenance through donations from family members, running raffles and bake sales, and sending letters to people across the West who have relatives buried in the church cemetery to ask for assistance.

The money has gone toward major repairs, such as replastering the interior and exterior, redoing the ceiling and adding a new porch where an old one was deteriorating.

“It’s a beautiful, beautiful mission church today,” Montoya said.

She’s also trying to bring more events to the church in addition its annual feast day and Mass. Like other old mission churches, it no longer holds regular services. But with its restoration in recent years, locals have used Santa Teresita to pray the rosary during May, and Montoya has helped organize pilgrimages around Good Friday and Las Posadas events at Christmas.

But more work is still to be done, in El Turqillo and elsewhere. With shrinking populations in rural villages like El Turquillo, Montoya said, aging community churches like Santa Teresita don’t benefit from the same level of commitment that previous generations once had for them.

For her, keeping these churches open and in use keeps local tradition and culture alive, and maintains what everyone’s ancestors helped build.

“(It’s about) not losing something our families worked so hard to maintain, and that’s the same in all of our little communities,” said Montoya. “Now it’s getting harder and harder, and we need help.”

Montoya’s church is one of several participating in a fundraising project to benefit some of the state’s “endangered” historic churches. Through cultural events, which start in July and will be held at the old places of worship, the organizers of the Nuevo Mexico Profundo project hope to raise money to preserve them.

Frank Graziano

Frank Graziano

Nuevo Mexico Profundo was the brainchild of Frank Graziano, an author and former professor of Hispanic Studies who lives in Chamisal. His inspiration came from research and trips he made for his recently published book, “Historic Churches of New Mexico.”

Graziano visited about 100 churches across the state in traditionally Hispanic villages and tribal communities. Most of the structures, he said, date back to the 19th or early 20th centuries. But a handful are estimated to be from the 1600s and 1700s.

When he started working on the book, using a guide to churches in northern New Mexico created in the 1990s for reference, Graziano discovered that many of the listed churches had come down churches in places like El Valle and Picuris Pueblo were among the casualties.

Among those still standing, he said, “some are very well preserved, and others are in states of gradual disintegration.”

Graziano explained that the responsibility of fundraising for maintenance, as well as for insurance payments, falls on local mayordomos.

“What you’re seeing is that the mayordomos are being more and more burdened with obligations, which eventually causes some of them to give up, and the responsibility for the church doesn’t go to the parish or the Archdiocese,” he said. “It just gets kind of closed up, abandoned and begins the process of disintegration.”

Year-round events

Leading organizers of the Nuevo Mexico Profundo project include Graziano, Montoya and Historic Santa Fe Foundation executive director Pete Warzel. It’s also being supported by the state’s Office of the Historian and Historic Preservation Division; Cornerstones Community Partnership, a nonprofit that helps preserve historic structures in New Mexico; the New Mexico Preservation Alliance; and the Spanish Colonial Arts Society.

Warzel of the Historic Santa Fe Foundation said that from an architectural and cultural standpoint, the church buildings themselves are important to maintain, But he also described the project as a way for people to connect to the “functioning, living” communities where the churches stand.

“It’s using the historic churches as an anchor,” he said.

Nuevo Mexico Profundo is in a trial stage, the organizers say. Only three parishes have signed on so far: Holy Family Parish in Chimayo; St. Gertrude’s in Mora (including Santa Teresita church); and Our Lady of Sorrows in Las Vegas. Currently, events such as tours or concerts are scheduled only at churches in Mora and within the Holy Family Parish.

A handful of ticketed events are scheduled through July-October. If they are successful, Graziano said the plan is to organize more and possibly get more parishes involved, likely others in northern New Mexico.

“We started cautiously because we weren’t sure what the response would be,” Graziano said, but he added that the two guided tours of Holy Family’s High Road mission churches on July 13 have both sold out. The tours begin at the Santuario de Chimayó, and will visit the San José de Gracia church in Trampas, the Nuestra Señora del Sagrado Rosario in Truchas and the San Antonio church in Cordova.

Altar screens at the Nuestra Señora del Sagrado Rosario church in Truchas. (Courtesy of Frank Graziano)

Altar screens at the Nuestra Señora del Sagrado Rosario church in Truchas. (Courtesy of Frank Graziano)

On Aug. 17, a concert featuring popular local band Lone Piñon, singers Alex Montoya, Nazario Montoya and Jeannie Mondragon, and prayers in song from the regional Catholic fraternity Piadosa de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazereno will be held at the San Rafael church in La Cueva in Mora County.

Santa Teresita will open its annual feast day to the public on Oct. 5, as well as host Albuquerque-based band El Trio Latino and offer a tour of the church. Later that month, on Oct. 19, the Santuario de Chimayó will host a concert with the Altura Ensemble, a sextet that plans to perform both traditional and modern selections.

The money raised at each event will be given to the host churches. Graziano explained that the initial funding would likely pay for routine maintenance projects, such as roof leaks. Preservation projects, on the other hand, are more expensive and complex.

Those kinds of projects could include removing old stucco or restoring the churches’ interiors to their “original historical character” with traditional artwork and other decorations.

Bigger restoration projects will cost more than these first fundraising events can provide, Graziano acknowledged. The High Road church tours, for example, will bring in about $1,200 each.

Still, if the tours become regular to the point they can be advertised on travel sites and get the attention of tourists rather than just locals, Graziano said, they could become a steady source of income.

“If we could do $1,000 a Saturday, that’s starting to accumulate,” he said.

Patrimony and heritage

Though Montoya has already completed several maintenance projects, additional money could help her get started on upgrading Santa Teresita’s landscaping, fix the steeple where its bell’s rope has broken off, and add more pews. At other nearby churches, she said, she has heard of the need to redo deteriorating woodwork in doors and windows, and repair or replace old window glass.

“The church is like the home; the work is never done,” said Montoya.

Although Montoya has made efforts to bring activity to Santa Teresita year-round, Graziano said almost all similar churches around the state sit idle. One of the goals of Nuevo Mexico Profundo is to create a use for the churches as cultural meeting places. In any case, Graziano said they warrant being preserved as historical relics.

“I personally think of them as patrimony, as cultural heritage, as an important part of the history of the state; you don’t just let them fall down,” said Graziano.

“Even if the churches are never used, they’re so historically important to New Mexico and tourism in New Mexico,” he later went on to say. “They need to be served.”

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