GOLDEN — We’re walking through the graveyard outside the San Francisco de Asis Church, Michael Montaño and I, past the headstones of several generations of his forebears.
Behind us is a stately entrance gate and, sitting at the end of a wide path, the pretty little centuries-old church that causes tourists driving the Turquoise Trail to put on the brakes and pull out their cameras.
Montaño is 52 years old, with the bulging arms of a plasterer and a devotion that has drawn him here to work day after day for dozens of years rebuilding a church to honor his father.
“When I was growing up, they weren’t even having church here. It was abandoned,” Montaño tells me. We’re standing in front of the church, between two piñon trees planted by the Montaños generations ago.
Like many of the old Catholic churches that dot New Mexico’s landscape, this one was built by townspeople in the early 19th century. Gold was discovered here in 1825, the first big gold strike west of the Mississippi, and construction on the church started shortly thereafter. Parishioners chose a spot on a hill facing the San Pedro Mountains, and they used local stone and mud mortar. The church was completed in 1839.
The gold boom didn’t last much past the turn of the next century and the church, like the town, began to crumble.
Sophie and Manuel Montaño, Michael’s parents, were cattle ranchers and devout Catholics. Although they kept a home in Albuquerque and sent their kids to city schools, they spent the weekends in Golden. Manuel, every chance he could, took his only son to the church to make repairs.
Manuel Montaño died in 2002 and his son began to spend even more time at the churchyard. He came to visit his father in the camposanto, or cemetery, and stayed to finish the job his father had started.
“Every day I come here, it reminds me of my dad,” Montaño tells me. “I don’t know whether it’s the spirit of the Lord or of my dad, but I’m always crying when I’m here. I work and I cry.”
Montaño chased the bats and mice away, and rebuilt a wall that had fallen. Then he got mismatched bags of stucco donated to the cause, mixed them together and sprayed the cracking church with a new coat of golden stucco.
He procured donated concrete blocks and built a handsome wall and entrance gate to replace the old barbed wire fence and gate. He got a donation of gravel and laid a wide golden path from the entrance gate to the church doors.
“What you see, I done,” Montaño tells me as we watch spring clouds move shadows across the church walls.
The parish priest from Cerrillos saw the renovation and agreed to open the church again for weekly Mass several years ago, which brought more faithful — and more helpful hands — to the church.
A parishioner who lays tile helped Montaño pull out the rotted old floorboards and replace the floor with tile. Another parishioner took each of the 20 wooden pews, shored them up and refinished them. Another one of the faithful is researching the town’s history to help identify those buried in the graveyard. Another church member is making stained-glass windows for each of the church’s windows, while someone else built new pine doors.
And, to Montaño’s relief, two of the faithful agreed to play guitar and sing during Mass. “To have a little music,” he says, “my mom and my sisters, we had to make the choir. I don’t really sing.”
Twenty or 30 people attend Mass at 4 p.m. on Saturdays. They come from Albuquerque, Los Alamos, Edgewood and the Paa-Ko community. Not many come from Golden. As Montaño and I are talking, his first cousin, Leroy Gonzales, comes by and explains why.
“How many people live in Golden? Let me count,” Gonzales says. “One, two, three,” he begins as he scans the town. He settles on 10, 11 including himself.
Although the church now has electricity, which accommodates having coffee and sweets after Mass, Montaño now has his sights on building a small parish hall with bathrooms and a kitchen to make it easier to put on St. Francis’ feast day on the first Saturday of each October.
He also plans to shore up the rubble foundation, to clean more of the cemetery, to put a wrought iron gate at the entrance, to redo the stucco coat.
As Montaño imagines even more improvements, I ask him a question that he’s heard before: Why do you give so much of your time to this project?
“Because it’s my church and I love it,” Montaño says. “I love this little church. I feel the Spirit here.”