Editor’s note: The Journal continues “What’s in a Name?,” a twice a month column in which staff writer Elaine Briseño will give a short history of how places in New Mexico got their names.
Perched on a hill about 40 miles west of Albuquerque, San José de Laguna’s white-washed walls rise like a beacon from the brown and yellow terrain that surround it.
The mission church is as old as the Keresan-speaking pueblo community created there in 1699. Franciscan missionary Friar Antonio de Miranda established and named the church, which was constructed between 1699 and 1701.
San José is the Spanish translation of St. Joseph, the adopted father of Jesus. According to “The Place Names of New Mexico” by Bob Julyan, San José is the second most popular name in New Mexico after San Antonio. It appears 33 times in and around the state.
Laguna village was settled, and the church was built following the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, and would eventually become the 500,000-acre Laguna Pueblo of today, which spans four counties and now also includes the villages of Mesita, Paguate, Seama, Paraje and Encinal.
Laguna is the only pueblo established after Europeans came to America. A portion of the pueblo that includes the area with the church, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
According to the National Park Service “A group of Kawaik people and other refugees from Cieneguilla, Santo Domingo, Cochiti, and Zia pueblos created the settlement. This diverse group built the pueblo’s main village into the light-yellow sandstone slope on the west side of the San José River. As part of the re-establishing authority, the Franciscans returned to the ruins of the previous churches or founded new missions throughout the region.”
Although it’s been more than three centuries since the church was erected, it remains as much the center of the community today as it was then. It’s also a favorite of history buffs and tourists. It’s one of many mission churches Europeans built in New Mexico.
Two reasons it stands out are because it’s preserved mostly in its original condition, and it’s still used as a Catholic parish church.
The old Catholic church is a symbol of two cultures coming together. Mysticism and magic are woven throughout the church’s history.
According to a 2014 Voice of the Southwest article by Suzanne Hammons, a hand-carved statue of St. Joseph that sits in the church was brought to the mission in 1699 from Old Mexico. It is greatly revered by the people of the pueblo.
“According to their tradition, this statue was dipped into the river that passes around Laguna and to this day the river is known as the San José River. Every year on the Fiesta days (March 19 and Sept. 19) and in times of trouble and stress, this statue is carried with great ceremony and reverence through the village.”
Voice of the Southwest covers news from the Diocese of Gallup.
Another mythical story includes an oil painting of San José that hung inside the cathedral that became the center of a dispute with Acoma Pueblo. The painting was said to have been given to a priest from Acoma by King Charles II, and that it had supernatural powers that brought rain and prosperity to the possessor. Acoma loaned the painting to Laguna but when it came time to return it, the people of Laguna decided they wanted a little more of its magical powers.
For 100 years, the painting hung inside San José de Laguna until Acoma decided to take the matter to the courts. The Supreme Court of New Mexico had the final say. They decided in favor of Acoma and the painting was returned.
Sister Mary Rosita Shiosee of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament grew up in Mesita and served at San José and satellite mission churches throughout the pueblo. San José de Laguna, she said, is a tribute to both the Catholic faith and Native American traditions. The ceiling, she said, has Native American symbols that represent the heavens, moon and stars in honor of God’s creations.
“The beams on the side of the altar are carved and painted red and green,” she said. “The colors are a symbol of Christianity and Indian ways. The Christian ways are entwined with our traditions.”
Shiosee, 89, now lives in an assisted living community in Philadelphia, but it was she who introduced drums and native chants into the Mass. The chants and drums are used to sing traditional church hymns.
For members of the community, it’s a place of familiarity and comfort, but the church has also been welcoming and enchanting outsiders for centuries.
The National Park Service shared an 1851 Christmas Day journal entry from Ten Broeck, an assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army, that describes the scene there that day. Broeck was entranced by what he found, especially the music, which sounded like a multitude of birds.
“The note of the wood-thrush and the trillings of the canary bird, were particularly distinct. … having worked my way up into the gallery, I there found fifteen or twenty young boys lying prone upon the floor, each with a small basin two-thirds full of water in front of him, and one or more short reeds, perforated and split in a peculiar manner. Placing one end in the water, and blowing through the other, they imitated the notes of different birds most wonderfully. It was a curious sight, and taken altogether – the quaintly painted church; the altar, with its lighted candles and singular inmates; the kneeling Indians in their picturesque garbs; and above all, the sounds sent down by the bird orchestra – formed a scene not easily forgotten.”
Curious about how a town, street or building got its name? Email staff writer Elaine Briseño at email@example.com or 505-823-3965 as she continues the monthly journey in “What’s in a Name?”