Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
PEÃ’ASCO – Mardoqueo Chacón, 87, sat in the sun recently outside the former school known locally as La Parochial reminiscing about when he was a student there in the 1940s.
He was taught by Dominican Sisters, based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who came to remote areas like Peñasco in the 1920s to teach. Peñasco, a town of about 1,200, is in Taos County on the scenic High Road to Taos.
Chacón is now on the St. Anthony Parochial School Restoration Committee formed by the nonprofit Peñasco Valley Historical Preservation Society, which purchased the school with plans to preserve it and convert it to a museum and arts center.
He is one of several committee members including Sister Ada Dominguez and Alfredo Romero, who attended the school, which closed in 1987.
The sale for $30,000 from the Archdiocese of Santa Fe was completed Dec. 21, 2021, after three years in the works. At one point the building was in danger of being demolished.
Chacón spoke self-deprecatingly about his school days from the first through ninth grade when he was taught by the sisters.
“I fell in love with those ladies mainly because why would such young, beautiful ladies … dedicate their lives so that a dummy like me could get a good education.”
Former students recall that few of the sisters spoke Spanish and agree that the sisters were focused on teaching.
“A lot of our students I think were mean to them, they would deliberately talk Spanish in front of them,” said Chacón.
“If you spoke Spanish in school they put soap on your tongue,” he said. “I didn’t think it was right.”
Romero, of Albuquerque, is president of the Restoration Committee. His first priority is “to get the funding to be able to restore it to the way it used to be” when it was built in 1931 and opened the following year. The vacant adobe building was last mudded about 14 years ago and needs work.
Romero, 75, attended school there from the fourth through eighth grade. The committee envisions focusing on “preserving the history and legacy of that building,” said Romero. That could include a center with books written about the area, arts and crafts and also honoring local veterans.
Committee member Kaori López is married to Peñasco native Gabriel López, who also attended the school. She taught at the Peñasco elementary and high schools and once assigned sixth graders a sustainability project and urged them to talk to their elders.
“They all went home and talked to their grandparents and great-grandparents and they loved that and they talked about how things were back in the day where their food was sustainable, they grew their food, they built their adobe houses and had the wood stoves and it was really a sustainable and happy way to live and there was real sense of community,” López said.
Sister Dominguez, now of Albuquerque, was born and raised in Peñasco and went to La Parochial from the first through the fifth grade in the late 1950s and early ’60s.
She was so influenced by the education she received from the Dominican Sisters that she joined the order 50 years ago.
“Isn’t that crazy,” she said in a recent phone interview. Now retired, she taught at several Albuquerque schools, including Navajo Elementary where she was also an assistant principal.
“I loved to read, I had very good teachers,” Dominguez recalled. Few of the sisters spoke Spanish and the students weren’t encouraged to speak Spanish, she said. “We didn’t speak very much English,” she said.
Romero remembers his teachers as stern but dedicated.
“The community was blessed to have the Dominican Sisters there,” said Romero, by phone. “They were awesome teachers, they were disciplinarians and they expected you to learn, plain and simple.”
When asked if the sisters ever rapped his knuckles with a ruler, Romero responded, “very much so and deservedly so.”
“They took no prisoners and I think in looking back you say, thank you for being the disciplinarians that they were,” he said.
The Dominican Sisters, who taught in that building for over 50 years, will be honored in the future museum, the committee said in a news release.
Former students recall “the hot lunch” where the Catholic school students and high school students would be served at a Quonset hut-type building near the school.
“It served as the cafeteria; to this day people remember it as ‘the hot lunch,'” said Romero. There are plans to also preserve that building.
Dominguez recalls meals prepared and served at “the hot lunch” as a treat for students living in the rural setting of the Peñasco Valley.
“Everything was homemade, absolutely everything, homemade bread, it wasn’t packaged … they would actually peel potatoes,” Dominguez said.
On holy days children would fast before going to school for communion and on those occasions breakfast was served.
“That was such a big deal to us … Having packaged milk was a big thing for us because when we were kids we had cows and you drank (that),” she said.
But when peas were served, “which I never liked, I would stuff them into the milk container and throw it away so they didn’t know I threw it away,” Dominguez recalled.
López believes that the school, as a former community hub, could once again connect the town as fundraising begins in earnest.
“I feel like this community is so rich culturally and there is so much to be proud of and I think this parochial school highlights some of the best of Peñasco,” she said.
“It highlights this pride in the community, which is well deserved … I think the museum will highlight those aspects of the community from their amazing crafts and self-reliance and working together. That’s key to what Peñasco is and has been.”