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400 years of faith at St. Augustine Church

ISLETA PUEBLO – Traditional dances, songs and drumming mingled with Roman Catholic rituals Wednesday as New Mexicans celebrated the 400th anniversary of St. Augustine Church – arguably the nation’s oldest active parish.

Lifelong parishioner Lucille Salas, 68, said St. Augustine is a unique spiritual home for members of Isleta Pueblo members like herself and for Native Americans throughout the region.

“There’s a certain spiritual soul in our church,” Salas said after she and 450 parishioners and visitors jammed the white-stucco church to celebrate Mass.

“Any Mass you go to at another church, you don’t find the spiritual peace you find in our church,” Salas said. “We have been blessed by this church.”

A Mass celebrated by Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan marked four centuries since the mission was first built by a Franciscan, Friar Juan de Salas. The celebration featured a mix of Native American and Roman Catholic rituals, with singing and readings in Tiwa, the traditional language of Isleta Pueblo.

The Mass recognized both St. Augustine and Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk venerated by Native Americans, who was canonized last year by Pope Benedict XVI. A shrine to Saint Kateri is in the foyer of St. Augustine Church.

Mass was followed both by a Roman Catholic procession around the plaza and by Native American dancing and singing in front of the church. The dances focused on a shrine to St. Augustine covered with cottonwood branches and decorated with deer heads and Catholic icons.

“We have two ways to worship – our traditional way and our Catholic way,” Isleta Pueblo Gov. Paul Torres said after Mass. “What more could we ask for?”

The plaza at Isleta Pueblo was lined with vendors and carnival rides on Wednesday to celebrate the feast day.

“The church is a good foundation for the Catholic people who live here at Isleta Pueblo,” said Mary Jane Eaakie, who sold pottery and traditional Indian bread in the plaza. “Marking another century is a big milestone for Isleta.”

The church was burned during the Pueblo Revolt in 1680 and rebuilt in 1710. But an extensive renovation of the church in 2010 and 2011 found that much of the original adobe remained intact, said the Rev. George Pavamkott, the church’s pastor.

“When we were renovating, we found that the adobe walls are very strong,” he said.