A small northern New Mexico community is trying to preserve a 19th-century mission church vital to its faith and heritage - Albuquerque Journal

A small northern New Mexico community is trying to preserve a 19th-century mission church vital to its faith and heritage

A wooden structure supports the roof above a damaged wall inside the mission church at El Macho. Excessive moisture and soil erosion caused the wall to settle and crack, making the building unsafe to use. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

EL MACHO – Even after they unlock it, Irene Romero and her sister, Lucille Quintana, have trouble opening the front door of the old mission church in this canyon community nine miles north of Pecos.

That’s because the door has not been used a lot since COVID-19 shut down the world three years ago. The threat of COVID retreated, but severe cracking discovered in the church’s south wall in 2021 prevented its reopening and is jeopardizing its future.

The two women, and their two other sisters, Emily Ortiz and Mary Helen Biles, are the mayordomos or caretakers of this 19th-century place of worship and are spearheading a drive to raise the $100,000-plus needed to repair the church and make it safe.

It’s a recent weekday morning, just days before Palm Sunday and the start of Holy Week. When they get the door open, Romero and Quintana pause as they look up the aisle toward the altar. A latticework of timbers braces the deteriorating south side of the building. Pews from that side have been moved to the north side and Stations of the Cross have been taken down from the damaged wall.

The church’s interior might look dusty and in disarray to those whose hearts and heritage are not embedded here. But for these women, this place is not so much about what they see as what they feel.

“It’s so very, very spiritual,” Quintana, 64, said.

‘Almost surreal’

For more than 165 years, the mission church has been a reassuring presence in Pecos Canyon, a steadfast and physical reminder of sacrifices endured by ancestors and of those people’s unflinching Catholic faith. As you drive N.M. 63 through mountains and trees and along the Pecos River, it appears suddenly, like a vision.

The statue of an angel stands vigil in the cemetery outside. The church, which dates back to 1857, has a special place in the hearts of people whose ancestors built it. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“It’s almost surreal,” said Brian Sandoval, 54, who grew up in Pecos and owns Frankie’s restaurant there. “It takes you back in time when you go in there. It’s a mud church on a hillside. You feel very connected and centered and grounded to the earth.”

The church, which can accommodate about 100 people, is made of adobe and has a ribbed, metal panel roof. A sacristy constructed in 1962 to replace the original sacristy is the only part of the church made from non-traditional materials. The building has no water or electricity. It is lighted by candles and lanterns and warmed by a wood-burning stove. A low stone wall, built in 1916, surrounds the church, and graves are scattered throughout its yard.

It is common these days to refer to this venerable building as El Macho Mission Church due to its location in a place named for a male mule. But according to the archives of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, the church was christened Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, Our Lady of Guadalupe, when it was built about 1857.

“I think about my ancestors, who were very poor people but somehow erected this church,” Romero, 67, said. “That was their priority. That church had to be built. Even when they did not have food, they had to honor God and keep our faith going. That’s the most important thing about preserving it. This is my heritage. I have to continue my family’s journey.”

Faith and tradition

The old church in El Macho is administered by San Antonio de Padua, or St. Anthony’s Church, in Pecos. Over the years, services at the mission church have varied. There would be regular Sunday Masses during the summertime, or a Saturday Mass once a month during the summer. Occasionally there were weddings and baptisms or rosary services for the recently deceased.

What most people associate with the church is Las Posadas, a Catholic devotion practiced during the Christmas season, that recreates Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging in Bethlehem. There is singing and prayers and food. Up until COVID intruded, Romero said Las Posadas was celebrated at Our Lady of Guadalupe for decades, drawing 50 to 100 people to the church.

“We’d have candles and lanterns inside and luminarias and farolitos outside,” she said. “We’d use a generator for Christmas lights.”

Sandoval, owner of Frankie’s, provided food and farolitos for Las Posadas.

“We set up the farolitos and the Christmas tree, getting up early and taking our oil lamps, in the middle of December before Christmas,” he said. “Some of these older guys would go and help set up. I realized that was their Christmas. They would help set up, but they would usually stay outside during Posadas.”

Irene Romero, left, and Lucille Quintana walk up to the entrance of Our Lady of Guadalupe mission church at El Macho, nine miles north of Pecos. They are mayordomos or caretakers of the 19th-century church, which has been closed due to severe structural damage discovered in a wall in 2021. Efforts are underway to raise money to repair the church. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Children play the roles of Mary and Joseph, shepherds and angels.

Irene’s daughter, Sabrina Romero, now 46, portrayed the part of Mary when she was a child.

“There was no electricity. You had to hold a candle,” she said. “I don’t know how to say it, but it felt like you were someplace else. A very special place.”

Emily Ortiz, 59, recalled the near-magical experience of stepping outside the church during Posadas and soaking up the silence of a winter night that was broken only by the murmur of the Pecos River.

Sandoval said Las Posadas at Our Lady of Guadalupe keeps him connected to and involved with the traditions of his Catholic faith.

“Few things are as truly northern New Mexico as Posadas in that little church,” he said.

Paying respect

Moisture and erosion are apparently the culprits that have caused the structural damage to the church. Needed repairs are extensive and were originally estimated at about $93,000. Irene Romero said revised estimates, which include making the church accessible to the elderly and disabled, put the cost at well over $100,000.

Both Rev. Chike Uba, former pastor of St. Anthony’s Church, and Rev. Christopher C. Nnonyelu, the present pastor, have supported renovation plans and a grass-roots, door-to-door fundraising effort. Irene said $72,778 has been raised so far. Donations have come mostly from the Pecos/El Macho area, but also from throughout the state and out of state.

“A lot of people know the church from camping, hiking and fishing near there,” she said.

Dolores Baca, 67, lives in Pecos and is a cousin of Irene and her sisters. Their fathers lived in El Macho and grew up right across from the church. She said preserving it is like paying respect to her ancestors.

Emily Ortiz, a mayordomo for Our Lady of Guadalupe mission church at El Macho, inspects cracks in the church’s south wall. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“We would spend a lot of time there at that church when we were growing up,” she said. “I knew by the stories my father told me that the original cemetery is not the cemetery around the church. It was up on the mountain. My father and his family saw lights up there in the ’20s and ’30s, back when the mines were going full blast at Tererro. People burying people up there. We went up there some years back and there is really nothing left.

“There used to be a school beside the church. That’s where my dad went to school. The church was very active when my dad was young.”

She has fond memories of riding horseback to the mission church from the ranch she grew up on, approaching it from above on a mountain trail.

“We’d stop and just gaze at it,” she said. “It stood out. When the wind was right, even when we were four or five miles up the hill, we could hear the bells. The church is part of my father’s history, my grandparents’ history, my great-grandparents’ history. It’s part of me. It is sacred ground. It is blessed.”


A healing place

Frank Herrera, 76, lives across the highway from the church and once served as its mayordomo. He still tends to the church cemetery. His late wife is buried there. He and she celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in the mission church just months before she died.

“For me (the church) is a very spiritual thing, a monument left there by our ancestors,” he said. “I put it right in the same category as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Angel Fire. Both are very peaceful.”

Sandoval took his grief to the mission church 27 years ago when his brother Frankie, for whom Sandoval’s restaurant is named, died.

“I did a lot of healing up there,” he said. “I found a lot of solace there. I still do, and I want to preserve it.”

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