Sixty years ago in Gallup, New Mexico, a new construction site sprang up. It wasn’t a store, nor a house or a facility. It was the Catholic Sacred Heart Cathedral, designed to become a city landmark, conceived and made possible by a large contribution of the local Italian community.
Gallup is a city born of both the coal mines and the transcontinental railroad. It was a place where immigrants crossed paths with Native Americans – Navajos, Zuni and other tribes. Italians found their way to this area in western New Mexico, some by chance, some to work in the mines, others seeking opportunity in that thriving community.
Gallup is a place where Italians founded grocery stores, bars, shoemaker shops and even owned some of the mines. It is a place where sons and grandsons of those immigrants still call each other “cumpà” (fellow countryman).
One day in late 1930s a high Roman prelate flew over the Gallup region and asked those seated around him about that land and the Christians who lived there. That man was Eugenio Pacelli, elected Pope in 1939 as Pius XII. A couple of months later, he created the Gallup diocese. The old Catholic church that had existed in Gallup since 1899, was replaced in 1916 by the first Sacred Heart Church. But when the city acquired its own diocese, the Catholic community (made up of many Italian immigrants) rallied to build a cathedral.
The planning and fund-raising for the building, overcome by the outbreak of World War II, took about twenty years. Finally in 1953 the work began. The architect was John Meem, who also designed the Cristo Rey church in Santa Fe and some of the old buildings on the University of New Mexico campus in Albuquerque. He planned the cathedral inspired by the Mediterranean Romanesque style, devoted to simplicity.
The first construction site was at 400 W. Aztec, but that work soon stopped when workers found water and muck in the foundations. After some months, the construction resumed on a new site, then owned by the local St. Mary’s Hospital, between Woodrow and Green Street, on the top of a hill.
Much about the cathedral traces back to Italy, beginning with the general contractor, Brunetta Construction Co. and continuing with its bricklayers, many of whom were Italians. One of them was Frank Di Camillo. His son, Roger, now lives in Albuquerque, is a famous artist and still remembers vividly those days.
“The church is made with full bricks and my dad made them,” he said, interviewed in his home studio. “When I was in high school I helped in the construction; I laid a lot of bricks myself.”
Soon the 47-feet wooden arches of the cathedral nave loomed toward the sky. The interior was modestly adorned with artworks shipped from Italy: a Christ on a crucifix, two statues of Christ and Mary hand-carved from buff-stone, and the ceramic Via Crucis stations. A celebratory mid-50s supplement to The New Mexico Register reported that the bell-tower carillon itself, built by a Pennsylvania company, was originally designed for the North American College in Rome.
Less than two years later, on June 19, 1955, the cathedral was solemnly inaugurated by Cardinal James McIntyre, Archbishop of Los Angeles. The costs of construction totaled nearly $500,000, including $15,000 for the first “false start.” The Franciscan Friars served the parishioners of the Sacred Heart Cathedral through June 1981. Now the church is served by a pastor and cathedral rector appointed by the bishop.