Seventy-five-year-old Dave Burgett shows up four or five times a week in Questa to shovel sand through a screen, winnowing out the large chunks so it can be used to make adobe bricks for the massive, weathered old church behind him.
He is not alone.
Dozens of parishioners and others are using their smarts and their brawn to make a once-collapsing shell of a church if not new, at least functional, to once again be the glue that has held the community together through countless generations.
Asked why is he doing it, Burgett said, “Well, gosh, why wouldn’t you? It’s a very worthwhile thing … we’ve got community support and we’ve got a great priest.”
Its weathered walls survived 170-some years of harsh Questa winters and blue-sky New Mexico summers as it stood in the shadow of Flag Mountain – until one day in October 2008.
With winter around the corner, time proved too much for San Antonio de Padua Catholic Church, aka St. Anthony’s Church. The west wall collapsed and the building was declared unsafe. Archbishop Michael Sheehan of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe said the church should be torn down and a new one built.
But residents would have none of it. Led by former mayor Esther Garcia; her brother, San Antonio Historic Preservation Group president Bobby Ortega; guitar-playing District Attorney Donald Gallegos; and others, they held peaceful disobedience rallies, singing songs in Spanish, and vowing to fight the move to demolish the physical and spiritual heart of the town.
An agreement was brokered between the Village of Questa and the archdiocese to give the community six years to restore the church.
Work in the hands of many
That restoration is now going full speed ahead, with volunteers de-barking logs for vigas, or roof beams, sifting sand for new abobe bricks and holding fundraisers to hopefully see the church re-open for services again in December 2015.
The average turn-out for volunteers during the week is from six to 12, with 20 to 35 showing up on Saturdays, plus a half-dozen others who prepare a communal meal, said licensed contractor Mark Sideris, who heads up the job.
“Saturday is the big day,” said Burgett. “We have the ladies that give us a heckuva good lunch every Saturday.”
Sideris was on half-time pay during the first year and is now a full-time paid employee of the restoration effort, while all others are volunteers.
The church’s importance goes beyond bricks and mortar, said Garcia. “It’s the center of our roots here in Questa. It’s part of our culture, of our history … . This church is really important to the people in this community.”
The church touches almost everyone, as Garcia can attest. “I was baptized here, I was married here … in the 1800s when they started building this church, this is where the people met, this is where they had their community meetings, whether it was for the land grants or the water.”
For Sideris, who has been doing adobe restorations for 30 years, the church was another challenge. “It’s unknown in any restoration, you don’t know what you are going to find until you get into it,” he said. One of the big surprises was having to take down the west wall to the ground because repairs from 15 years ago were not done well, he said.
Father Andrew Ifele from Nigeria has been the priest of St. Anthony’s Parish for almost three years and is overwhelmed by the spirit shown by parishioners. “It’s joyful, it’s joyful and to thank God for all his blessings and support,” he said as work went on around him.
Sideris has lived within steps of the church for five years and his wife’s family is from Questa.
“I have been the recipient of the biggest blessing of all – having this church to work on,” he said, adding that he’d like to see the doors reopen even sooner in 2015.
“Shoot for Easter, have it happen on Resurrection day.”
This is the third season of the restoration work, said Ortega. Rebuilding the west wall was completed in 2012 and the east wall was rebuilt in 2013.
“We did this without taking down the roof,” said Ortega. “It’s a tribute to all the volunteers who came out.” If all the work had been done by a paid contractor and paid employees, it would have cost up to $1.5 million, said Oretga. But the volunteers, and in-kind services and donations, augmented by money from bake sales, dances, car washes and an upcoming raffle, have made those earlier figures moot. They still need about $228,000 to finish, according to their website.
The men and women of Questa have made the most personal investment of all: sweat equity.
Different motives spur workers
While Burgett flexes those 75-year-old muscles at the sand pile, a few feet away, Gilbert Garcia, Gary Coggins and others are working away with chain saw, axe and sledge hammer in that hallowed New Mexico tradition – stripping raw logs of bark for vigas.
“I love my religion, and I love my church,” said Gilbert Garcia. “Instead of building a new church, we wanted to rebuild our church … whenever I had time, I wanted to come out here.”
Coggins’ motivation is more historical than ecclesiastical. “I am one of the few non-Catholics working. I’m here for the historic preservation of the building,” he said.
His interest is also personal, said Coggins, whose wife is vice-president of the church board and whose father-in-law is a church member. “My father-in-law is 86 years old and he wants it done before his funeral.”
What may have started as a project grounded in religion has taken on a life of its own.
“It’s not a Catholic thing,” said DA and parishioner Gallegos. “It’s a community thing, it’s crossed all faiths. We have gotten a lot of help from neighbors in other states. People have looked at the historical nature of it.”
Story told by abobe bricks and vigas
That history is being read as if each newly revealed adobe is a page from the past. Sideris pointed out a collection of artifacts found during the rebuild now reposing on a church book shelf.
“That’s where we found the buffalo tooth, right in the dirt floor really,” said Sideris, displaying a 2-inch American bison cuspid resting between ancient corn cobs and pieces of animal bones.
Some of the adobes show the distinct imprints of sheep or goat hooves, no doubt left when the animals stepped through molded bricks drying in the sun decades ago.
Nearby Flag Mountain not only provides a visual backdrop to St. Anthony’s, but Ponderosa pine timbers from the mountain were used for the vigas, said Questa resident Carrie Leven, who is also the Questa District archeologist for the Carson National Forest.
Those vigas tell the story, revealed through tree ring dating, of when those trees started growing, and when they were cut and hauled down to the village.
A viga taken from the roof started growing in 1735 and was cut in 1855, said Leven, based on the dating done by Peter Brown of Rocky Mountain Tree-Ring Research Inc. of Fort Collins, Colo.
“Villagers relied on manual labor, but probably also used horses and wheeled dollies to transport the heavy Ponderosa pine logs from Flag Mountain to the church,” said Leven.
In addition to offering her expertise, Leven is documenting the restoration in digital images and video clips, and hopes to write about it.
Although not on the National Register of Historic Places, the village declared the church an historic structure during their negotiations with the archdiocese. “It’s probably a goal that we have,” to have it listed, said Leven. “It’s one of my goals.”
Artifacts have been found in the adobes because it was common to “stick things in them to fill a hole,” said Leven. “A few pieces of historical dishes” probably from the late 1800s were found in the mortar and floor area. Animal bones, rusted tin cans, a tortoiseshell lady’s hair comb and part of a shoe were also found.
The church project has brought a sense of calm to the village that has seen economic boom and bust from the nearby molybdenum mine. “You walk in the church, now there is a sense of peace in here … and I think that’s how it’s going to feel when it’s said and done,” said former mayor Garcia.
Contractor Sideris said the project is his destiny. “My mom said ‘there is no such things as a coincidence’ … . It’s just been the joy of my life; it’s been wonderful.”
For Father Ifele, when the church re-opens,”it will be an unforgetful day … we hope it will be soonest.”