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The state’s many historic churches draw thousands of visitors

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When it comes to historic and iconic churches and cathedrals, some consider New Mexico a mecca for tourists. We have the oldest church in the country, the “Lourdes of America” and many stunning examples of unique pueblo architecture.

A statue of New Mexico’s first archbishop, Jean Baptiste Lamy, stands in front of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi.

A statue of New Mexico’s first archbishop, Jean Baptiste Lamy, stands in front of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi.

In fact, northern New Mexico’s best historic churches have been featured by Travel + Leisure magazine, photos of churches grace the covers of at least two New Mexico guidebooks, and San Miguel Mission in Santa Fe tops USA Today’s list of “Sacred sites: The 31 oldest churches in the USA.”

For some visitors to the Land of Enchantment, churches and cathedrals are a big draw. And for some, churches are the reason New Mexico is their destination.

El Santuario de Chimayó is a good example. Almost 300,000 visitors a year are drawn to the small adobe church, many of them pilgrims hoping the magical healing soil in the small pit known as “el pocito” can cure their afflictions.

Nestled in the village of Chimayó along the High Road to Taos, the shrine is considered the “Lourdes of America,” after the French shrine where pilgrims are believed to have been cured after bathing in springs, and is “one of the most important Catholic pilgrimage centers in the United States and one of the most beautiful examples of Spanish Colonial architecture in New Mexico,” according to the National Park Service, which oversees national historic landmarks.

San Geronimo Chapel in Taos Pueblo was completed in 1850 to replace the original church that was first built in the early 17th century.

San Geronimo Chapel in Taos Pueblo was completed in 1850 to replace the original church that was first built in the early 17th century.

The oldest church title goes to San Miguel Mission, which was constructed under the direction of Franciscan friars somewhere between 1610 and 1628. It has been rebuilt and restored several times over the past 400 years.

What visitors find now is a modest adobe structure across the street from a local pizza parlor in downtown Santa Fe. However, the walls and interior are rich with history and unassuming beauty, according to the New Mexico Tourism Department.

Top attractions

Within just blocks, visitors to Santa Fe also can see the Loretto Chapel, famous for its miraculous wooden staircase. An unidentified man who showed up sometime in the late 1800s built the circular miraculous staircase with two 360-degree turns, no visible means of support and wooden pegs instead of metal nails.

Heather Briganti, communications director for the New Mexico Tourism Department, describes the small church as intimate and “just incredible.”

The feeling you get when you walk in there is amazing,” she says.

San Miguel Mission in downtown Santa Fe is the oldest church in the U.S.

San Miguel Mission in downtown Santa Fe is the oldest church in the U.S.

Also nearby is the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, a stunning structure near the plaza with twin bell towers and carved wooden doors. It is popular with photographers when the light hits it at sunset.

“It reminds me of some of the cathedrals of Europe,” Briganti says.

She and John Feins of TOURISM Santa Fe says they regularly see large crowds at the churches.

“These are some of our top attractions along with Canyon Road and the plaza,” Feins says.

Although the unique architecture of many New Mexico churches is a big draw, “there’s more there than a pretty building,” Briganti says. “There’s part of the history of our state.”

Part of the story

In the 2007 book, “Historic New Mexico Churches” author Annie Lux describes it this way: “In New Mexico, historic churches are as much a part of the cultural landscape as adobe and green chile. … to tell the story of these historic churches is to tell the story of New Mexico.”

Churches number among the state’s oldest buildings, some built by Native Americans under the supervision of Franciscan missionaries, Lux explains. A new era of church building with a European style arrived with Jean Baptiste Lamy, the state’s first archbishop in 1851. The Romanesque Cathedral of St. Francis in Santa Fe and the neo-Gothic stone and brick San Juan Church at Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo are examples, according to Lux.

Santa Fe may lay claim to the oldest church in the U.S., but Ohkay Owingeh north of the capital is home to the first and oldest parish in the country. Founded in 1598, San Juan Bautista is a thriving Catholic parish today with an average Sunday mass attendance of more than 1,000 people and choirs that sing in Tewa and Spanish, according to the Tourism Department and the National Park Service.

Worth a visit

From Abiquiu to Zuni, there are plenty of other historic churches across the state worth a visit.

Although it’s not as old as many other churches in the state, Christ in the Desert Monastery outside of Abiquiu is worth a visit – even considering the rugged but scenic road that leads there. The monastery, which is perched above the Rio Chama in a beautiful red rock setting, was founded in 1964, and the monks are part of the 1,500-year tradition of Benedictine monasticism. Both day visitors and overnight guests are welcome.

At Zuni Pueblo, restoration is ongoing at Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission, one of the earliest examples of a Spanish Colonial era mission. Established in 1630, the original complex included an enclosed adobe convento to house the priest, soldiers and other mission personnel. After a long period of neglect and decline, the Catholic Diocese of Gallup, Zuni Pueblo and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs partnered to rebuild the mission, which houses unique murals of Zuni kachinas. The mission is part of the Tourism Department’s New Mexico True Adobe Trail.

“It’s beautiful,” Briganti says. “It was clearly glorious in its day.”

In southern New Mexico’s Mesilla Valley, one of the oldest missions is the Basilica of San Albino. The current Romanesque building was constructed on the foundation of the original adobe church in 1906, but the bells date to the early 1870s. The mission was established by order of the Mexican government in 1851 in Mexico, but it is now located in the United States as a result of a transfer of territory in the Gadsden Purchase.

Other historic churches in the state include San Felipe de Neri in Albuquerque, San Estevan del Rey Mission at Acoma Pueblo, San Francisco De Asis Mission Church and San Geronimo Chapel in the Taos area, and St. Joseph Apache Mission Church on the Mescalero Apache Reservation.