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Church Celebrates 100 Years of Blessings

By Juan-Carlos Rodriguez
Copyright 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    When catastrophic floods hit the middle Rio Grande Valley in 1903, people lost homes, crops, land and even their churches— but not their faith.
    The historic North Valley village of Alameda, once home to a Tiwa pueblo and later to a Spanish settlement, was one of the unlucky communities that had to rebuild itself from the ground up in the aftermath of the watery devastation.
    One flood victim was the village's only church, La Natividad de Maria Santisima, or Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
    Nativity was originally constructed in 1829 near what is now the intersection of Rio Grande and Alameda NW. While the adobe structure was flooded beyond repair, several statues and windows were salvaged and stored away by the Catholic community.
    Parishioners soon set about re-establishing Nativity church in their neighborhood.
    On March 4, 1907, a new cornerstone was laid— this time on slightly higher ground— at what is now Fourth and Alameda.
    This weekend, Nativity celebrates the 100th anniversary of the start of that rebuilding.
Pastoral history
    Alameda was populated by Tiwa-speaking Pueblo Indians when the Spanish arrived in the area during 1540.
    In 1710, the Spanish village of Alameda was established by land grant.
    The area remained rural farmland until relatively recent development occurred, but it still retains aspects of its pastoral history. Many property owners keep horses and small farms.
    David Santillanes, 79, grew up in a home across the street from Nativity and was married in the church 60 years ago. The former Bernalillo County commissioner said he remembers when there wasn't much else around.
    "All it was was country," Santillanes said Tuesday, sitting on a pew inside the church. "There were dairy cows across the street."
    Santillanes, who served as an altar boy at Nativity, recalled the long line of priests who have presided over Mass at the church since he was a boy.
    There was Father Libertini, who came from Italy and told Santillanes all he ate on the boat to America was scrambled eggs because that was the only English he knew.
    And Father O'Bryne, from Ireland, whom he caught driving down the wrong side of Fourth after the priest had returned from a visit home to the Emerald Isle.
    "I thought I was back in Ireland," O'Bryne told the curious Santillanes.
    Rebuilding was overseen by the Rev. Ferdinand "Troy" Trojanec, the church's pastor at the time.
    The granite that forms the foundation and the heavy sandstone blocks that compose the walls of the church were taken from a quarry in the foothills of the Sandias.
    Over a period of six years, Alameda residents moved the rock, stone by stone, wagonload by wagonload, from mountain to valley.
    The first Mass was held in the unfinished church during September 1911, and the completed church was consecrated during November 1913.
    The church has been remodeled three times, once in the 1950s, once in the '90s and again over the past couple of years. It looks almost exactly the same as it always did, both inside and out, thanks to faithful adherence to the original spirit of its builders.
    Some of the remnants of the flooded church made it into the new one, such as the wood floor, which was made using timber from the beams of the flooded church.
    A statue of Mary from the original church is there, too.
    During the 1950s renovation, several statues, stained glass windows and a large altar were taken out at the direction of the priest, who, according to current pastor the Rev. Juan Mendez, just wanted to remodel.
    Those items were given to parishioners. During the most recent renovation, most were returned to the church.
    The 21-foot tall, 16-foot wide and 6-foot deep blue and white wooden Gothic altar had been destroyed, and the parish decided to build a new one.
    Current parishioners Bobbie Connick, Patrick Hammond, Henry Garcia and Orlando Saiz fabricated a new altar that looks just like the original.
    Mendez said he is filled with admiration for the early 20th century parishioners who worked so hard to rebuild their church after the flood.
    "A few weeks ago, we commemorated the second anniversary of Katrina," Mendez said. "Well, Katrina came through here in 1903, and in those days there was no FEMA, no welfare, no nothing. ... At the same time, they were growing their crops and raising their families and dealing with all their hardships, they built this monumental church on their own."
Fiesta celebrations
    The anniversary will be celebrated as part of Nativity's annual fiesta, which starts Saturday morning with a parade down Fourth and culminates Sunday with a drawing for a new red convertible Volkswagen Beetle.
    Santillanes said he recalls when the fiestas consisted of the women of the church getting together at his parents' house, preparing food and eating it under a tent on church grounds.
    "It wasn't so sophisticated," Santillanes said.
    One thing that hasn't changed, despite the tremendous growth of the North Valley, is the closeness of the community at the church.
    "It's really nice," Santillanes said. "Although we may need a bigger church soon."
    Church Celebrates 100 Years of Blessings
    WHAT: Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic church's 100th anniversary fiesta.
    WHEN: Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
    WHERE: Parade begins assembling at 9 a.m. Saturday at the former Planet Fun location on the corner of Ranchitos and Fourth NW. It will proceed to the church grounds at 9502 Fourth, where the fiesta is being held.
    HOW MUCH: Admission is free, although food and raffle tickets are not.