On a frigid Sunday in February—the kind of day during which the early tease of spring slips too fast into icy sleet—Bill Druc, a structural engineer who lives in Santa Fe but talks like a recently displaced New Yorker, is addressing a rapt crowd in the Village of Questa. Residents of this modest mining town nestled at the foot of the snowy Sangre de Cristo Mountains are packed into the local VFW, a low-ceilinged, cursorily carpeted little building. From the muddy makeshift parking lot outside, the old Molycorp mine is visible, a naked, khaki-colored scar where a mountain should be.

Druc (rhymes with "juice") is here because Questa hired him to save its church, a 170-year-old adobe relic that is in less physical danger—its western wall collapsed 18 months ago, but engineers insist on its basic structural soundness—than ideological. Rather than uniting Questa with the Catholic Church, the question of whether to bulldoze or restore the church building has kicked off an increasingly bitter fight between this devout, rural community and the powerful Archdiocese of Santa Fe.

Druc—mussed hair, pale blue eyes, rumpled suit jacket over a bolo tie—is caught in the middle. Just a few weeks earlier, he gave this same presentation to representatives from the archdiocese; Druc says they politely shook his hand and said they'd consider saving the church. But unbeknownst to Druc and his partner on the project, preservationist and Santa Fe County Senior Planner Arnold Valdez, the archdiocese proceeded to apply for a demolition permit.

The community was outraged, and the Village of Questa hurriedly passed a historic preservation ordinance to keep its central Catholic church, St. Anthony's, intact. Today, that ordinance is the only barrier to the historic church's demolition.

For New Mexico's historic preservation community, however, St. Anthony's fate isn't all that is at stake. Some worry that the archdiocese, which owns more than 200 historic churches and missions across northern New Mexico, may be returning to the policy of "active demolition," as one preservationist calls it, that led to the loss of three significant historic churches in the 1980s.

By the numbers, the archdiocese's record with its historic churches is less grim than some preservationists assert. And the list of churches refurbished, restored and saved is long and ranges from those in Acoma Pueblo to Albuquerque.

But to historians, adobe preservationists and, perhaps most importantly, a community of worshippers, the loss of a single historic church can be heart-wrenching.

It took only two—El Valle and Peña Blanca—to galvanize an entire adobe preservation movement.

Like those churches, St. Anthony's is rich with history, and Druc, Valdez and others are convinced it can be saved.

"We were hired to do a report," Druc says, working up to a conclusion after walking Questa's parishioners through a batch of PowerPoint slides laden with technical drawings and cost estimates.

"What did we say in the report? Sí, se puede," he says. "Yes, we can."

The applause is deafening.

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Before its battle with the high church went public last July, Questa was a quiet village. Its parishioners had worshiped in the same church since the middle of the 19th century, when their church was erected as part of the wave of Catholic infrastructure that accompanied Santa Fe’s first archbishop, Jean Baptiste Lamy.

Like most churches of that vintage, St. Anthony’s was built with basic, local materials—timber and mud. Local builders arranged thick adobe bricks in the long rectangle that describes the church’s heavy body. When the bricks had dried, builders covered them with a layer of fine mud plaster. The outer mud layer would have to be re-applied every few years, a labor-intensive, process that often involved an entire community—sort of a New Mexican version of a barn-raising.

In the ’50s, though, the advent of cement-enhanced plaster changed everything. Here, suddenly, was a material that would last. Communities that had labored every summer to maintain their churches would no longer have to. Once they applied the cement plaster, no more water would get in, builders reasoned: One coat of stucco would keep the churches’ inner adobes dry forever.

As tedious as re-mudding the church may have been, mud plaster had something cement plaster didn’t: It was breathable. St. Anthony’s and most churches of its generation were built straight onto the earth, without foundations. The adobe bricks wicked water up from the ground, expanding and contracting as the seasons changed. But because the layer of mud plaster protecting them was permeable, the bricks always dried out eventually—and many churches stuck around for more than a century.

Cement plaster, on the other hand, kept water out—but it also kept in any water the adobes were sucking up from the earth. For approximately 30 years, everything seemed fine. But in the ’80s, the state’s adobe heritage began to crumble. The inner adobes, unable to dry out, were literally falling apart.

“All of a sudden, there was this sense that we were losing a very important, very significant part of our built heritage that really defines who New Mexicans are,” Ed Crocker, an architect, historic preservationist and adobe expert who authors a local newspaper column, Understanding Adobe, tells SFR.

In the late ’80s, Crocker began working with Churches: Symbols of Community, a program of the New Mexico Community Foundation designed to save the state’s endangered adobe churches. The program quickly gained steam and split off from the NMCF, renaming itself Cornerstones Community Partnerships. As a nonprofit that operates independently from the archdiocese, Cornerstones relies on community labor and expertise to keep New Mexico’s churches from collapsing.

Crocker maintains that the archdiocese only became interested in historic preservation when Cornerstones came on the scene.

“It was not the archdiocese’s idea—nor, I think, did they have a particular interest in it until somebody came up with the idea and the answer,” Crocker says. “When [historic preservation] became kind of a sexy thing, and the church was getting a lot of good press for it, they became interested. But it’s not an inherent interest,” he says.

The archdiocese does have its own criteria when it comes to saving churches.

According to Monsignor Jerome Martinez y Alire, the pastor for Santa Fe’s Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, first priority goes to churches that are parish seats—where priests give regular mass, like the cathedral or the Santuario de Guadalupe in Santa Fe—or that have extraordinary historical value. Churches the archdiocese calls “missions,” which don’t have sitting pastors but do have active communities of worshippers, are second-tier. The lowest priority church is one that is no longer used for worship.

“The primary mission of the church is the living church—that is, the people of God: hospitals, orphanages, the poor, the sick,” Martinez y Alire says. “The primary mission of the church is a spiritual one, and that’s primarily where our efforts would be spent.”

In the mid-1980s, Martinez y Alire founded the archdiocese’s internal Commission for the Preservation of Historic Churches, an organization that today proves somewhat elusive. Its offices, housed with the archdiocesan archives in a small, pinkish adobe building near the downtown public parking lot, keep odd hours, and the commission’s director did not reply to several requests for comment.

The archdiocese generally does all it can to save a historic church, Martinez y Alire says, provided it’s structurally feasible and the parish community is on board. But, he adds, they’re “not going to spend several million dollars on a church that’s visited once a year when that could be used to support our chaplains in prisons, our outreach to youth, etc.”

Preservationists critical of the archdiocese’s efforts point to two historically significant churches (in El Valle and Peña Blanca) that were lost in the ’80s. Martinez y Alire says that they had irreparable structural damage and that their restoration would have been costly.

“Peña Blanca’s a community of 200 families,” he says. “Where are they going to raise the money for that? You may as well ask them to retire the national debt!”

And with more than 200 historic (more than 50 years old) churches, he adds, preserving all of them could easily bankrupt the archdiocesan treasury.

Still, churches from Taos and Mora to El Rito and Santa Fe’s Santuario de Guadalupe have been successfully restored, and Martinez y Alire says the archdiocese is currently engaged in restoration efforts at Cristo Rey, the thick-walled John Gaw Meem adobe church on Canyon Road.

Martinez y Alire declined to comment on the Questa situation, but under the criteria as he explains them, Questa meets those of a top-priority church: It has a rich history, it’s a parish seat and its parishioners are active, involved and largely united.

SFR left repeated messages with the archdiocese detailing the content of the story and requesting an interview. At press deadline, the communications director for the archdiocese, Celine Baca Radigan, returned SFR’s call but said she could not answer certain specific questions because she “didn’t have the numbers” and it was “after hours.”

When asked about plans for the Questa church, John Huchmala, the property manager for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, tells SFR, “We’ve already done our studies, and we already have a plan that we were proceeding on—until we’ve come to this little speed bump,” Almost immediately, Huchmala corrects himself.
“I shouldn’t call it a speed bump,” he says. “I should just call it, uh…we’re not in agreement, I guess, with the community.”

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The archdiocese started making plans to demolish St. Anthony’s in July 2009, seven months after a major collapse in one of its walls. The Questa parishioners objected and, by August, they had hired Druc and Valdez to prove that the church could be saved. That fall, Druc and Valdez gave their first presentation to leaders in the archdiocese.

“They were pretty impressed with our first report,” Druc recalls. “I remember the archbishop saying, if there was any way it [could] be made whole again, he would be in favor of it.” Druc and Valdez say they were given time to come up with more detailed plans and cost estimates, which they presented to the archdiocese this January.

Though Druc and Valdez say their plans were reasonable—they estimate the entire project, which includes structural supports, a new foundation, better drainage and even a choir loft, would cost $1 million—signs of tension were already showing.

(The previous September, when a handful of historic preservationists met with Questa parishioners outside their church, the local police asked them to leave. “I had this feeling I was intruding on church property, like it wasn’t community property,” Valdez recalls.)

Despite the modest $1 million price tag—lower, if you count the various local contractors and builders who have already promised to work on the church pro bono—the local pastoral council, a collection of Catholic leaders from across northern New Mexico, voted down the plan in February.

Many parishioners were outraged; in an article in The Taos News, some accused the pastoral council of being hand-picked by Questa’s priest, Father Dino Candelaria, to vote against Druc and Valdez’ restoration plan. On Feb. 13, Candelaria fired back with an op-ed in The Santa Fe New Mexican.

“The [pastoral] council was in no way ‘stacked,’” Candelaria writes, adding that the small committee of Questeños formed to save the church “has been given unprecedented access to the archbishop” to voice its concerns.

“Their desire for the restoration of the church in Questa has been heard and has been rejected,” Candelaria concludes. “This action was not taken without great sadness.”

Candelaria did not return SFR’s repeated phone calls.

On Feb. 18, sadness gave way to pragmatism: The archdiocese applied to Taos County for a demolition permit. The parishioners had no knowledge of the permit until March 1, mere hours before a scheduled public hearing for a local preservation ordinance.

The ordinance passed, and the permit was suspended and eventually rescinded.

The following day, The Taos News published an article about the ordinance. Below it was an editor’s note stating that online comments would no longer be allowed on stories related to St. Anthony’s because it was “now a legal matter that could in theory go before a judge or jury.” Disallowing comments, the note said, would “avoid tainting a jury pool.”

To many parishioners, this was a sure sign of an impending lawsuit—but according to Questa Mayor Esther Garcia, no lawsuit has been filed.

In the St. Anthony’s church bulletin on Sunday, March 21, the archdiocese tried a new tack, announcing its intent to apply for another demolition permit—this time through the Village of Questa.

For now, it’s a waiting game: As of press time, archdiocese spokeswoman Radigan said the archdiocese was waiting for a response from Questa. Garcia, however, said the village was waiting for the archdiocese to follow through with the application.

In all this legal wrangling, one of the archdiocese’s most faithful flocks is caught in the middle.

“It’s hard because it’s not like the archdiocese helped build the church,” former Questa mayor and pro-restoration parishioner Malaquías Rael tells SFR. “The church was here before the Archdiocese [of Santa Fe] was, and it was built by the hands of our ancestors.”

St. Anthony’s isn’t without serious structural issues, though. For the better part of a quarter-century, a series of restoration efforts has occurred there. Many of Santa Fe’s leading historic preservationists have worked on the project, and almost all feel qualified to weigh in on what’s happening there now.

Adobe expert Crocker believes the archdiocese’s lack of oversight led to inconsistent maintenance as well as short-term fixes to long-term problems.

Michael Moquin, another Santa Fe preservationist who specializes in adobe, also is critical of the archdiocese’s role in historic preservation of the churches. Additionally, he accuses Cornerstones of abandoning the Questa project after doing some temporary work on St. Anthony’s in the 1990s.

Jake Barrow, who became Cornerstones’ program director after retiring from a 30-year preservation career with the National Park Service, has worked with the archdiocese on preservation projects from Isleta Pueblo to Mora, and his analysis of its intentions echoes Martinez y Alire’s.

“The archdiocese’s main concern is for the parish,” Barrow explains. “They’re not fundamentally focused on buildings; they’re focused on the people in the parish. That’s their thing.”

Still, Barrow credits the archdiocese with throwing its spiritual, if not fiscal, capital behind many successful restoration projects.

“If it wasn’t for them, I’m sure a lot of these churches wouldn’t have been saved,” Barrow says. “They got behind it, too.”

As to Moquin’s assertion, Barrow says it would be inappropriate for his organization to get involved at this point.

“We can’t be involved if there’s conflict,” Barrow says. “Our goal would be to save the church. If they were all on the same page, we’d try to figure out a way to help.”

To Druc and Valdez—who watched a small, not-exactly-affluent community raise tens of thousands of dollars to pay for the duo’s expertise—it’s clear Questa and the church are not on the same page.

“If I knew that it was the wishes of the community to demolish that building, I would be happy,” Druc says. “I would support it.”

Valdez, a soft-spoken, unassuming man with a tightly contained ponytail, shakes his head. “If there was unity in that decision—but there isn’t,” he says.

“If there were unity, if the whole process were done in a way that was above-board, that was open, that would be awesome,” Druc chimes in. “But what we’ve seen is a lot of people being very passionate about saving this 170-year-old building, and we proved that it can be restored.”

They’ve been working together for so long—on other projects in Valdez’ hometown in the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, and now here—that they finish each other’s sentences.

“There’s plenty of case studies and information and technology to support [us],” Valdez says.

“This is 2010!” Druc exclaims, lightly banging his fist on a table. “I mean, we know how to repair that building. And we came up with an estimate that seems reasonable. It’s very cost-effective.” He pauses, then reiterates his wish to do the will of the community. “It’s [the] process that seems flawed,” he concludes.

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As the February meeting at the VFW winds down, an unlikely voice rises from the crowd of locals. It’s the Rev. Larry Brito, a priest from Taos, and when he expresses support, the Questa parishioners cheer.

 

A Tale of Two Churches

Down a narrow alley by the Santa Fe River, just a stone’s throw from downtown, is a structure advertised as the oldest house in the United States. To get there, tourists file past the San Miguel Mission Church, itself one of the oldest houses of worship in the country. They may admire the church’s stocky buttresses, the ancient vigas, the heavy wooden door—but they’re unlikely to take notice of the modest squares of pale mud patching on the building’s sides and facade. It’s the evidence of a conservation effort that is, in almost every way, the opposite of what has happened at St. Anthony’s.

“We did an assessment a couple years ago that showed there’s areas of the walls that are wet,” Barrow says, indicating one of the patches with a leather-booted foot. The patches are an experiment in mud plastering—returning the church’s maintenance to its roots to see whether that’s what the adobe walls need in order to stay dry. Underneath the building, an old stone drainage system has collapsed, and Barrow is here to meet representatives from the National Park Service, the archdiocese and St. Michael’s High School, which owns the church, to discuss renovation plans.

Barrow squints into the March sun, which illuminates the graying stubble on his chin, giving him the look of a rugged outdoorsman.
The story of San Miguel mirrors that of St. Anthony’s: Originally mud-plastered, it was encased in cement plaster in the 1950s. The adobe sucked up water from the broken drainage system below the church, and the walls began to crack and disintegrate.

But that’s where the two churches’ stories diverge. Where Questa has undergone a series of what now looks like poorly conceived, temporary fixes, San Miguel is getting a total face-lift. Cornerstones and St. Michael’s have secured hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grant money—some dedicated to responsible excavation of the drainage system, which cuts through a camposanto, or ancient burial ground, in front of the church. Other money is slated for training young people in traditional adobe maintenance methods, and the largest grant is for shoring up wall supports. Plus, they have Barrow, who literally wrote the book: His 2009 professional paper, “Preservation and Management Guidelines for Vanishing Treasures Resources,” is a step-by-step prescription for handling historic architecture.

“Santa Fe needs an adobe church, don’t you think?” David Blackman, the vice president of IronStone Bank and treasurer of St. Michael’s board of trustees, says. Only he means real adobe, the kind that’s plastered with mud and looks like adobe.
“A lot of us think Santa Fe needs a little of its traditional element,” Barrow agrees. “We hope San Miguel could be an example of that.”
SFR put it to Tien-Tri Nguyen, the pastor of Santa Fe’s Santuario de Guadalupe: Could he motivate his parishioners to do an annual re-mudding?
“[If] we had to do it, we’d have to do it,” he says. He shrugs, then pauses, a smile spreading across his face. “It’s fun, though—playing with mud!” he exclaims, laughing.

In Questa, the question is not quite as simple. The loss of the church will be as devastating to parishioners as preservationists. Not that it will happen if the parishioners—and maybe eventually the courts—have anything to do with it.

But Santa Fe, Barrow says, is largely immune to such threats. Not only have many of its churches already been restored—the Santuario de Guadalupe and now Cristo Rey and San Miguel—but it also has the combination of financial resources and historic preservation and design ordinances in place to protect its treasured structures.

“It’s like one of those things that wouldn’t happen,” Barrow says simply.

"I'm not trying to undermine anyone, but I see an urgency to this because once the church is gone, it's gone," Brito—young, reedy-voiced, bespectacled—says. Loud applause follows.

"Father, I have just one question," Rael, Questa's former mayor, says, rising to his feet. He is stocky, dressed in denim, with straight, dark hair that falls occasionally over his eyes.

"The people you see here are brave people," Rael says. "There's a lot of people who are afraid to come because they feel like they're going against the church—almost like they're committing a sin," he says. Rael surveys the room, then looks to Brito.

"We're not committing any wrongdoing, if you will, against the church?" Rael's question hangs in the air; he and his fellow parishioners wait silently.

"God willing you amend whatever divisions that have come about because of this—that it begins to heal," Brito says. People nod; his words are like a balm. Their own pastor isn't here.

"And it's not that you're opposing them," Brito says. "It's just that you feel deeply that this is the right thing to do, preserving this beautiful church."

Outside, the wind howls mournfully, but the sun has finally emerged. In the hollow where the church stands proud as a captain on a sinking ship, the warm red of its adobe walls stands out against the deep green-gray of the mountains. Its cross pierces the sky, white on blue since before this land was settled.  SFR