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Holy Destruction

Despite opposition from parishioners,the Archdiocese has slated a historic church for destruction

March 31, 2010, 12:00 am

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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