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.”