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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

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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