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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

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

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