Patricia “Pat” Montoya feels like she’s broken a fifth-generation promise to her family — to care for San Miguel Church in La Bajada.
“I feel like I let them down. I know I didn’t, but after someone came in here and violated us, I feel I let them down,” said Montoya, caretaker of the community’s small, 19th-century adobe church.
On Saturday, she reported a break-in and theft at San Miguel Church to the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office, saying someone had stolen six brass candlesticks, two crystal flower vases, two santos and a Bible. The items aren’t worth much money, she said, but they had sentimental value and were considered sacred — especially the candlesticks, which were heirlooms.
“I don’t know why they did it. It’s my history, my family’s history,” Montoya said in an interview Thursday. “Our fiestas is coming up Sept. 28, and I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
The tiny village, first named La Majada, or “the sheepfold,” and later La Bajada, “the descent,” lies along the Santa Fe River about a 30-minute drive south of Santa Fe, between Cochiti Pueblo and Interstate 25. It is home to nine families who say they can trace their roots back to 16th-century Spanish settlements.
The last Mass at the church was in December. The Rev. Michael Garcia of nearby Peña Blanca, a priest who had been officiating the weekly services, said he was spread too thin among several small churches in the area.
So it’s mostly only Montoya and the families of La Bajada who enter the church.
Montoya, 68, has lived in La Bajada for 25 years at a home across from the church. She spoke in a quick cadence Thursday, her small talk incorporating a short family history, an introduction to her two dogs and their heritage.
Mostly, she talked about the church and the promises she’s made.
The first was to her mother in 1995, when the woman was dying. Montoya vowed to move from her home in Albuquerque to La Bajada to live with her father and take care of him. Then, she said, her father made her promise not to let him die in a hospital and to continue to care for his dog, the land and the church after he passed. Montoya’s father died in 2015, leaving her with all three.
Her great-grandfather’s grave is marked by a white cross in the churchyard; her aunt’s gravesite is tucked behind an iron fence next to her grandmother and great-grandmother’s headstones. The church’s walkway, built by the community after Montoya’s father lost his sight, is bordered by loved ones — one family’s grandfather, another’s son from Peña Blanca.
The church has no heat. Electricity is supplied by an extension cord snaked over from the former home of Montoya’s deceased grandmother. A wood stove sits between pine pews. Decorations line the bright white walls of the church, such as photos of Montoya’s departed relatives, reliefs and statues of saints in all styles, and a handmade poster of Pope Francis portraying his visit to Mexico.
The altar on Thursday was draped with a white cloth — Montoya’s grandmother’s handiwork made from flour sacks — and held a single jeweled cross. Pink roses and artificial carnations were scattered behind the altar space, the scene Montoya said she showed to a sheriff’s deputy after the break-in.
She called the sheriff’s office Saturday afternoon, according to a report of the incident, after seeing both doors of the church “wide open.” She had always kept them locked, she said.
Montoya and a neighbor walked to the church and looked around, finding the vases, candlesticks, Bible, and statues of Santo Niño de Atocha and St. Francis all missing. Montoya estimated the value of the candlesticks at about $75 each, the vases at $25 and each santo at about $100.
At least four families were given keys to the church, but Montoya said some of the keys could be lost.
Juan Ríos, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, said a detective is working the case, but deputies could not take fingerprints at the scene because people had been there after the crime.
“It’s a hard case because so many people had keys to the building,” Ríos said, “and the point of entry, to my understanding, had people go in and out of it before the officer arrived. It’s going to be challenging.”
According to the report, there’s no description of any suspects. There’s also no description of a pickup Montoya had reported seeing in the area the night before the break-in. At the time, she thought it was a neighbor’s.
Joseph Moody, 51, the neighbor who discovered the break-in with Montoya, had installed a game camera on a tree facing the church, but it had no batteries. There is no outdoor lighting or security system at the church, but Montoya said she now plans to get a light.
Moody described his home of 12 years as a quiet, peaceful place. He doesn’t attend the church, but he said it is a valuable symbol of the community.
He and Montoya changed the locks at the church Thursday afternoon.
“It’s so sad that not every family involved with the church can have a key,” he said.
Montoya said the burglary left her feeling vulnerable and violated — and that feeling extends to the community, she added.
“Who would break into a church?” she asked, twisting the altar cloth in her fingers. “It feels like they broke into my house. … That’s what hurts so much.”