New Mexico’s adobe churches, some of them centuries old, are icons of the American Southwest. But many are in danger of crumbling back to earth.
“All the mayordomos, all the people with traditional culture, are old and they’re dying,” said Frank Graziano, author of the new book Historic Churches of New Mexico Today.
“It’s unclear who’s going to step up after them,” he added. “It’s not the state. It’s not the archdiocese. It’s not the parish. So it has to be community. And the younger generations don’t have the religious commitment.”
With diminishing congregations and off the beaten path of tourism, how will these adobe churches be maintained? And even if there are visitors, who will pay for utilities and insurance?
In most cases, closure equals epitaph. “When adobe is left alone, it deteriorates,” Graziano said.
But a group called Nuevo Mexico Profundo plans to help. Graziano is working with Pete Warzel, executive director of the Historic Santa Fe Foundation, and Rebecca Montoya, mayordoma of Santa Teresita del Niño Jesús in Turquillo, on a program of events to raise money for church maintenance.
Other collaborators in the Nuevo Mexico Profundo initiative are the New Mexico Office of the State Historian, the New Mexico Historic Preservation Office, Cornerstones Community Partnerships, the New Mexico Heritage Preservation Alliance and the Spanish Colonial Arts Society.
The first Profundo events are Saturday, with Graziano leading guided tours to mission churches in Córdova, Truchas and Las Trampas.
Graziano is the John D. MacArthur Professor Emeritus of Hispanic Studies at Connecticut College. He retired in 2016, moved to New Mexico, and began his most recent book by researching the state’s historic churches in archives and libraries.
“Then what Frank did was go into the mountain towns and the pueblos and he interviewed people,” Warzel said. “He wanted to talk about how these churches are being used today.”
San José de Gracia in Las Trampas might seem like it would be safe from disrepair because it’s fairly well known and a favorite subject of photographers. But Graziano said that’s not the case.
“One of the reasons that church is so vulnerable is the community there is so small now,” Graziano said. “I live near there, in Chamisal, and you drive by in the summer and you’ll see a bunch of 70- and 80-year-old guys up on scaffolding mudding that church. It’s just amazing, but who’s behind them that has that dedication?”
Another story with positive and negative angles can be read into the 16 churches of Mora County. In the 1980s, the back wall of the La Cueva church separated from the rest of the building, and there was all kinds of vandalism. Now it’s in pristine condition.
However, as the number of parishioners dwindles, Graziano says smaller churches suffer from what he calls centralization.
“In Mora, there are 16 churches and two priests, so there’s no way they can have Masses in all of them. So there are no Masses, no funerals, no marriages. We’re all going to do it at the mother church, St. Gertrude in Mora, which is a newer church,” Graziano said.
“And when you ask people why their little parish church is important to them, they say, ‘I got married here,’ ‘I had my first communion here,’ ‘My parents are buried here,’ and now that everything’s centralized, the new generation does not have those connections anymore.”
Historic Churches is designed to be used as a guidebook, so it includes practical information for visitors along with its history, architectural information and information from parishioners and other community members.
It covers not only well-known churches like El Santuario de Chimayó and San Francisco de Asís in Ranchos de Taos, but also the adobe churches along the High Road to Taos, along the southern Rio Grande, and at the pueblos of Laguna and Acoma, and the stone St. Joseph Apache mission in Mescalero.
“That place was falling down,” Graziano said about St. Joseph. “It has 3-foot stone walls and the lime mortar was gone; you could stick your arm through. And a couple of Franciscan brothers led 14 years of restoration and now it’s unbelievable.”
So, occasionally, there is hope — and help. Montoya praised Cornerstones, which works with local communities, including young people, on adobe restoration projects.
In the book, she tells Graziano it’s important to get young people [involved], so that eventually they’ll come back and say, “ ‘I want to go back and help that church.’ ”