Santa Fe's San Miguel Chapel
New Mexico’s first church and the oldest church structure in the USA undergoes a restoration.
New Mexico’s oldest church stands quietly on a dirt plot across the street from the upscale Pink Adobe Restaurant on Old Santa Fe Trail, mere blocks from the busy Santa Fe Plaza. The church’s simple wooden cross spikes up into a cloud-strewn blue sky. A sign proclaims: “San Miguel Church. Oldest church structure in the USA. The original adobe walls and altar were built by Tlaxcala Indians from Mexico under the direction of Franciscan Padres. ca. 1610.” That makes the original walls as old as Santa Fe’s reign as the state’s capital. A crack in the cocoa-colored adobe runs threateningly down the ancient façade.
Inside the church, approximately 3,400 square feet including its offices and gift shop, there are 10 rows of pews with viga beams above and wooden floors below. A large altar screen from 1798 contains devotional paintings and a wooden statue of Saint Michael (San Miguel). Believed to be the oldest statue of Saint Michael in the United States, the statue — or bulto, in the parlance of locals here — is covered with gesso and gold leaf and dates from at least 1709 when it was brought from Mexico. Hymns play on the sound system, and incense wafts throughout the building. Behind the last pew, a huge bronze bell hangs from a wooden scaffold. Visitors are encouraged to ring the bell with a hammer. “Ring the bell of San Miguel, and spirits will return you to Santa Fe,” says historian Richard Mark Lindsley, who runs the gift shop. “If you ring it too much, you may end up moving here.”
Whether the church is the oldest in the nation or one of the oldest has been debated for centuries. “It’s totally shrouded in legend and mystery,” says James Hare, former architectural historian for the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division. “Arguably it is the oldest, but there are people in [St. Augustine,] Florida, and Jamestown, Virginia, who make claims to having the oldest church, too.”
Hare is the former executive director of Cornerstones Community Partnerships, which has restored other New Mexico churches and is now restoring San Miguel Chapel. The long preservation undertaking began in 2004 and the initial effort will take until at least 2012. “So far, we’ve done moisture testing in the walls, updated structural drawings and digitized them, documented the current condition, and estimated the cost of repairs,” Hare says. The estimated total cost could be as much as $1.5 million to $2 million — and funding is not yet secured. Money in hand or not, it has to be done. “If the work isn’t carried out,” Hare says, “eventually the adobe walls will turn to dust and the building will collapse.”
For now, the church holds on. Mass is conducted on Sundays, and it is said that ghosts roam the chapel, perhaps related to the many bodies buried in the dirt beneath it. There have been sightings of unexplainable orbs of light and a crying woman dressed in white. Hare has a story of his own: He recalls arriving very early one morning last summer and encountering an odd-looking German woman wearing a long black coat and carrying a cane. “Can I help you?” he asked. “What?” she snapped back grumpily. “I said, ‘You look lost.’ She said, ‘Well, so do you.’ So I walked on. When I turned around, she was gone.”
Hare is quick to return to the more tangible. “The church is a quintessential expression of Spanish Colonial architecture,” he says. “Built during the Spanish Colonial period of adobe — flat-roofed with a viga ceiling with clerestory windows above the altar that allowed light to flood the sanctuary — it’s a fascinating example of how sustainable architecture can endure.”
To find out more about the preservation of San Miguel Chapel and other sites in New Mexico and the Southwest, visit www.cstones.org.
San Miguel’s Mysterious Bell
The 780-pound bronze bell in the back of San Miguel Chapel appears to be inscribed with December 9, 1356. Legend has it that the 3-foot-high bell was created in San Jose, Spain, then shipped to Mexico, and finally carried north to Santa Fe. But in 1914 a New Mexico historian concluded instead that it was more likely cast in Pena Blanca, New Mexico, in 1856, and that the inscription actually says 1856. James Hare, former executive director of Cornerstones Community Partnerships, concurs that the later date is more likely: “I wouldn’t swear on it — there are some old Santa Fe families that would kill me for saying this — but we have documentation of where it was cast. And stylistically it looks nothing like a bell from the medieval period in Spain. Its wall thickness is very exaggerated, and Spanish bells are thinner, more elegant, and more stretched-out in shape.” Whatever its provenance, a poem written about the bell included in Life of the Right Reverend Joseph P. Machebeuf, D.D. (1908) by Rev. W.J. Howlett suggests the depth of its meaning to those who love the City of the Holy Faith: “Strike it now and you shall hear, / Sweet and soft, and silver clear, / Such a note as thrills your heart / With its tender, magic art, / Echoing softly through the gloom / Of that ancient, storied room, / Dying softly, far away, / In the church at Santa Fé.” — W.S.
History records an early preservation of San Miguel Chapel.
Santa Fe, A.D. 1693, December, 18.
On the said day, month and year of the date, I, said Governor and Captain-General, very much grieved on account of the severity of the weather and the cold suffered by the Indians who in troops while away the time visiting the huts in the plain; and, in order to act in everything with necessary prudence, I mounted on horseback, and with a few military officers and the captains Francisco Lucero de Godoy and Roque Madrid, I went to examine the church or hermitage which was used as a parish church for the Mexican Indians who lived in the said town under the title of the invocation of their patron, the Archangel San Miguel. And having examined it, though of small dimensions, and not for the accommodation of a great number; notwithstanding, on account of said inclemency of the weather, and the urgency of having a church in which should be celebrated the Divine Office and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and in order that Our Lady of the Conquest may have a becoming place, I, said Governor and Captain-General, recognized that it is proper to roof said walls, and to white-wash and repair its windows in a manner that shall be the quickest, easiest, briefest, and least laborious to said natives.
The parties alluded to being present, and the said governors of the aforesaid pueblo, Joseph and Antonio Bolsas, I ordered that they should send said natives; having taken measures in respect to the lumber aforesaid, and having offered them axes, and mules for its fast conveyance, that those who were adapted to hewing said lumber should do so, and that those who were fit for the trade of masons in repairing said walls should be ordered in like manner, and that I, on my part, should have the Spaniards whom I had with me to assist thereat.
And that said work should be immediately executed, I went with them to the aforesaid pueblo, and being within their village plaza, I ordered the natives who were there in the manner before described. And I also exhorted them to go with cheerfulness to said labor, and that such it really was not, to make a house for God and His Most Blessed Mother, our Virgin Lady, who was enclosed in a wagon; and that if a lady came they were obliged to furnish her with a house, and that such was their duty; and mine it was to issue such orders with much force, because the Lord our God might punish us, seeing that, being Christians, we did not make the church immediately; which they promised to accomplish, as I had ordered; and they afterwards sent for the axes which I gave unto them immediately, and a hide to make a ladder.
And for the authenticity of these proceedings, I have had a record thereof drawn up, and signed it, with my Secretary in civil and military affairs.
D. DIEGO DE VARGAS ZAPATA LUJAN PONCE DE LEON.
ROQUE DE MADRID.
JOSEPH DE CONTRERAS.
Before me, ANTONIO BALVERDE,
Military and Civil Secretary.
Excerpted from Spanish Mission Churches of New Mexico (1915) by L. Bradford Prince.