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December 04, 2023

New Mexico: Churches

By Lydia Manx

I grew up Roman Catholic. So being born in the early part of the sixties I was one of the last to learn both Latin and confusion. There is no other way to explain the switch from an archaic language spoken in chants and whispers with the priests' backs shown to the attendees and then suddenly how the clergy were getting up, turning around and talking to us about feelings. The mysterious, all-seeing Church was now open and accessible to everyone. They wanted us to understand and question -- somewhat -- all we saw and learned. Because of this I have always had a strong pull towards churches. Blame it on my childhood, I do. Later as I went on to college I took classes in art, architecture and world religions. So I was able to enjoy the evolution of religious architectural structures shown with gorgeous slides of fractured colored panes of glass held firmly with lead and sliced with sunlight to show me epic events as the Church viewed it. I would not trade it for the world. To this day I still appreciate all that I was able to learn between my religious background and later my secular education.

In New Mexico I saw combinations of stain glass, wood works and various icons viewed as both art and religion. What I noticed right off was how the basics like hard wood, earthen adobe and bright sunlight framed the pieces I was privileged to see. My 4th of July visit was augmented by an October trip in the same year. I had missed heading up to the town of Taos during my fast paced July journey. I decided to revisit New Mexico in October during the renowned Balloon Festival. I wanted to see more art during this trip. Growing up in Southern California balloons were not new to me no matter how full the skies were. I had seen more than 30 or 40 balloons up at a time in my neighborhood and all I ever thought was, "Is my dog ever going to stop barking?" No, was that answer. So in spite of that I flew out again to see the balloons.

I did have some great pictures from my July 2003 trip to the Acoma pueblo and assorted venues visited on that journey. But I thought I would really like to see a different part of New Mexico and some of the churches that make it so memorable. The last time I had been to Taos was well over a decade ago and it was blurred with a severe auto accident a few months before the trip and the ex-husband who went with me. Both I survived with some scarring. Note for travelers, pain meds and high altitudes are really not the ideal combinations.

This particular trip was planned with more than a week's notice unlike my July experience. Yet, again, Southwest was my carrier. They performed in their usual manner, no crashes -- no lost luggage -- no meals. My flight was full of balloon aficionados and their assorted crews. The Balloon Festival is a major part of Albuquerque and surrounding towns' economies. During my visits to the Old Town section of downtown Albuquerque I overheard more than one vendor speak of how critical this time of year was for sales. What was unnerving was the weather. Thunderstorms scattered everyone daily during this fall trip. Both lightning and winds battled the balloons for the sky in the morning and at night. I did get a chance to watch the flight of a couple hundred balloons early one morning. It had rained heavily during the night and some of the other watchers in the field were concerned how many would go up. This was the norm from year to year from what I was told. Still the skies were full and rolls of film snapped of the colors and shapes. Visually it was pretty and it definitely was noisy.

I spent some time meandering in the Old Town section of Albuquerque. The artisans daily have a lottery to allow a limited number of vendors to show their works. The square is filled with blankets covered with jewelry, wood work, paintings and other crafts. While I was there I went to the San Felipe de Neri Church by the main town square. The Church is a stunning piece of work with beautiful gardens adjoining the actual structure. There are historical markers saying the Church had been moved and how it now resided where it was constructed during the 1790's.

During the walks I enjoyed the sounds of the musicians in the square and the ambiance of the area. The red aromatic chiles hanging from the rafters of houses and stores catch one's eye. The center of the square has a gazebo where bands and singers perform. Off from the main square there are many small shops, fine art stores and museums. I found gifts and art pieces readily available for purchase and they offered shipping for larger items. As a big fan of Nambe ware I was pleased to go into a shop that had many pieces and was quite reasonable in pricing. I was able to pick up a pewter magnet of the balloons and some other gifts. The folks I met in the various stores and alley way shops were all very polite and helpful. I was separated from my friend and was offered assistance. I also bought my postcards, t-shirts and brick-a-brack for a nominal amount at a local store. They have a small post office in the area and stamps were available on Saturday, which as some travelers know can be hard to find when on a trip.

Afterwards I wanted to head up into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to see Taos. There are a few ways to reach Taos from Albuquerque's main freeway. I have gone up different roads and each has its own unique appeal. The roads all wander in and around scenically until you find yourself stopped dead behind cars. I have yet to drive into Taos and not be bumper to bumper once I near the town. The nice thing is the road is lined with shops and stores you can look at while waiting for the lights to change. There are some large trees that afford shade and a nice breeze always seems to be there when I am.

Once up in the town proper the sun seems further way with the shadows from the building and the cut of the mountains. We parked in a lot and went into a recommended local diner called Michael's Kitchen. The bakery in the coffee shop was doing brisk business. The line to be seated mid-morning was about twenty minutes or so. They serve breakfast at all hours. The food was great and reasonably priced. I enjoyed a southwestern plate they called "Something Deliciously Different" which is an omelet with roasted green chiles and cheese. More upscale cuisine can be found at Doc Martins in the Taos Inn. I have had both dinner and lunch there and it is a delightfully different style of cooking, they use the chiles and blue corn tortillas in some elegant dishes.

We continued on to the Taos Pueblo. This pueblo is similar to Acoma in that they too have no running water, no electricity and no cable either. There is a stream that bisects the pueblo. It is lined with greenery and has a couple wooden bridges you can walk over to explore the pueblo. This tour was self guided with a print out map given when you paid for your camera fee with a small donation.

I did not mind walking on my own here since I had been on a guided tour on my prior visit. I walked into the adobe Church, St. Jerome's Chapel, and noticed there had been some minor repairs since I had last been there but basically it was the same. The scent of the Church was a childhood memory. The walls seemed to keep the incense burned as a lingering perfume. St. Jerome's Chapel had been built after the original Church was destroyed in the War with Mexico around 1847. The ruins from the 1620's Church are in the western part of the pueblo surrounded by a graveyard. After viewing the various art and religious pieces inside St. Jerome's and talking with some shop owners in the pueblo selling art I went to the old cemetery. All that remains today is an adobe mound with what appears to be the bell tower lifted up into the sky surrounded by crosses. Cemeteries, like churches, have always fascinated me.

As a child I remember visiting my father's family in Kentucky. My great grand parents lived in a house that was adjacent to a cemetery. My siblings and I walked around reading century old granite and marble headstones aloud to each other. The Taos Pueblo's cemetery was desolate. The high altitude coupled with geography and more than likely religious beliefs yields a very sparse burial ground. There are no scenic trees or elaborate mausoleums to distract from the land's use. Quietly I left the wall from where I had been overlooking the field of wooden white and dark crosses. We went back down towards Albuquerque as the sun began to set. The winds picked up and a chill reminded me it was fall as we headed towards Santa Fe.

Santa Fe also has an old town section. They call it the Plaza and that was where we aimed to visit. Parking is at a premium and as we drove down the narrow street we were lucky to have someone pull out of a spot. Santa Fe Plaza area has crowded streets cluttered with overpriced clothing and various artisans work mixed with extremely commercial pieces. I kept thinking of buyers purchasing a painting to match the couch and decor. The intermixing of well crafted and the more bland nearly overwhelmed me after having spent the day in stark surroundings of the Taos Pueblo.

The sidewalk went down towards the Plaza with the St. Francis Cathedral at the end. As we walked we popped into various open stores and art galleries. Nearly to the Church we stopped and went into the La Fonda Hotel. The hotel has an old world charm to the lobby. The interior shops were closed but windows afforded me a glimpse of the available merchandise. A decidedly different clientele than me, I concluded, would be purchasing the exotic and unusual items spotlighted. After a few comments onwards to the Church we journeyed.

My friend related a story about how the Catholic Church could not afford to build the structure and the local Jewish community chipped in with funds. That was the reason for the Hebrew lettering that was in the stonework over the front doorway. I resisted the urge to research this aspect of the story. There are times I think when a feeling of community makes a place warmer. I liked the idea of Santa Fe having had such a community and the sharing of that story made me smile. As we walked around the Cathedral the statues of a Native American Saint and a bishop also yielded some more stories. In the evening dusk I admired the rose window and other stain glass pieces. It was too late to go inside and tour the Church but I was told they do offer tours and have a wealth more of information for the more curious folks. But it is advised to show up during the day time hours rather than twilight. Warmed with the bits of legends given, I went back to Albuquerque wanting to visit another time.

Article © Lydia Manx. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-08-14
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