Santa Fe, New Mexico
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the colonization of the eastern coasts of North America by the English, French and Dutch began in earnest. But it was not along the relatively accessible Eastern Seaboard where America’s first church was built. Strangely, it was in the highly inaccessible desert hinterland of what is now northern New Mexico where Spanish missionaries built the earliest church on American soil: the San Miguel Mission of Santa Fe. The construction of the San Miguel Mission probably predated the voyage of the Mayflower, and amazingly, other than occasional renovations and expansions, it is still standing and still in use. The mission is highly revered among Spanish Catholics in the American southwest, and is one of the most popular tourism sites in Santa Fe.
The territory of New Mexico was nominally established by Spain in 1515, less than a quarter of a century after the discovery of America. It would be a further twenty-five years before the Spanish explorer Coronado formally claimed it, and another century before its territorial capital was established at Santa Fe. This massive strategic end-run around the early expeditions of the English, French and Dutch on the east coast of North America met with nominal success, with the result that the first major European settlement in what would be the United States of America was about as isolated in the middle of nowhere as was possible at the time.
This didn’t seem to slow down the Spanish. Santa Fe was designated the regional colonial capital in 1610, and within a few months the handful of residents were hard at work constructing the city’s first church. Built over the next few years, it was likely in use, if not complete, even before the Puritans founded the Plymouth colony in 1620. It would be Santa Fe’s chief church, and the most important religious instution in the American southwest, until the mid-19th century.
The San Miguel Mission played a small role in the Pueblo Revolt at the end of the 17th century. In 1680, the area’s Pueblo inhabitants sought to drive out the Spanish inhabitants of New Mexico. There were numerous causes of the uprising, the primary ones being the poor living conditions of the Pueblos and the repression of their native religion. The rebellion was a surprising success, and most of the Spanish colonists were driven out, even from Santa Fe, for the better part of the next decade.
In an effort to reclaim their religious heritage, the Pueblo leaders ordered all vestigages of Christianity to be destroyed. The Mission was badly damaged at this time, and more than half of the Franciscan monks living in New Mexico were put to death. The Spanish returned in force in 1692, retook Santa Fe and rebuilt the mission a few years later. Thus the fascinating legacy of America’s oldest religious institution is tainted by the blood of both Christians and natives which were spilled in what was effectively the country’s first religious war.
The San Miguel Mission is a beautiful adobe-brick building that, despite its age, does not appear to be nearly four centuries old. All that is still standing of the original mission is the chapel, which was once part of a much more extensive compound. Evidence of the greater mission remains in the form of a handful of vestigal walls jutting off of the chapel. Although some periodic restoration work has been done over the years, the bulk of the early chapel still dates from the 17th century.
The chapel architecture is, not surprisingly, very plain, with only a single wooden-frame entrance and a handful of small windows. The most noteworthy feature of the chapel exterior is the small belltower over the entrance. A number of brick supports, built in later years, buttress the foundation and the outer walls of the chapel.
The San Miguel Mission is located a few blocks away from downtown Santa Fe, about fifty miles northeast of Albuquerque. It is part of the Barrio De Analco Historic District, and is in easy walking distance of most of the city’s major sites, which contains a number of extremely venerable buildings. As of this writing, the open hours and admission cost of the San Miguel Mission were not available. Web: http://churches-sf2.nm-unlimited.net (unofficial website of Santa Fe churches)
Santa Fe is home to a number of other sites of Catholic interest, notably the St. Francis Cathedral, one of the oldest cathedrals in the American southwest, and the Loretto Chapel. Among the decorations of the former are a series of panels depicting the martyrdom of the Franciscan monks who died during the Pueblo Revolt. Also nearby in Taos is the San Francisco de Asis Mission Church, one of the oldest adobe churches still standing.