During numerous trips along the Rio Grande River in southern New Mexico, I noted the styles and locations of many churches and meditated about the era, people, and land that fostered the construction of these churches. Upon closer contact with persons in the valley, I developed the conviction that a pictorial record of these rural churches and the people who built them should be attempted, even if written information on them was limited. The churches are part of the treasured landscape of New Mexico and should be portrayed through pictures as well as words. No single criterion was used to select the churches photographed. I included the churches that I felt conveyed the drama of the flowing river, churches distinctive from or imbued with the history and culture of New Mexico. Most of the churches were constructed in the last one hundred years and suggest a more modern romance of living and survival than the drama associated with the older northern New Mexico settlements and their history. The records of southern New Mexico history, architecture, and even geography of religious edifices have been neglected. Few living persons remember churches such as St. Joseph's of Chloride, St. James and St. Mark's of Engle, Immaculate Conception of San Antonio, Santo Tomas and St. Peter's in Rincon, St. Augustine and even St. Genevieve of Las Cruces, as well as many others. This essay is a record of existing and disappearing churches that would be no more than memories if their stories were not recorded.
People's stories and the circumstances of their building their churches is the text of this essay, and the photographs serve to identify the structures. The congregations' willingness, and even desire, to discuss their churches was a surprise. Elderly, white-haired ladies invited me into their homes for Coke, limeade, or water and charmed me with their show of love and devotion of God and the structures where they worshipped. Old men stood straight, tall and strong in oral defense of their church and religion. Young folks and children gathered together with their parents to listen and excitedly chime in with their own opinions. Some, or perhaps most, of the information I was given had been handed down from other generations and often, admittedly, might be somewhat mythical. The text is not organized by time, events, or categories. It begins with a northern location and continues in a southerly direction as the river flows.
Editor's note: The following collection of photographs was made during the middle 1970s and excerpted from a self-published book entitied Churches of the Valley. Unfortunately, many of the buildings no longer exist.
San Francisco Xavier
Although the area south of Belen was sparsely settled in the early 1800s, within fifteen years nearly all patches of land were utilized by farmers for agriculture and for their adobe homes. The settlement of Jarales, strung out along the highway paralleling the river, was one of the early communities. Located at a turn in the highway, the church of San Francisco Xavier is an immense white adobe structure with a steep metal roof that repels wind, rain, and snow. The roof of the building was flat at one time, according to Arturo Cordoba, who at seventy two years old remembers stories of old Jarales as told by his father, Francisco Cordoba.
The ceiling of the church consists of one-inch latias which span square vigas resting upon corbels supporting the dirt of the roof The floor was natural soil until 1940, when Arturo laid the present hardwood. The church tower and bell were added when the pitch roof was built over the flat roof. The walls were built three feet wide of terrones (blocks of soil cut from the earth). These terrones have been stacked for more than ninety-nine years (1976), and the church members are concerned over evidence of failure and are making a difficult decision to either raze the building or repair it for another hundred years of service. …