NM - When you first walk through the doors of the historic Saint
Augustine Catholic Church in Isleta, your eyes automatically follow
light comes from a single window shining brightly on the crucifix
hanging above the altar. It's a magical and mesmerizing sight, knowing
that the building you're standing in is more than 300 years old
filled with memories of generations upon generations of people
who have faithfully worshiped within its walls.
church, which is one of the oldest in the state, has gone through
numerous renovations and rebuilds, probably more than any other
church in New Mexico. According to Father Hilare Valiquette, the
pastor at Saint Augustine, the whole pueblo was built after the
Spanish returned to the area in 1692 after the Pueblo Revolt, and
the adobe church was erected around 1700.
Augustine was among four historic Valencia County places of worship
featured in a day-long historic church tour sponsored recently by
the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Art.
paintings in the church are all from Mexico, except for one wood
painting in the northeast side of the church that was probably from
Flanders in the 15th century, and no one knows how it got here,"
Valiquette said. "We just finished a study of all the artwork
and the artifacts, and because they've suffered a lot of damage
over the years, the restoration would be about $15,000 per painting."
Abeita, chairman of the church's finance committee, said most of
the paintings were painted on deer hide and elk skin and have been
damaged by people who tried to polish them with oil.
the years, members continued their best to restore the church. At
one point, parishioners got tired of having to stucco the building
by hand every several years and decided to use concrete. What they
didn't know then was that the concrete wouldn't allow the underlying
adobe to breathe, causing water coming up from the ground to turn
the adobe into powder.
explained that a study on the building's structure has recently
been completed and the tribe is committed to fix the problem, which
could cost more than $2.5 million. The churches in the Native American
pueblos in New Mexico don't belong to the Catholic Archdiocese of
Santa Fe, but rather to the tribe.
the concrete on the towers, the roof, the parapets on the side and
on all of the structural elements will have to be removed in five-foot
squares, one at a time, Valiquette said. He said if they took all
the concrete off at one time, the entire church could collapse.
earlier pictures, we can see that additions were made inside to
the balcony that had a roof above it," Valiquette said. "The
French priest that was here at the time decided to turn it into
a French piece of cake with a hip roof and strange towers on it.
In the '50s, the roof and towers were removed and California mission-type
towers were put on."
The church was originally dedicated in honor of Saint Anthony, but
over a series of years as priests came and went, the name was eventually
changed to Saint Augustine.
thing that has never changed since the church was first built
the light that shines down on a crucifix hanging above the altar.
Abeita said the only light in the entire church was from that one
the services were held during the day because that was the only
light in the church," she said of the early days of the church.
"It took a lot of hard work to bring in the vigas for the church.
They were actually brought down by oxen from the mountains."
said the men of the church cut and carved vigas by hand with simple
small knives. The adobe walls inside the church are about 10 feet
wide at the bottom and become narrower toward the top.
the time the church was built in the 1600s, there was nothing to
keep the structure from falling down, and that's why they built
it like this wide at the bottom and narrow at the top,"
10 years ago, there was a fire in the church's choir loft, the damage
of which hasn't yet been repaired. Abeita said a candleholder underneath
the loft somehow toppled over and caused the fire.
someone was here or else we would have lost the whole church,"
she said. "The choir still uses the loft, but it's still not
the safest place because of the structural damage."
about 5,000 tribal members in Isleta, there are about 500 active
members at Saint Augustine. Abeita said the tribe is 90 percent
Catholic. While most of the elders in Isleta still speak fluent
Tiwa, the traditional language of the Isletans, Abeita said she's
afraid it has become lost among the pueblo's youth.
do have Tiwa classes at two places at the school and another
place on Highway 47, but we've lost our language because our young
children don't practice it as much as they should," she said.
"We need to keep up our language because that's the only way
our traditions will hold."
the Tiwa language may be in danger, Abeita says the pueblo works
hard in making sure its culture and traditions continue. The prayers
that they pray are the same as they prayed hundreds of years ago.
Even through this modern era, the people's faith and religion continues
to hold strong.
with the history of Saint Augustine, there are also many folk tales
of strange happenings involving the spirit of a priest who is buried
underneath the altar in the church. Abeita said every couple of
years; the coffin would rise from below, scaring a lot of the parishioners.
think now that it was erosion," she said. "The last time
they put it back in the ground, they covered it with cement
just in case."
of the most anticipated events of the year at Saint Augustine Catholic
Church in Isleta is during the Christmas season. There is a Mass,
of course, on Christmas Eve, including traditional native dancing
inside. On Christmas Day, and three days following, Valiquette said,
the public is invited to spend the day at the church watching the
dancers who perform outside.