Thursday, September 24, 2015

San Miguel Mission, Santa Fe: Oldest Church Site in the United States

San Miguel Mission, Santa Fe, NM

This simple adobe structure contains a complex, and at times tragic, history. Rebuilt three times in its 418 year history, Santa Fe's San Miguel Mission can legitimately claim to be the oldest church site in the United States, dating back to 1598 long before the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock.  In fact, San Miguel's roots lie in pre-recorded history as it was built over an old kiva that archaeologist have dated to 1250 AD. San Miguel still functions as a church with a Mass on Sundays.

First built  in 1598 as a tiny hermita by the central Mexican Tlaxcalan Indians who accompanied  Don Juan Oñate as workers on his settlement of the New Mexican territory, it was rebuilt by the Franciscan Friars, who were a part of the Spanish settlement,  into a church in 1610. During the Pueblo Revolt in 1680, which drove the Spanish out of the area, the church was burned.  Tragically, the Tlaxcalans had gone into the church for refuge and were burned to death when the attacking Pueblos shot flaming arrows into the church, setting it on fire and killing all 80 who had sought shelter within.

The Spanish returned to Santa Fe twelve years later and in 1710 San Miguel Mission was restored and used as a military chapel but fell into disuse when a new military chapel which eventually was the site for today's St. Francis Cathedral was built on the town's plaza.

In 1798 the building was restored by the Mayor of Santa Fe and the altar screen that exists to this day was installed.

Altar Screen, San Miguel Mission, Santa Fe NM

Sometime around 1830 a triple-tiered bell-tower was added to the church and in 1872 during a severe storm that was followed by a rare 4.5 earthquake, the bell-tower toppled.  The bell which was made in Spain in 1356 survived the fall and is displayed in the church where it can be rung by visitors.     

San Jose Bell, San Miguel Mission, Santa Fe NM
San Miguel Mission was at the point of being demolished due to lack of funds in the De La Salle Christian Brothers who owned the building.  Word of the imminent demolition got out and the community came to the rescue to save this historic landmark.

Apart from its historical significance, San Miguel Mission is a virtual museum of Spanish Colonial religious art.  To return to the altar screen or reredos, it is one of the oldest in New Mexico and was created by artists of historical significance.

Altarpiece, San Miguel Mission, Santa Fe NM

The altarpiece, itself, is judged to be the work of the Laguna Santero who was active in New Mexico between 1796 and 1808. ; the twisted "Solomonic" side columns are characteristic of his work.  The top painting of St. Michael the Archangel (San Miguel), seen below, is the work of Bernardo Miera y Pacheco (1713-1785) whom some consider the first santero.  The oval paintings on the altar screen date from the early 18th century and going counter-clockwise from top left are:  St. Teresa of Avila, St. Francis of Assis,  St. Colette of  France  and St. Louis IX, King of France.

San Miguel (top center), by Bernardo Miera y Pachecho

The statue of San Miguel in the middle of the altar was carved in Mexico and brought to Santa Fe by the Franciscan Friars.

Statue of St. Michael the Archangel, San Miguel Mission, Santa Fe NM

The very earliest form of religious art in New Mexico were  animal hides paintings used by the Franciscan friars in the evangelization of the Pueblo peoples.  These paintings are fairly rare to day because the fragile hides did not survive the years, but San Miguel has two beautiful specimens.  The Passion of Christ is painted on buffalo hide and the other, St. John the Baptist, was painted on deer-skin. Paintings such as these were rolled-up and carried around by the friars to teach the would-be converts about the new religion.

The Passion of Christ, San Miguel Mission, Santa Fe NM

St. John the Baptist, San Miguel Mission, Santa Fe NM

Rear of Church, San Miguel Mission, Santa Fe NM
There is a large hand-carved beam supporting the front of the choir loft that is from the 1710 restoration of San Miguel.

The original 16th century church has been uncovered during excavations and is visible within the church.  Reports claim that ghosts from the San Miguel's previous incarnations visit the premises from time to time. These include a group of six Indians who emerge from a side hall and walk to the front of the chapel and young children running up and down the aisle.  The church guide with whom I spoke said that while he has never seen any of these specters, he has heard unusual noises.

Steps to Sanctuary of 1610 Church, San Miguel Mission, Santa Fe NM

Part of Altar of 1610 church, San Miguel Mission, Santa Fe NM