10. Church of Our Lady of Light — The Castrense

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The Church of Our Lady of Light, commonly called the “Castrense,” was situated on the south side of the Plaza opposite the center of the latter; and consequently facing the Governor's Palace on the north side of the Plaza. The word Ca strense is defined as “belonging to the military profession,” and this church was so called because it was built and used especially for the garrison of the city. In Archive No. 646 in the office of the surveyor general, being a will dated in 1785, this church is alluded to as the “Capilla Castrense” — the military chapel.

This church is said to have been erected at the expense of Governor Francisco Antonio Marin del Valle, who filled the offices of governor and captain general from 1754 till the latter part of 1760, and popularized himself greatly with the army by this proof of his interest and generosity. If there was any military chapel in the same locality before the time of Governor Del Valle, it must have been a small affair, which called for no particular mention; and the erection of a commodious edifice in its place by the public spirited governor and his devoted wife was the practical foundation of the church as a place of influence and importance.

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That by which both the church and the governor will be remembered for long years to come is the immense stone reredos which was sculptured expressly for this church and is by far the largest and most ambitious piece of artistic work ever attempted in New Mexico. It filled the entire altar end of the building; for just a century it was an object of admiration as well as veneration of the people, and fortunately it is still intact, although removed from its ancient position when the chapel itself ended its career.

When Bishop Lamy came to New Mexico in 1850 he brought with him a very practical mind as well as many other valuable characteristics. By force of circumstances he had to become a master builder. One of the most pressing needs was that of schools for both boys and girls, and especially boarding schools. But the lack of money was a great drawback to rapid progress. The very first requirement was a location. There was an admirable location with some large buildings upon it southeast of the cathedral, but the value was far beyond the means at command. Here the bishop's practical mind solved the problem. This military church of Our Lady of Light was almost useless since the American occupation, but its location on the west side of the Plaza was of much value, and so the bishop negotiated with Don Simon Delgado an exchange of the Castrense for the beautiful and extensive property which is now almost covered with the schools and other institutions of the Church.

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The Church of Our Lady of Light had to succumb to the demands of business, and was taken down about 1859. The great reredos was not disturbed until the demolition took place, when it was carefully removed to the old Church of St. Francis and placed in its proper position there, in the rear of the altar. That portion of the old cathedral has never yet been destroyed, but remains back of the wall of the new cathedral and is one of the most interesting places to be visited by the tourist, and yet it is comparatively unknown even to the newer residents of Santa Fé itself.

The reredos is an immense piece of sculpture, so wide as to extend across the entire width of the chancel recess, and so high as to reach to the caves of the building. Its dimensions are given as eighteen feet in width by fourteen feet in height. It was designed and erected by artists brought from Mexico and is carved from native New Mexico stone, in high relief. It bears two inscriptions in ovals, reading as follows:


“A devocion de Señor Don Francisco Antonio Marin del Valle, Gobernador y Capitan General de este Reino.”

“Y de su esposa Maria Ygnacia Martinez de Ugarte, 1761.”


It is in three sections, with carved arabesque columns between them, the whole being painted in appropriate colors. In the center is a large, life sized statue; and above that a relief of St. James on horseback killing turbaned Saracens. Over that, crowning the whole reredos, is a representation of St. Joseph,

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and of the Virgin and Child. On the north side are two carved pictures in stone relief — of St. Anthony of Padua, with the Holy Child, and a tree; and of St. Ignatius, with a book and standard. Opposite these are St. John Nepomuceno, with cross and palm, and St. Francis Xavier baptizing Indians, the water being poured from a shell. Taken altogether, this reredos is the most extraordinary piece of artistic work in the State.

This church seems to have been specially favored by lovers of art, as the only other piece of sculpture which has come down to us from the Spanish days was also a votive offering to the Church of Our Lady of Light. This was a very large altar piece carved from three slabs of limestone in very high relief. From the inscription which still remains, we know that it was erected in 1791 at a cost of eight thousand dollars. Unfortunately it did not have the good fortune which attended the larger structure of the reredos, as to its preservation; but three-quarters of it may be seen any day in the Historical Society rooms in the Palace. The upper half of the sculpture was in one piece and the lower half was of two equal sized slabs of stone. The portions which are in the Historical rooms are the upper half and the lower right corner.

The curious story of the separation of these stones for half a century and their final reunion, was graphically told in theNew Mexican ofOctober 2, 1897, from which we extract it:


“The Historical Society has recently come into

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possession of a valuable and interesting relic through the kindness of Hon. Amado Chaves.

“This is an important portion of the altar piece, which was in the Military church on the plaza. Those who are familiar with the HistoricaI rooms will all remember a portion of the same stone altar piece which stands near the door, and was kindly contributed years ago by Dr. Enos Andrews. The altar piece was of limestone, carved in high relief; the virgin and child occupying an oval in the center, surrounded by carefully wrought flowers and birds. The inscription, as far as it appears on the pieces now in the Historical rooms, is as follows:


“It appears that when the altar piece was removed from the church the three pieces of stone of which it was composed were separated, and were used as ornamental signs on the principal public buildings, the coat of arms of Mexico being carved on the back of each, and the original carving being turned to the wall and imbedded in masonry. The section now recovered bears no inscription, but that which has been long on exhibition was used at the postoffice and is carved with the words ‘Correos de Santa Fe.’

“If stones were animate and could express their feelings, what an interesting reunion would have taken place when these two stones, which for long years had formed part of one artistic design, but had now been separated for over half a century, were

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once more united! What experiences each could relate to the other of the events in the intervening period, including the time of the American occupation and of the month when the Confederates held the city! It is certainly to be hoped that in time the third piece may come to the Historical society, and the artistic work be seen in its entirety.

“In connection with this interesting historic relic we print the following sketch of the ‘Castrence,’ the real name of which was ‘The Church of Our Lady of Light,’ which has been furnished by an excellent authority:

“‘Once upon a time there was a church in the city of Santa Fe, built and used for the special benefit of the Spanish soldiers. This church was of the exact size of the Guadalupe church which is standing today. The troops were all in the habit of attending services once a month and on special occasions. These special occasions were frequent; whenever the soldiers went out after the savage Indians and returned victorious to the capital, bringing captives to be made Christians, a special high mass was celebrated in the Castrence and a solemn Te Deum sung in acknowledgment to the Most High for the happy result of the expedition. The altar of the old church contained many valuable paintings and in the center there was a carved stone which at that time was considered the most valuable of its kind in the territory. Many years ago Don Simon Delgado gave the property at present occupied by the San Miguel college in exchange to Bishop Lamy for the Castrence. He at

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once tore down the church and built his home upon the historic site. During the time of Governor Armijo, he made it a custom never to fail to attend services at the Castrence, once a month, with all the troops, accompanied by his staff in full uniform. The grave yard of the chapel was on the site where the Spiegelberg block is now situated. The remains were removed when that block was put up, and the bones were inferred near the cathedral.’”



There is no doubt of the truth of the general features of the following incident, as it is referred to by many contemporaneous authorities, but there are different versions, particularly of the portion relating to the military officer's interference in favor of Governor Vigil's protest, which we give as the weight of testimony seems to indicate.

New Mexico was organized into a Territory by the celebrated “Henry Clay Compromise” adopted in 1850, to take effect on New Year's Day of 1851. Judge Grafton Baker was the first chief justice, and some difficulty was experienced in finding appropriate quarters for the holding of the district court, over which he presided. The first term was held in the spring of 1851, and Judge Baker, probably without much thought, finding the Castrense centrally located and unused, made arrangements for holding the court in that building. All the necessary furniture was procured and arranged, the court was opened and the grand jury installed, except the last

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two members, who were Donaciano Vigil and Domingo Fernandez. On being called to be sworn, Mr. Vigil, who had been secretary and governor under the provisional military government, informed the judge that the place in which they were assembled was consecrated to sacred objects, that the forefathers of himself and many others present were buried there, that he protested against the use of the chapel for civil purposes and could not quietly permit such a desecration of the church and of the ashes of his ancestors.

The judge, we are told, was inclined to insist in holding the court there and even to arrest Governor Vigil, when the commanding officer of the troops present turned to Vigil and said, “Stand firm and these troops and their cannon will sustain you.” The judge on seeing the feeling that was aroused succumbed to the weight of public opinion and moved the court to the Governor's Palace, but not until nearly all the furniture had been thrown into the street by a tumultuous crowd of people which had rapidly assembled. “We see from this,” says the narrator, “a proof of what may be done by the resolution of one man of principle when he believes that he is right! Alas, now we have not such material!”

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