7. Church of San Miguel

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This church, so celebrated for its antiquity, which claims to be the oldest place of worship in the United States, and as such is visited by thousands of tourisis every year, is situated on the south side of the Santa Fé River, in what is always called in the old archives, the “Barrio de Analco”—the ward of Analco. “Analco” is an Aztec word which became incorporated into the Castilian of New Spain, meaning “on the other side” or “beyond the river.” On the map of Santa Fé made by Joseph de Urrutia about the year 1768, all this part of the town situated on the south side of the river, is marked “Pueblo or Ward of Analco, which owes its origin to the Tlascalans who accompanied the first Spaniards who came for the conquest of the kingdom.” This seems to give the whole history in a sentence, and agrees with the statement made in many documents showing that the Mexican Indians from Tlascala, who formed part of the early expeditions, settled themselves “on the other side of the river” from the Spaniards who settled around the Plaza when the new capital was established. And this also accounts for San Miguel being the oldest church in the town, and antedating the regular parish church.

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It is pretty well settled that the removal of the seat of government from San Gabriel, where it was established in 1598, to Santa Fé, took place in 1605, while Oñate was still governor; and judging from the stress laid on regular religious services by the Spaniards of those days, we would naturally expect to find that one of the first acts, after fixing upon the location, would be to erect a place of worship. So it had been at San Gabriel, where that was the first business of importance; and so it would naturally be in the new capital. But we find in the famous report of Benavides, which we have occasion so often to quote, because it is the foundation of accurate knowledge regarding the early days of New Mexican Missions, the following sentence in relation to Santa Fé. After stating that the population consisted of “perhaps two hundred and fifty Spaniards, only fifty of whom can be armed,” “and about seven hundred souls as servants,” so that altogether there may be a thousand, counting Spaniards, Mestizos, and Indians, he goes on to say: “It only lacked the principal thing, which was the church; that which they had being a poor ‘jacal,’ because the Friars attended first to the building of the churches for the Indians whom they converted, and with whom they lived; and so as soon as I became Custodio I began to construct the church and convento to the honor and glory of God.” From which it appears that in the mind of these missionaries it was more important to build a church for the Indians than for their own countrymen, and so these Tlascalan Indians

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took precedence in this matter, even of the Spanish officials themselves.

We know nothing more of the history of this antique place of worship until the time of the Pueblo Revolution in 1680, for all the records of those years were destroyed in the general conflagration of documents, in the center of the Plaza, after the Spanish retreat. Then, at the very beginning of the siege of Santa Fé, we are told that on the morning of August 15, 1680, about five hundred Indians appeared in the fields near the Chapel of San Miguel, across the Santa Fé River, in that part of the town occupied by the Tlascalan Indians who had settled there from Mexico. Before two more days had passed all of the buildings in the capital were burned except around the Palace and the Plaza.

Twelve years passed before San Miguel was again seen by Christian eyes. Fortunately its walls were so solid, that only the woodwork had been consumed. We have evidence of this from the fact that for the repair of the edifice, sufficient to allow it to be used for religious services, after the reconquest by De Vargas, there is no mention of any stone or adobe or other material to be used in the walls. History records that in December, 1693, soon after the reoccupation by De Vargas, a number of men were sent to the mountains to cut timber for the repair of this church, but that they returned in a few days without accomplishing their object, on account of the extreme cold. From this it would appear that the walls were

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standing, as large timber could only be needed for the vigas. We fortunate in having a full account of the action of the governor on this occasion, and the details are so interesting and so quaintly told that it seems desirable to insert it at length. Here it is, literally translated:


“Santa Fe, A. D. 1693, December, 18.

“On the said day, month and year of the date, I, said Governor and Captain-General, very much grieved on account of the severity of the weather and the cold suffered by the Indians who in troops while away the time visiting the huts in the plain; and, in order to act in everything with necessary prudence, I mounted on horseback, and with a few military officers and the captains Francisco Lucero de Godoy and Roque Madrid, I went to examine the church or hermitage which was used as a parish church for the Mexican Indians who lived in the said town under the title of the invocation of their patron, the Archangel San Miguel. And having examined it, though of small dimensions, and not for the accommodation of a great number; notwithstanding, on account of said inclemency of the weather, and the urgency of having a church in which should be celebrated the Divine Office and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and in order that Our Lady of the Conquest may have a becoming place, I, said Governor and Captain-General, recognized that it is proper to roof said walls, and to white-wash and repair its windows in a manner that shall be the quickest,

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easiest, briefest, and least laborious to said natives.

“The parties alluded to being present, and the said governors of the aforesaid pueblo, Joseph and Antonio Bolsas, I ordered that they should send said natives; having taken measures in respect to the lumber aforesaid, and having offered them axes, and mules for its fast conveyance, that those who were adapted to hewing said lumber should do so, and that those who were fit for the trade of masons in repairing said walls should be ordered in like manner, and that I, on my part, should have the Spaniards whom I had with me to assist thereat.

“And that said work should be immediately executed, I went with them to the aforesaid pueblo, and being within their village plaza, I ordered the natives who were there in the manner before described. And I also exhorted them to go with cheerfulness to said labor, and that such it really was not, to make a house for God and His Most Blessed Mother, our Virgin Lady, who was enclosed in a wagon; and that if a lady came they were obliged to furnish her with a house, and that such was their duty; and mine it was to issue such orders with much force, because the Lord our God might punish us, seeing that, being Christians, we did not make the church immediately; which they promised to accomplish, as I had ordered; and they afterwards sent for the axes which I gave unto them immediately, and a hide to make a ladder.

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“And for the authenticity of these proceedings, I have had a record thereof drawn up, and signed it, with my Secretary in civil and military affairs.





“Military and Civil Secretary.”


While there was some delay in obtaining the vigas (roof beams) immediately, yet no doubt the chapel was made comfortable for use in the spring if not during the winter. Still those repairs were probably hasty and temporary. Fortunately a new governor was soon to come, whose devotion, and perhaps whose pride, were equal to the task. For over two centuries the massive timber, which stretches across the church and supports the gallery, has remained in its place, bearing the inscription which has been read by tens of thousands, and is the best monument to the generous governor. The entire rebuilding of the church was completed in 1710, as appears from this inscription, still plainly legible on the great square viga near the west end of the building, which reads: ‘‘“El Señor Marquez de la Peñuela hizo esta fabrica, el Alferes Real Don Agustin Flores Vergara, su criado. Año de 1710.” “The Marquis de la Peñuela erected this building. The Royal Ensign Don Agustin Flores Vergara, his servant. The year 1710.”’’

From that time until now, more than two hundred

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years, the venerable chapel has been continually used for religious purposes. When the Christian Brothers established their educational work in Santa Fé in 1859 this church was turned over to them as a college chapel, and is so used today. In the course of all these years repairs have of course been a necessity. In 1830 the old roof was found to be dangerous and was rep1aced by a new one. At that time new round vigas took the place of the ancient square ones, only two of which still remain.

At that time and for almost half a century later, the church had a triple tower, diminishing in size at each stage; but in 1872 Santa Fé was visited by a severe storm and the upper sections of the tower fell with a crash. Various repairs were made in order to prevent injury to the walls, which were in danger from the action of water, until in 1888 it was determined to secure them permanently by the construction of stone buttresses on each side of the front, and in other ways prevent any possibility of the destruction of this historic edifice.

Of the illustrations that are presented, the first shows the church as it was before 1872, with the triple tower surmounting the entrance; the second gives its appearance between 1872 and 1888, after the fall of the tower, and with a temporary shed to protect the door-way, and the third represents the structure as it is at present with the strong buttresses, which will protect this venerable relic of early missionary effort to be a shrine for Christian pilgrims and a unique attraction for tourists, for generations to come.

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“The old church is seventy feet long, twenty-four feet wide and twenty-five feet high on the inside; the walls are about five feet thick, which must be doubled and added to the inside dimensions to get the total length and width on the outside,” says Brother David. The walls are of adobe, battlemented on top of the sides, and the roof, like those of all the older churches, is made of vigas supported by carved timbers at each end, the whole being covered with boards and about twelve inches of closely packed earth. In this church only two of the ancient square vigas, one under the gallery and one near the chancel remain, the others having been replaced by newer round ones. The gallery has a puncheon floor, which is quite interesting, and there is considerable of Spanish and Mexican carving upon it. The spiral pillars are native work. The church fronts on the Santa Fé Trail, or rather we should say on the road from Santa Fé to the pueblo of Pecos, which had been in use for over a century before any one dreamed of the commerce over the Great Plains, which developed the Santa Fé Trail between the Missouri River and the Old Capital in the Rocky Mountains.

There are two illustrations of the interior of the church, one representing the eastern or altar end, and the other showing the western end with the doorway and gallery. The latter is specially interesting as showing the great squared viga that supports the gallery and bears the inscription of 1710 concerning the reparation of the church. It will be observed that this great timber, now over two hundred years

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old, supports thirteen cross vigas which in turn hold up the floor of the gallery. The picture also gives a very good idea of the way in which the roof is constructed, and of the carved supports on which the vigas rest at each end. All of the old Mission Churches were roofed in this way, and the width of the building was limited to the length of the vigas which it was possible to obtain. The consequence was that the larger churches were necessarily made very long, as it was impossible to increase the width.

The picture of the chancel and altar includes the old paintings which attract much attention and of which Brother David, who is specially in charge of the church, is so proud. This venerable and most lovable brother, whose health does not permit more active duties, devotes himself entirely to this work and has published several descriptive pamphlets, in which he modestly calls the author, “The Usher.” We cannot do better in giving a description of these paintings than to quote the words from his enthusiastic pen: “The large painting above the altar shows the Archangel St. Michael hurling Lucifer down into the infernal regions. It was copied from Rafael and is over three hundred years old, but was retouched. A copy of Leonardo da Vinci's ‘Ecce Homo’ is seen at the top. The painting with gilt rays around it represents ‘Our Lady of Perpetual Help.’ It is copied from a very old painting, held in great veneration in Candia. The original is in Rome. This painting was blessed by the Holy Father. The ikons, or holy paintings of Russia and Greece, are painted in this style.

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“An oval painting, representing a Spanish King, Ferdinand III, a great conqueror, but a holy man, may be seen to the right of the ‘Ecce Homo.’ On the other side on a level with it, may be seen the holy founder of the Franciscans, St. Francis of Assisi.


“The large rectangular paintings represent the Annunciation by Giovanni Cimabue. The rich colors and beautiful blending are characteristic of this celebrated artist. Only the old masters could make such lasting colors. They were painted in 1287. One

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of these paintings was brought from another church when it was torn down. Cimabue was a great friend of the Franciscans. He and Giotto, his pupil, often did work for them, especially fresco work. These old paintings were often rolled up and put aside to be used only on certain days. One of these has two narrow holes, made by hostile Indians, very probably when carried in procession.

“The oval painting to the left, over the railing, represents the great Spanish nun, St. Teresa of Jesus. It is over three hundred years old, and has faded very much. Its carved frame is Spanish work and as old as the painting itself. There are four of these old Spanish frames. A dry rot has harmed them somewhat. Opposite this painting is one of St. Gertrude, a favorite saint of the Spaniards. She was a Benedictine Abbess. The office of an Abbess carries with it a crozier.”



in the San Miguel Chapel is one of the greatest objects of interest and the particular delight of Brother David. It weighs seven hundred and eighty pounds, but being four inches thick, its size is not so great as its weight would indicate. It bears the inscription “San José ruega por nosotros” (St. Joseph pray for us). There has been a great deal of discussion as to its age and history. Brother David has no doubt that it was cast in Spain in 1356, and brought to America by Nicolas Ortiz Niño Ladron de Guevara, who was with De Vargas in the reconquest

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and became the head of the Ortiz family, and was used in the Ortiz Chapel on lower San Francisco Street until it was abandoned; and others think it has been in the San Miguel Chapel from the days


of the conquest; and others that it is a more modern creation. We do not pretend to decide so delicate a problem, but insert the story as it appears in theLife of Bishop Machebeuf,by Rev. W. J. Howlett,

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which ought to be correct, if it is not. At all events the bell looks old enough to have been used by Noah in the Ark, and of the sweetness of its tone, all visitors can judge.


“In a little room at the base of the tower of San Miguel is the sweetest-toned bell in America, and perhaps the richest. It, too, has its history, filled with poetry, and romance of the ages of the faith.

“In 1356, so the legend runs, the Spaniards were fighting the Moors. Battle after battle was fought and lost by the Christians, until the people vowed a bell to St. Joseph as a gage of their confidence in his assistance. They brought their gold and silver plate, their rings and their bracelets, their brooches and ear-rings, and cast them into the melting-pot with the other metal. The bell was cast, and in its tone were the richness of gold and the sweetness of sacrifice. It sounded the defeat of Moslemism in Spain, and then came to ring in the birth of Christianity in Mexico, and with the Padres it found its way up the Rio Grande to rest and ring out its sweet notes over the City of the Holy Faith.

“In the old adobe church stands the bell—

From the ancient tower its notes have ceased to


O'er the houses, quaint and low,

Whence it summoned long ago

Spanish conqueror, Indian slave,

All to gather ’neath this nave.

Pealed it many a bygone day

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O'er the roofs of Santa Fé.

And before that, century long,

Had it sent its sacred song

O'er the hills and dales of distant, sunny Spain.

Six long centuries have passed

Since the ancient bell was cast,

And sounded forth its first long sweet refrain.

Strike it now and you shall hear,

Sweet and soft, and silver clear,

Such a note as thrills your heart

With its tender, magic art,

Echoing softly through the gloom

Of that ancient, storied room,

Dying softly, far away,

In the church at Santa Fé.“


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