Sunday, September 16, 2012

Oldest, Largest, Oldest

When your state capital is the oldest capital* in the country, it is not surprising that other buildings in the state will reach the heights of superlatives.

Located on the north side of the Plaza in Old Town Albuquerque, is San Felipe de Neri church. It was built in 1793 to replace the original 1706 mission church, which collapsed after the long, rainy summer of 1792. The adobe church with walls five feet thick is built in the traditional colonial style with Spanish overtones and mixtures of 18th and 19th century decorative and building elements.

"The interior has wood paneled wainscoting, a stamped metal ceiling, an elaborate altar and plaster walls painted to resemble marble. San Felipe de Neri Church presents an interesting combination of the old and new building traditions of New Mexico" (

The oldest building in the city remains a functioning Catholic church.

The serenity of the church is a stark contrast to the high level of activity in the Plaza just outside its doors.

"The Cristo Rey (Christ King) Church (in Santa Fe) is purported to be the largest single construction adobe building in the United States. The structure measures 350 feet long and its adobe walls are from two to nine feet thick. The monumental size of the Cristo Rey Church is relieved by the perfect proportions and the graceful form.... The Cristo Rey Church is undoubtedly one of the finest examples of authentic Santa Fe architecture on an institutional scale.

The story behind the reason for the church's size is an interesting one:
"In the late 1930’s,...newcomers to Santa Fe’s east side decided that they wanted a church of their own and...hired architect John Gaw Meem, (who was to become regarded as principal creator of the Santa Fe architectural style) to design their new place of worship, Cristo Rey Church.

"The architect conceived a structure of grand proportion in order to accommodate one very special request. The parish wanted the new church to incorporate a glorious carved stone retablo (an altar screen).... The retablo being twenty feet wide by forty feet high required a monumental edifice and architect Meem created just that.... Their first mass was held just over a year after construction began in 1940" (

Unfortunately, the church was locked, so we were not able to see the grand retablo.

A 12-foot bronze statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe stands near the entrance of the oldest extant shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe in the United States (established in 1777). It was cast in Mexico City and brought to Santa Fe in 2008, and its base is often decorated with fresh roses.

The statue, Mexico City, and the roses refer to the story:
“On a hill (Tepeyac) on the outskirts of what is now Mexico City, the Blessed Mother appeared to a peasant named Juan Diego in 1531.
As the story goes, she told him to ask the bishop to build a shrine in her name on the site. When the bishop wanted proof that the apparition was real, Diego returned to the desert to pick flowers that were blooming. Diego filled his cloak with roses and returned to the bishop. When he opened his mantle, the flowers fell to the ground and on his cloak was an image of Mary” (Shaun Griswold,

In Santa Fe, the image is honored within the parish's santuario. Outside, is the 12-foot bronze statue created by Mexican sculptor Dona Georgina Farias and inside the church is “the altar screen, or reredo, painted by Jose de Alzibar that was transported, piece by piece by burro from Mexico City in 1783 and then stitched together in Santa Fe” (Staci Golar,

We felt honored to visit these churches that had been so conscientiously maintained over the years and even centuries.

* Founded in 1610, Santa Fe is the second oldest city in the United States and is considered both the highest and oldest city that is a state capital in America.

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