San Miguel Church

by Paul Klenck | January 4, 2011

© Paul KlenckThis year, I was fortunate to be able to join the Bosque event. Workshop leaders and fellow photographers greatly added to enjoyment and learning opportunities of this amazing location, the perfect setting for beautiful images and great stories. It was a privilege to be there and to be able to have the time and money to attend.

One of the workshops included an evening shoot in and around the town of Socorro. It doesn’t take a skilled observer to note that there is some pretty significant poverty there. A little research notes that nearly a third of the county’s population lives below the poverty line, and I suspect when the numbers from this year’s census are published, the numbers in poverty will be even greater.

During one of the lunch breaks, I also ventured to the mission church of San Miguel and happened to meet Father Andy Pavlak outside the rectory. I asked if I could go in the church to take some pictures. He said the church had been closed just a few weeks before under orders from the insurance company. The neighboring adobe church in Lemitar had recently collapsed as workers were attempting to shore up the corner following damage discovered during a flood and earthquake. Fortunately, the workers were on lunch break when the building fell. The diocese began examining the other adobe churches and discovered many were at significant risk.

Bell Tower © Paul Klenck

Bell Tower – San Miguel Mission church

Putting aside some of the ancient Anasazi structures, the church of San Miguel is one of the oldest buildings in the United States, and possibly the oldest church. Perhaps only the Palace of Governors in Santa Fe is older.1 Spanish missionaries are believed to have first built a church in Socorro in 1598 and began the existing structure in 1610. The parish uses the date of 1615 as the founding of the building. For centuries, the interior and exterior walls of the church were covered in mud plaster, as with all adobe brick buildings. The laborious process needed to be redone nearly every year. After World War Two, concrete stucco began to be used to cover the structures. It was believed this material would better protect the building. Concrete stucco lasted longer, making it cheaper, and allowed the poor communities to more efficiently maintain their buildings.

It was also, literally, their downfall.

The concrete trapped moisture in the walls of the building. The trapped water quietly, relentlessly deteriorated the sand, straw and other natural materials in the adobe bricks. The bricks dissolved, walls bulged, the centuries old wooden roof beams split and cracked.

The mission church of San Miguel has served its congregation for four centuries, far longer than any church in Boston, St. Augustine, Jamestown or elsewhere. But on November 7, 2010 the altar was removed and the doors locked. Engineers are racing for a solution to strengthen the structure so it doesn’t collapse. Unless a solution is found and the funds are available, what may be the country’s oldest church could soon be gone. What a tragedy that would be.

San Miguel Mission Church © Paul Klenck

Interior of San Miguel Mission Church waiting for reconstruction

The mission church serves as the local parish for the Catholic community of Socorro. Asking them to bear the entire burden of preserving this national treasure is unrealistic. Their pastor, Father Andy Pavlak from Chicago’s South Side is the only priest for the parish and nine surrounding mission churches. Visitors to Bosque del Apache, may have noticed the mission church in San Antonio on the road to the refuge. That church, too, is facing the same risk and has been closed. For now, services at San Miguel mission are being held in an old school gymnasium. The parish hopes to preserve and reopen the church to commemorate its 400th anniversary in 2015, but the task is daunting. Failure would be a huge loss, not just to the Catholic community of Socorro, but to the national culture.

If you would like to help the people of Socorro and preserve this national treasure, you can contribute to the building fund created solely for the preservation and rebuilding of the mission. Funds are urgently needed to complete the engineering plan and begin the restoration. Contributions marked “Building Fund” can be sent to:

San Miguel & Missions
403 El Camino Real Street, NW
Socorro, NM 87801

Learn more about the history of San Miguel.

Indeed, the city’s name of Socorro comes from the church’s original name of Nuestra Senora de Perpetuo Socorro which in turn was in recognition for the succor the Spanish explorers received from the Indians living there on the Rio Grande. It is our opportunity to participate in this tradition of support and comfort for others. For those who have been able to visit Socorro, this is a chance to give some back to the hosts. To those who have not been, this chance to ensure that the church will be there when you and others visit.


About the Author

Paul Klenck was born in Chicago and grew up in Florida. He returned to Illinois for a History degree at Northwestern University and a law degree at DePaul University. His practice has consisted of representing unions and employees throughout the Midwest. He is currently counsel to Illinois Education Association where he represents employees in a full range of labor, employment and association law and regularly lectures and writes in that field. A recent article for the North American National Academy of Arbitrators examined the constitutional issues surrounding employees' off duty conduct on the Web. Paul was invited to be a moderator for NatureScapes in 2004. He enjoys meeting NatureScapes members on travels in the state and around the country and is constantly amazed at the talent, skills and generous nature of members at NatureScapes.

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