An Afternoon Visit to an Empty Church

Our Lady of Guadalupe Church sits along the San Juan River in Northwestern New Mexico, photo by author

The Church

The church was built in 1920 and still stands on a bluff overlooking the beautiful, aqua green-colored San Juan River. It’s a small building, but apparently the congregation has moved away or now attends mass somewhere else. I just happened across this place last Sunday and was struck by the awesome locale of the small church. Not far away is the Navajo Dam and behind that is the man-made Navajo Lake, but if you approach this special place from the south, you would never know that they were there.

The interior of this church captures the afternoon light on a spring day with great grace.

Inside

In the afternoon light, the church interior took on an almost mystical air, as the intense Southwest sun filtered through the small window above the altar and illuminated the sacred space with sunlight. Fortunately, the camera easily captured this event.

 

A vase with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe sits in one of the church windows, photo by author

Our Lady of Guadalupe 

According to Catholic Online the Virgin Mary first appeared to Juan Diego, a 57 year old Aztec man in 1531, near present day Mexico City. Even from the beginning Juan believed in what he saw on the hillside, but the priests at the nearest church were not so convinced. Gradually, over a few weeks, more appearances by the loved Saint along with a miraculous cure convinced the church elders that the Holy Virgin was present in Mexico.

Here she took on the name of Our Lady of Guadalupe and her likeness, which mysteriously appeared on a Spanish tilma back in 1531, has been reproduced and copied all throughout Mexico and the Southwest USA, numerous times. Many churches of the region, both small and large, bear her name as does this small chapel built in 1920.

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The Most Photographed Church In America

Ranchos de Taos Church as seen from the back parking lot, photo by author
Ranchos de Taos Church as seen from the back parking lot, photo by author

Visiting the Ranchos de Taos Church

Yesterday, I had to travel from Santa Fe to Taos in order to pick up some mail and paperwork from my former place of residence. I rode the bus and since my errand only took a few minutes, I ended up with several hours to kill. I decided I would spend this time at this historic landmark located on the highway that heads back to Santa Fe. Funny thing that as a resident, I seldom went here, but now that I live out of town, I decided to go here, take pictures and make a few sketches of this iconic place of worship.

The front doorway of the Ranchos church decorated with two wreaths, photo by author
The front doorway of the Ranchos church decorated with two wreaths, photo by author

Where Is It?

The church is officially called the San Francisco de Asis Mission Church and it is located in Ranchos de Taos in Taos County of Northern New Mexico. Ranchos de Taos is a small Hispanic community situated just south of Taos at the western edge of the Sangre de Christo Mountains. This structure is in many ways similar to other Spanish missions situated across Northern New Mexico.

 

The Ranchos de Taos Church as painted by Georgia O'Keefe
The Ranchos de Taos Church as painted by Georgia O’Keefe

The Sculptural Properties of Adobe

Adobe is simply a mixture of mud and straw. Together the two materials combine for added strength. The elixir is easy to make and it used worldwide to create amorphous-shaped buildings, especially in dry climates such as the southwestern U.S. Most adobe buildings have to be re-coated every 5 to 7 years and as a result these structures can develop exterior walls that are quite thick and rounded in their appearance. This might help explain why the church at Ranchos de Taos has taken on its unusual appearance that makes the place so endeared by visual artists and curious travelers.

Closeup of the architectural shapes and the adobe material, photo by author
Closeup of the adobe material, photo by author

Approach From The Highway

As you approach the church from NM Highway 68, the first thing you will see is the large buttress form that still resembles the O’Keefe painting. To view the front side of the church that bears the twin bell towers and front entrance, it is necessary to exit the two-lane road and drive through the gravel and dirt parking lot until you reach the opposite end. This view, which is pictured below, looks very different from the part of the building that is adjacent to the highway. Perhaps, this arrangement has occurred because the church was built way back in the late 1700s, when local residents used different pathways to get where they were going.

Ranchos Church Front View 800px
The front view of the Rancos de Taos Church, photo by author