New Mexico has an abundance of Spanish missions. Though California’s are well known, well documented and well preserved, New Mexico’s missions are older. Many of New Mexico’s missions were destroyed in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 or other disasters. Many have been abandoned and neglected, falling into disrepair or in ruins. However, many have been rebuilt or restored, with a veritable feast of Spanish Colonial architecture in close proximity to both Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
Some sites are free, a few have limited access involving calling ahead to request an appointment, and a couple are part of state or national monuments with varying fees. Perhaps the separate rules and jurisdictions complicate the creation of an official “New Mexico Mission Trail,” but for individuals with an interest in Spanish Colonialism or the missions of the southwest, there is ample opportunity to informally enjoy New Mexico’s Mission Tour. The downloadable guide provides information and hyperlinks to resources. If there is a mission missing, please let me know name, location, year constructed and whether there is public access.
Spirituality is intrinsic to the culture in New Mexico, but it is expressed in an extraordinary number of ways, from Christianity to those following the path and traditions of their ancestors (and everything in between and beyond those two references). This is merely the beginning. Additional material is in development related to historical churches, Penitente Moradas and other spiritually significant sites and traditions.
Though the Spanish built missions throughout the southwest, the oldest ones are in New Mexico. There were so many churches built during the 1600s that the period is referred to as “The Golden Age of the Missions.” The Spanish sent Franciscan Friars into villages to convert the locals, establishing missions in larger villages, with the priest traveling to smaller communities nearby. The purported motive of these missions was to save the souls of “heathens,” though the actual purpose was to subdue and control the local population. Behind the professed allegiance to God, and higher calling, was the financial motivation of the crown. They needed the local labor pool to exploit the resources of the region.
The oldest of the Spanish missions in California was established in what is now San Diego by Father Juniper Serra in 1776; however, the Spanish arrived in New Mexico two centuries earlier, with Coronado paving the way in 1540 for the conquistadors that would follow. Expansion, establishment of missions and settlers arrived with Oñate and a pack of padres. Oñate’s contract with the Spanish government made his expedition’s priorities clear: "Your main purpose shall be the service of our Lord, the spreading of His Holy Catholic faith, and the reduction and pacification of the natives of said provinces. You shall bend all your energies to this object, without any other human interest interfering with this aim." Oñate fulfilled his contract quickly and enthusiastically, dispatching the friars to all of the major villages in the region.
Prior expeditions hadn’t involved permanent settlement or mission building. The goal was to find wealthy communities to conquer, with resources to pillage. That changed with Oñate. According to Spanish records, his expedition included about 400 men, 130 of whom were accompanied by their families, at least 8 Franciscan priests, 83 wagons and 7,000 head of cattle. When they arrived at San Juan Pueblo on July 9, 1598, they were greeted with kindness and generous hospitality. As a result, Oñate added the words "de los Caballeros" to the name of the town.
The Spanish decided that the beauty and broad expanse of the valley across the river from San Juan would be the most favorable spot for their capital. The residents of San Juan allowed them to occupy the houses in the pueblo of Yunque until they could construct their own dwellings. Oñate didn’t waste time, dispatching small parties of soldiers in all directions to make contact with all of the pueblos in the region. The newly claimed territory, encompassing most of New Mexico, was divided into 7 districts, with a Franciscan priest assigned to each district.
The missions were constructed based on available materials, ranging from the massive, magnificent adobe edifices at Pecos and Acoma to the equally impressive stone construction seen in Jemez, Quarai, Abo and Gran Quivira. The typical mission church included an artio, a walled yard in front of the church that often served as a cemetery. It wasn’t unusual for kivas to be located immediately outside the church yard. The front walls of the missions were often flanked by one or two corner towers. These towers were usually topped by a wooden cross and a bell. The bells were used to call the faithful to worship. A large wooden door at the center of the front wall led large, windowless interior spaces, usually devoid of benches or seats. The faithful would stand or kneel on the earthen floor. The interior walls were adorned with colorful murals and carved santos, bultos, or painted buffalo hides. Some churches acquired ornate altars and beautiful statuary from Mexico.
Fr. Francisco de San Miguel was assigned the Province of the Pecos, with seven pueblos on the east, and also the pueblos of the Salinas country extending to the great plain. Fr. Juan Claros was assigned the Province of the Tihuas, on the Rio Grande, including Piros pueblos, stretching to Socorro and San Antonio (Teipana and Qualacu). Fr. Juan de Rosas was assigned the Province of the Queres, including Santo Domingo, Cochití, San Felipe, San Marcos, San Cristobal, etc. Fr. Cristoval de Salazar was appointed to the Province of the Tehuas, including San Juan (Caypa), San Gabriel, San Yldefonso, and Santa Clara. Fr. Francisco de Zamora was assigned the Province of Picuris and Taos and the surrounding country. Fr. Alonza de Lugo was given the Province of Jemez, including Cia, and many pueblos whose names have been lost over the centuries. Fr. Andres Corchado was sent west of Cia, which encompassed Acoma, Zuñi, and Moqui.
In a report by Father Benavidas to the King of Spain in 1630, the priest referenced fifty friars in New Mexico, serving over 60,000 natives who had accepted Christianity. He reported that the natives lived in 90 pueblos, grouped into about 25 Missions with churches and conventos, and that each pueblo had its own church. When you consider that the Franciscan monks were dispatched to communities alone, with no knowledge of language, culture or traditions and no monetary or material incentives to offer, and little in the way of military support, it is extraordinary that more of them weren't killed. However, the establishment of intolerant theocracies and excessive demands for tribute had disastrous results.
The Pueblo Revolt of 1680
The pueblos of New Mexico unite to expel the Spanish
Despite the dual mission associated with Christianity and Crown, the Franciscan missionaries and civil authorities did not always get along, with Oñate accusing the priests of inefficiency and several friars accusing Oñate’s administration of a variety of crimes against the natives. These accusations would become a theme for the Spanish administrations that followed.
The friars requested Oñate’s removal from office to no avail. Despite the ongoing disagreements between church and state in terms approach and interaction with the local communities, more priests were dispatched from Mexico City and the official Spanish policies and protocols remained unchanged, leading to mounting frustration and anger among the occupied communities. Priests destroyed sacred artifacts and banned traditional religious practices. The tributes demanded were exorbitant. Frustration boiled over in 1680, with Po’Pay of San Juan (Ohkay Owingeh) uniting the pueblos in revolt against the Spanish.
Though most of New Mexico’s missions were destroyed in the revolt, the ruins of several have been preserved as part of State and National Monuments or Parks. Many of the missions that survived the revolt have been rebuilt or restored, providing some of the best examples of Spanish colonial architecture in North America. Most of the missions seen today in New Mexico had been rebuilt before the first mission was completed in San Diego.
San Estevan Rey in Acoma Pueblo was built in 1629. It is located in one of the oldest continuously settled Indian communities in North America. Named after St. Stephen the King, the mission was described in 1760 as "the most beautiful of the whole Kingdom.” It is the only mission church in New Mexico to survive the Pueblo Revolt unscathed, making it the most intact, original 17th century structure in the United States.
The mission church of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Zuni Pueblo was the most distant from the Spanish capitol in Santa Fe. Although most of Zuni is built of stones set in a mud mortar, the church is built of adobe. The original structure was completed in 1627 and destroyed during the Pueblo Revolt in 1680. It has been rebuilt several times since the early 1700s.
San Agustin in the Pueblo of Isleta was built in 1613. It may be the earliest of the extant mission churches in New Mexico. Although it was also destroyed during the Pueblo Revolt, subsequent restorations have incorporated parts of the original foundation and walls.
There are numerous historic churches, like Santa Cruz de La Cañada outside of Española and San José de Gracia in Las Trampas that incorporate traditional mission style architecture. Santa Cruz is one of the oldest churches built for use by the Spanish settlers. The adobe structure was completed in the 1740s, decades before completion of the first California mission. It contains some of the most magnificent examples of locally produced Spanish colonial religious art in the southwest; however, neither Santa Cruz de La Cañada or San José de Gracia are considered missions, because they were built for use by the Spanish settlers rather than for the purpose of converting the Pueblo Indians. Based on the number of missions in New Mexico, the historic churches will need a separate page.
The Pueblo Revolt of 1680
The pueblos of New Mexico unite to expel the Spanish
New Mexico Nomad