Spanish settlers established small communities in the Taos valley, south of Taos Pueblo, after the Spanish reconquest of the region in 1692. Ranchos de Taos, established in 1725, was the first location in the Taos Valley resettled by the Spaniards. It is an appealing area for farming and ranching. There are two reliable sources of water, the Rio Chiquito and Rio Grande del Rancho. A network of acequias run like veins through the community, distributing water from the rivers to nearby fields of wheat and corn.
Ranchos de Taos
By the 1760s, Ranchos de Taos was a well-established village comprised of Spanish families, Genizaros, a band of Jicarilla Apache, as well as a few residents from nearby Taos Pueblo. However, Comanche raids in the 1760s and 1770s intensified, with village men killed. In August, 1760 Comanche raiders kidnapped sixty village women and children. The settlers were forced to abandon their fields, taking shelter at Taos Pueblo, where the communities collaborated to defend themselves against the mutual threat of raiding parties.
Settlers cautiously returned to their fields when the raids subsided in frequency and intensity. They rebuilt their community with enhanced defense in mind. For example, the rooftops of the buildings combined with strategically placed towers provided defensible positions. They built living and storage quarters in long rows surrounding an open, 2-acre plaza used to secure the community’s livestock during raids. Additionally, they constructed tall adobe walls to fortify the plaza, with a secured entry gate. The added defenses allowed the community to prosper, becoming the largest Spanish settlement in the Taos valley by 1780.
The centerpiece of Ranchos de Taos is the San Francisco de Asís church, a beautiful example of Spanish Colonial architecture. Of the original churches built in the Taos area, it is the only one that is still intact and actively serving a congregation. The parish includes the outlying “Capillas” of Nuestra Señora de San Juan de los Lagos in Talpa, Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Llano Quemado, and San Isidro Labrador in Los Cordovas.
Completed in 1815, construction on the formidable adobe edifice began in 1772. The church doubled as a temple of worship and a formidable fortress. Treasures of the Spanish Colonial period are preserved inside, including two hand-carved and hand-painted reredos (altar screens).
The distinctive architecture, particularly the massive “beehive” shaped buttresses in the back, made the church iconic. It has served as a compelling muse for countless artists and photographers over the years, including Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams. The Taos Chamber of Commerce claims the building is “one of the most photographed and painted churches in the world”. I have no idea if this is true. Who counts these things? Regardless, Congress recognized San Francisco de Asís as a National Historic Landmark in 1970. It is also designated as a World Heritage church.
San Francisco de Asís has undergone numerous additions, remodels, and renovations over the centuries, most recently in 1850, 1916, 1933, and 1967. Shops, trading posts, galleries, and restaurants have replaced the old barracks, living quarters, and stables.
The remodel in 1967 was extensive. They replaced the roof, vigas, doors, and most of the original corbels with copies of the originals. They preserved the original sanctuary woodwork. However, when they tried to protect the walls and exterior with hard plaster, it trapped moisture, damaging the underlying adobe bricks. Fortunately, the community united to protect their beloved church. They resumed the labor intensive tradition of “The Enjarre”, aka “the mudding.” Mudding involves applying a new layer of mud (sand/clay) mixed with straw to the entire structure and the walls. The annual adobe facelift is a two week labor of love in June, a renewal of the church and the community. Forty to sixty people participating every day.
The Parish Hall, north of the church, houses an 18th century oil painting by Canadian artist Henri Ault, The Shadow of the Cross, aka The Mystery Painting. The 8-foot painting depicts Jesus standing on the banks of the Sea of Galilee. However, the enigmatic painting changes in the dark, glowing mysteriously, with shadows and silhouettes appearing in the background, including a large cross and a ship in the distance.
The luminescent painting was exhibited worldwide at the turn of the 20th century, including at the 1904 World Fair in St. Louis. A wealthy parishioner purchased the painting and donated it to the church in 1948. Though it was originally displayed inside the church, they relocated it to a controlled environment in a separate building to preserve it.
Visitors are welcome to watch a documentary about the painting and view it in the light and the dark for $3/person. All proceeds go to church maintenance and upkeep.
Monday-Friday | 9:30, 10:30, 11:30, Lunch, 1:30, 2:30, 3:30
Saturday-Sunday | 9:30, 10:30, 11:30, Lunch, 1:30, 2:30
Directions: San Francisco de Assisi Mission Church, a National Historic Landmark, is located at 60 St Francis Plaza in Ranchos de Taos, NM on NM 68 four miles southwest of Taos.
The church is open Monday through Saturday from 9 AM – 4 PM
- 5 PM Mass – Saturdays; 8 AM Mass (Spanish); 10 AM Mass (English) on Sundays
- 6:45 AM Communion Services Mondays & Tuesdays, 6:45 AM Mass on Wednesdays, Thursdays & Fridays.
Monday thru Friday, 9 AM to 5 PM (Closed for Lunch, 12:30-1 PM)
Sat & Sun, 9 AM to 4 PM (Closed for Lunch, 12:30-1 PM)