Don Juan de Oñate arrived in what is now Socorro in May of 1598. The expedition encountered a hospitable tribe of Indians who provided them with a generous supply of corn, which they desperately needed to augment their dwindling provisions.
The Apostle of Socorro
When Oñate ventured further north, he left two Franciscan priests behind to establish a mission, including Father Benavidez. Fray Alfonso Benavidez was so successful in his ministry that he became known as: “The Apostle of Socorro.” Benavidez named the village “Nuestra Senora de Perpetuo Socorro,” meaning “Our Lady of Perpetual Help.” The name expressed gratitude for the assistance and supplies received from the community. The community shortened the name to Socorro.
The Franciscans, with the help of the villagers, built a modest church in 1598. They constructed Nuestra Señora de Perpetuo between 1615 – 1626. That is the church that exists today. The walls are approximately 5 feet wide, with huge, carved vigas. The priests positioned the windows high on the walls to repel Navajo attacks.
The Spaniards found out about the silver deposits around Socorro. The priests, wanting impressive churches on par with those in Mexico and Spain, used a lot of the silver to adorn the mission. They made a solid silver Communion Rail, a Tabernacle, and sacred vessels used in the Sacrifice of the Mass. The main body of the church, built between 1615 – 1626, seats about 250 people. The priests added another wing in 1853 to accommodate a growing congregation. Originally the church was pure Pueblo style architecture, but restorations and repairs made after the rebellion of 1680 have transformed the structure, though it retains traditional elements.
Pueblo Revolt of 1680
The mission flourished until the Pueblo Revolt in 1680. The inhabitants of Socorro did not participate in the Pueblo Revolt. When news reached Socorro that the northern pueblos had expelled the Spanish from Santa Fe, the priests and the community disassembled the Communion Rail, and buried it with other valuables that they couldn’t take with them. The pastor made a map of the buried treasure with the assumption that he would be returning quickly.
New settlers of Mexican and Spanish descent arrived in Socorro twelve years later. They found the church dilapidated; however, the massive walls and huge beams were intact. The settlers restored the mission and resumed services, which they continue to this day. They never found the buried treasure. Several expeditions from Mexico searched for it, offering a million-dollar reward offered to anyone who found it in the early 1980s.
San Miguel Mission
The community changed the name of the church between 1800 and 1801. During a raid on Socorro in 1800 the Apache inexplicably withdrew. The villagers asked a captured Apache warrior why they had fled. He responded that they had seen a man with wings and a shining sword hovering over the door of the church. A petition was submitted to the Bishop of Durango, Mexico to have the name of the church changed to San Miguel in honor of St. Michael, the Angelic Protector of the people. The Church has gone by the name San Miguel since then.
San Miguel Mission Chapel is considered the oldest church still in use in the United States. There is no fee to visit the church. The church is the center of a 17,000-acre Spanish Land Grant. It was designated as being one Spanish league (2.64 miles) North, South, East, and West of the Church. All surveys are described as running from the center of the church.