New Mexico has an abundance of Spanish missions. Far more people are aware of California’s missions, many of which have been well preserved; however, New Mexico’s missions are much older. Most of New Mexico’s missions were destroyed during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The Spanish rebuilt many of the missions when they returned in 1692, but abandoned communities, like the Salinas Pueblos, deteriorated over time. Many of New Mexico’s missions have been neglected, falling into disrepair or currently in ruins. However, others have been maintained, rebuilt or restored, with a veritable feast of Spanish Colonial architecture in close proximity to Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
Some churches are free, but a few have limited access. Call ahead to request an appointment. Others are part of state or national monuments with varying fees, usually cited in the linked articles. The separate rules and jurisdictions make it difficult to coordinate 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 a New Mexico Mission Tour. 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 ancient traditions of their ancestors (and everything in between and beyond those two references).
Missionaries in New Mexico
Though the Spanish built missions throughout the southwest, the oldest ones are in New Mexico. Historians refer to the 1600s as “The Golden Age of the Missions.” The Spanish sent Franciscan Friars into villages to convert the locals. They would establish missions in large villages and dispatch priests to minister to smaller settlements. The Franciscans claimed that they wanted to save the souls of “heathens,” but actually they were motivated by greed and power. Consider the amount of time and energy they invested wrangling with the Spanish civil authorities for the upper hand.
The Spanish came north to conquer. They intended to assimilate, 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. Control and coin.
Father Juniper Serra completed the first Spanish mission in California in 1776, in what is now San Diego. However, the Spanish arrived in New Mexico in the 1500s, with Coronado paving the way in 1540 for the conquistadors that followed. Expansion, establishment of missions and settlers arrived with Oñate and a pack of padres in 1598. 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 priests 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 seven districts, with a Franciscan priest assigned to each district.
Father Francisco de San Miguel traveled to Pecos, with seven pueblos on the east and the Salinas pueblos. Father Juan Claros ministered to the Tihuas, on the Rio Grande. His territory encompassed Piros pueblos and extended south to Socorro and San Antonio (Teipana and Qualacu). Oñate dispatched Father Juan de Rosas to the Province of the Queres, overseeing Santo Domingo, Cochití, San Felipe, San Marcos, and San Cristobal. He appointed Father Cristoval de Salazar to the Province of the Tehuas, which encompassed San Juan (Caypa), San Gabriel, San Yldefonso, Santa Clara, and assigned Father Francisco de Zamora to the Province of Picuris, Taos and beyond. He sent Father Alonza de Lugo to the Province of Jemez. The priest who drew the short straw got sent to the western frontier. That was Father Andres Corchado. Oñate sent him west of Cia, which extended to Acoma, Zuñi, and Hopi.
Father Benavidas submitted a status report to the King of Spain in 1630. His report mentioned ninety pueblos, ministered to by twenty five missions with churches and conventos. Separately, every pueblo built a church. He referenced fifty priests in New Mexico, serving over 60,000 natives who had “accepted” Christianity. Contrary to the the official reports, the native population hadn’t “accepted” Christianity or Spanish rule. The establishment of intolerant theocracies and excessive demands for tribute had disastrous results within decades.
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 served as a cemetery. initially the priests allowed kivas immediately outside the church yard. That policy changed.
One or two corner towers flanked the front walls of most missions, usually topped by a wooden cross and a bell. Priests used the bells to call villagers to worship. The large wooden door at the center of the front wall led into large, windowless interior spaces, usually devoid of benches or seats. Parishioners stood or knelt on the earthen floor. They decorated the interior walls with colorful murals and carved santos, bultos, or painted buffalo hides. Some churches imported ornate altars and beautiful statuary from Mexico.
Despite the dual mission associated with Christianity and Crown, the Franciscan missionaries and civil authorities did not always get along. Oñate accused the priests of inefficiency and several friars accused Oñate’s administration of a variety of crimes against the local population. Conflict between church and state would became a theme for the Spanish administrations that followed.
The friars requested Oñate’s removal from office to no avail. Despite disagreements between church and state, Mexico City dispatched more priests. Official Spanish policies and protocols remained unchanged, with the puebloans caught in the middle. Their labor and resources were at the crux of the contention, the spoils. Franciscan priests destroyed sacred artifacts and banned traditional religious practices. The Spanish authorities and Church demanded exorbitant tributes. Frustration boiled over in 1680, with Po’Pay of San Juan (Ohkay Owingeh) uniting the pueblos in revolt against the Spanish.
Though Puebloan warriors destroyed most of New Mexico’s missions during the pueblo 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 in New Mexico were rebuilt before the first mission was completed in San Diego.
Acoma Pueblo, one of the oldest continuously settled communities in North America, built San Estevan Rey in Acoma Pueblo in 1629. The priests named it based on St. Stephen the King. Spanish reports in 1760 describe the mission 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 Pueblo of Isleta built San Agustin in 1613. It may be the earliest of the extant mission churches in New Mexico. Although pueblo warriors detroyed the original church 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 by Spanish settlers. They completed the adobe structure in the 1740s, decades before completion of the first California mission. Santa Cruz 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.
Don Juan de Oñate assigned the first missionary in Zia during his expedition in 1598. Tribal members built a church and convent by 1613, Saint Pedro y Saint Pablo. They renamed the church “Nuestra Señora de la Asunción” or Our Lady of Assumption when they rebuilt it in 1706.
Zia Pueblo does not offer tours. They do not allow public access other than on feast days. The pueblo prohibits photography, video and sketching; however, the church is still there. If you want to see it, please contact Zia Pueblo at 505-867-3304.
Father Andrés Juárez arrived in Pecos in 1621. Under his supervision, Pecos Pueblo built the most impressive of New Mexico’s adobe missions. Warriors from Pecos Pueblo destroyed the massive edifice during the Pueblo Revolt. After the Spanish reconquered the area, the community built a smaller church in 1717. The ruins of that church are part of Pecos National Historical Park, 25 miles east of Santa Fe. Summer hours are 8am – 6pm. Winter hours are 8:30am – 4pm. Fee: $7/person; children 15 and younger free. They allow pets (on a leash). (505) 757-7241.
Tesuque, the first of the pueblos north of Santa Fe, is one of the smallest of the Tewa group. They dedicated the original church to San Lorenzo, founded by Father Benavides in the late 1620s. Pueblo warriors burned the original church and killed the priests during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. When the community rebuilt the church in 1695, they dedicated it to a different saint because the Pueblo Revolt started on San Lorenzo’s feast day.
To inquire about visiting Tesuque Pueblo or the mission, please call (505) 983-2667.
The Spanish Mission of San Agustín de la Isleta was built in 1612. Pueblo warriors destroyed the original church during the Pueblo Revolt. Isleta rebuilt the current structure in 1716. It is one of the oldest, and most impressive, mission churches in New Mexico. They designed the building to house the entire congregation on feast days and Christmas. The imposing edifice sits on a super-sized plaza. The church is still in use and readily accessible to the public. Contact Isleta Pueblo (505) 724-3800.
San Buenaventura de Cochiti was completed in approximately 1628. Cochití was a visita of Santo Domingo until the 17th century, though they had a resident friar as early as 1637. The church is in Cochiti Pueblo, on NM 22 at exit 259, 33 miles north of Albuquerque. The pueblo welcomes visitors year around and celebrates feast days seasonally with dances. Cochiti Pueblo prohibits photography, recording, and cell phone use and they ask visitors to be respectful of tribal rules. For more information, visit Pueblo de Cochiti website or call 505-465-2226.
Construction of the San Esteban of Acoma mission was a 12-year project, completed in 1642. The Mission Church is a National Historic Landmark located south of Interstate 40 on Route 23 at Acoma Pueblo. Guided tours of the mission church and Acoma Pueblo are available for $23. Acoma Pueblo allows photography with a permit/fee, but they ask visitors not to photograph the cemetery or interior of the Mission Church. For more information, visit the Acoma Sky City website or call 505-470-4966 or 800-747-0181.
The viceroy, Duke of Alburquerque, appointed Francisco Cuervo y Valdés as interim governor when Diego de Vargas died in 1704. Valdés resettled 30-35 families between Sandia and Isleta pueblos, naming it “La Villa Real de San Francisco de Alburquerque” in 1706. They built a church immediately.
Heavy monsoon rains damaged the roof and adobe walls in 1792, collapsing the original church. The settlement constructed the current church the following year.
San Felipe de Neri is on the plaza in Old Town Albuquerque. They hold Mass on Sundays, with numerous activities and extra services around the holidays. There is a parking fee in Old Town, but otherwise there are no fees to enjoy this historic church in downtown Albuquerque.
Nambe pueblo completed the first church in 1618. It was one of many destroyed in the Pueblo Revolt. The community constructed a second shortly after the Spanish reconquered the province in 1696, but it wasn’t big enough. Villagers completed Sagrada Corazon de Jesus in 1790. A fire destroyed the original structure in 1945.
Nambe is on the High Road to Taos, between Espanola and Chimayo. The church is open to the public and accessible. No fee. Email [email protected] or Call (505) 455-4400.
San Ildefonso pueblo constructed one of the first missions in the province. The community bacame the epicenter of Franciscan activity in northern New Mexico. The estimated completion date of the first mission varies from the late 1590s to 1617. Pueblo warriors destroyed the original structure and killed the resident priest at the alter during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The pueblo rebuilt the church just north of the original location in 1706. They remodeled it in 1905 and 1969.
San Ildefonso Pueblo is south of Española, New Mexico, on NM 502. The pueblo accepts visitors from 8:00am to 5:00pm. 505-455-3549.
The first mission in Santa Clara was established by Fray Alonso de Benavides somewhere between 1626 and 1629. Santa Clara was a visita of Santa Fe so there was no resident priest to kill when the Pueblo Revolt occurred, but they did destroy the church. Although the Spanish rebuilt the mission after they reclaimed the territory twelve years later, it remained a visita of San Ildefonso until it collapsed in the mid-1700s.
The pueblo can be visited daily from dawn to dusk. They allow cameras with a permit. Please call (505) 753-7326 for more information.
Jemez Pueblo completed the massive San Jose mission in Giusewa pueblo between 1625-1628. Warriors from Jemez destroyed the church and killed the priest decades before the Pueblo Revolt and the Spanish abandoned this site in 1630. The Franciscans completed the San Diego Mission nearby.
The Mission San José de los Jémez is part of the Jemez Historic site in Jemez Springs. Open Wed – Sun from 8:30am – 5pm. $5 Entrance Fee. The rangers allow dogs on leash. The San Diego Mission is in Jemez Pueblo. Contact (575) 834-7235 or email [email protected].
This was the first mission constructed in New Mexico. Father Benavidez built the mission in 1598 and expanded it in 1625. The inhabitants of the pueblo that existed in Socorro became loyal Spanish allies. They didn’t destroy the church during the Pueblo Revolt. Instead, they accompanied the Spanish to El Paso and never returned to the area.
The church needed repairs by the time the Spanish returned to the area in 1692. There are tales of lost treasure that no one has found. They community renovated, repaired and renamed the original structure over the years, but they haven’t rebuilt. San Miguel Mission Chapel the oldest church still in use in the United States. Located in Socorro, there is no fee to visit the church.
Laguna pueblo built San José de la Laguna mission in 1699, after the Pueblo Revolt, which spared it the fate of other missions. San José is famous for its interior decor; including original Laguna art and rare early Spanish paintings. In Laguna’s mission aesthetics play a central role in the ambience of the building. Red, green, yellow and black murals adorn the earthen walls. A portrait of Saint Joseph fills the center of the reredos. Laguna artists painted the ceiling above the sanctuary with the Laguna symbols for the sun, the moon, the stars and a rainbow. Laguna Pueblo offers church tours daily. To get to Laguna, take exit 114 off I-40 between Albuquerque and Grants. For more information, please call San Jose Mission at (505) 552-9330.
Fray Francisco de Zamora built the first small chapel in Picuris by 1620, dedicated to patron San Lorenzo. Spanish missionary efforts never got off the ground. The Spanish deemed the inhabitants uncooperative and stubborn, but the reality may have been a lack of interest. The public is welcome to visit the San Lorenzo de Picurís church. The pueblo is located 24 miles southeast of Taos via NM 68, 518, and 75. Self-guided tours and permits for photography within the pueblo are available to visitors. (575) 587-1601.
As one of the first areas to be assigned a priest, the original mission was built by 1600. Compared to other missions in the province, Santa Ana mission is small. Ultimately, warriors from Santo Ana destroyed the original church during the Pueblo Revolt. However, when the Spanish returned, Santa Ana welcomed them, becoming a critical ally. Villagers rebuilt the mission in 1750.
The church is long, built of adobe, with a tower, and a number of adjoining rooms to accommodate the resident priest and visiting clergy. Two santos carved from wood and a large painting of John the Baptist with Jesus over the altar are among the notable items in the church. To visit the Santa Ana Mission, contact Santa Ana Pueblo at (505) 771-6700.
Santo Domingo pueblo constructed their first church shortly after Oñate arrived, but it washed away in a flood. Destruction via water became a pattern, with spring floods on the Rio Grande repeatedly damaging or destroying the church. Additionally, it was one of many missions destroyed during the pueblo revolt. Villagers killed three priests as well. The village rebuilt the mission in 1706. Flood in 1886. The built the current church in 1895. They replicated the traditional mission architecture rather than incorporating the tin roof and steeple look favored by Archbishop Lamy.
Santo Domingo Pueblo (now Kewa Pueblo) is 35 miles north of Albuquerque and 25 miles south of Santa Fe, NM. For more information, call 505-465-2214.
Mission building in Taos proved to be a challenging and repetitive endeavor, with the mission damaged or destroyed and multiple priests killed prior to the Pueblo Revolt. The situation didn’t really improve during or after the rebellion, with more priests killed and frequent assaults on the mission.
The pueblo built the San Jeronimo mission in 1706. That is the one standing in ruins today. The U.S. Army destroyed it in the process of quelling an uprising during the Mexican-American war. There is a newer mission centrally located in the pueblo.
To see San Jeronimo or Taos Pueblo, contact (575) 758-1028. $16/adult, $14/children 11+, Free for children under 10. Taos Pueblo allows photography, but additional fees apply for commercial photography or video. See their website or contact them directly for details.
The chapel of San Miguel in Santa Fe is an anomaly both in purpose and structure. The Indian servants and allies who accompanied the Spanish from Mexico as they colonized the region built San Miguel. Unlike other missions, locals did not destroy the original church. The territorial governor ordered Spanish troops to destroy it in 1640 during a dispute between civil authorities and the Franciscan priests. The neighborhood rebuilt the church after Spain reconquered the region after the Pueblo Revolt. Diego de Vargas ordered construction of a new, simple church in 1698. The parish renovated and upgraded the building in 1710.
San Miguel Chapel is open to visitors daily. There is no fee. 401 Old Santa Fe Trail, Santa Fe. (505) 983-3974.
The first mission was constructed in 1629. Villagers destroyed the structure a few years later during an uprising. The priests forced them to rebuild by the late 1650s, but the Apache killed the priest and burned the church again during a raid in 1672. One additional cycle of restored and destroyed occurred before the Pueblo Revolt. However, the Zuni and the Spanish abandoned Hawikuh.
The Hawikuh ruins are on the Zuni Indian Reservation. Zuni Pueblo offers tours of the site. Visitors should make reservations at least a week in advance to ensure availability. For tour information, please visit the Zuni Pueblo Department of Tourism website or call (505) 782-7238, ask for Tom or Kenny.
The first mission was constructed in 1629. The initial structure was destroyed a few years later. Zuni rebuilt by the late 1650s, but the Apache burned it during a raid in 1672. Villagers restored the church, but they subsequently destroyed it during the Pueblo Revolt. It has been a lengthy cycle of rebuild, repair, renovate and the church currently needs repairs. There are incredible kachina murals on the interior walls, but no good options for preserving them.
The pueblo doesn’t allow visitors, though the exterior can be seen from the middle village. For more info, or to check the status of repairs, please visit the Zuni Pueblo Department of Tourism website or call (505) 782-7238, ask for Tom or Kenny.
Construction of the mission complex at Abo occurred over the course of 50+ years. The villagers built San Gregorio mission using materials and techniques similar to Chaco Canyon. The reddish-brown sandstone in the area is fissured in layers, making the rock easy to work with in the absence of iron technology or stone cutting tools. They set the stones facing the rubble core to reduce irregularities on the surface of the walls, coating the outer surfaces in plaster. The stones used were rarely larger than one foot square or more than four inches thick. They inserted smaller fragments as chinks into gaps left by stones of irregular size or shape.
In a status report for the Spanish King in 1629, Father Benavides described the chapel of San Ysidro as small. Odd description. San Ysidro was among the widest of the missions in New Mexico, second only to San José de Giusewa Mission in Jemez Pueblo. Father Latrado attempted an ambitious design. The mission measured 29 feet by 109 feet. Unfortunately, engineering is an acquired skill and he made critical calculation errors related to weight and structural integrity. The span exceeded the carrying capacity of the beams and load bearing walls and the roof collapsed. It was his first attempt at building a mission.
San Buenaventura was narrower than its predecessor. The nave is about 27 feet wide, with a length of 109 feet. Villagers constructed the church on an east-west axis, with the entrance facing east. The extensive convento south of the church included a full sacristy with access from living and storage spaces. They built a large corral with adjoining stables south of the mission. Sadly, Father Santander didn’t have time to complete the San Buenaventura Mission. He left with the surviving inhabitants of Las Humanas 3 years later.
The Spanish missionaries constructed the Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción mission between 1627–1633. There are no records specifying who was responsible, though it was a Franciscan project.
The village’s women and children served as conscripted labor. They built the church based on a cruciform layout, with an altar in each transept. The nave measured hundred by twenty-seven feet, making it one of the largest in the state. The structure was forty feet tall, nearly twice the height of most of the pueblo churches. The priests intended for it to be awe inspiring. Mission accomplished…literally and figuratively.