When you have something as old as the Catholic Church, you’re bound to see some rough patches and damage done. We’ve seen martyrdoms and terrorist attacks, clergy scandals, and natural disasters. Through all of this, the Church stood strong.
On an impromptu trip to New Mexico, I found myself at a little chapel in Santa Fe that seemed to represent this same cycle of strength. The San Miguel Chapel has seen roughly 400 years of trials and victories. It continues to stand today, welcoming sightseers and Mass-goers alike.
The oldest church in the Continental United States
The San Miguel Chapel is the oldest church in the Continental United States, built during the original Spanish colonization of the land. It was originally constructed by the Tlaxcalan Indians under the instruction of Franciscan Friars. The little parish served a group of these natives, as well as laborers and Spanish soldiers on the south side of the Santa Fe river. Although the earliest documentation of the church was in 1628, oral history claims that the church was built eighteen years earlier, in 1610.
The Reredos, or the wooden altar piece, was built in 1798. In the center of the altar is a statue of Saint Michael. This was carved around 1700, and brought to the San Miguel chapel by Franciscan Friars. Above the statue is a painting of Christ the Nazarene that dates to the 18th century. At the top of the middle row is a painting of St. Michael the Archangel, and the four oval paintings are of St. Theresa of Avila, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Gertrude of Germany, and St. Louis IX, King of France.
The San Jose bell
Sitting in the back of the chapel is an enormous bell, weighing 780 pounds. Tradition says that it was cast in Spain in 1356, as Spain was fighting the Moors. It is said that local Spanish Catholics donated items such as gold and silver jewelry or other household metals so that the bell could be cast. The bell was brought to New Mexico in 1692 and later installed at San Miguel Chapel. Today, the San Jose bell is free for visitors to ring with a small mallet. But be warned—another local legend says that if you ring the bell, you’re bound to return to Santa Fe.
The test of time
It’s almost a given that this building has been through a good deal in its time, especially given the adobe material used to construct the chapel. The first time that this church needed repair was in 1640. The governor of the territory, Luis de Rojas, ran into conflict with church authorities and burned down a portion of the building. San Miguel Chapel was then heavily damaged in 1680 during the Pueblo revolt. It was not repaired until 1710 following the Spanish reconquest. Then, in 1872, two of the towers in chapel fell. After this, along with other water damage, the decision was made to use cement to solidify the church’s structure. The cement would offer a safer, more stable structure than the original adobe material.
San Miguel Chapel is currently under the care of St. Michael’s High School in Santa Fe. In 2010, St. Michael’s, in conjunction with Cornerstones Community Partnership, started a project to restore the adobe building material. The upkeep of this comes from local volunteers and donations. If you want to visit the San Miguel Chapel, it’s open to the public for people to drop in. The Chapel also still offers Mass, both in English and Latin.