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Exploring the rich Catholic history of Santa Fe, New Mexico

Guest post by Teresa Bergen  www.teresabergen.com

Even if you don’t usually go to daily mass, the sound of church bells might draw you to Santa Fe’s impressive cathedral at 7 am. Especially if you’re staying by the plaza. It took three minutes to walk from my room at the Inn & Spa at Loretto to the Saint Francis Basilica, and ten minutes to walk to the Guadalupe Shrine. Daily mass two days in a row probably qualifies as my personal best.

If you enjoy Catholic history, exploring old churches and chapels, and shopping for Mexican and Native American-influenced Catholic art, you’ll have a great time in Santa Fe. In four days I managed to visit four churches or chapels (each with a gift store), walk through a Stations of the Cross garden, buy some Virgin of Guadeloupe souvenirs and still have plenty of time to do lots of secular touristy stuff. Here are a few good stops to make when visiting this special city.

*San Miguel Chapel*

My favorite stop was the San Miguel Chapel. This charming little Mission-style chapel was built by Tlaxcalan Indians from Mexico in the early 1600s. Locals claim it’s the oldest church structure in the US. My airport shuttle driver told me that Santa Fe debates Saint Augustine about which has an older church structure. Saint Augustine has the oldest church structure with a foundation, he said, but San Miguel is the oldest church built right on the ground. I can’t settle this debate, but I can say it was a fun place to visit. A helpful volunteer docent stood by to answer questions.

Must-see features of the chapel include the altar screen and the bell. The altar screen, or *reredos,* may have been designed by an anonymous artist known as the Laguna Santero. He worked in New Mexico from about 1796 to 1808. A statue of San Miguel (Saint Michael) dating back to 1700 takes pride of place on the reredos. Four oval paintings also adorn the screen: Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Colette of France and Saint Louis IX, King of France.

The old bell dates back to 1356. The story goes that Christians were losing their fight against the Moors, until they vowed to craft a bell dedicated to Saint Joseph. Everybody relinquished their gold and silver-plated jewelry, which was all melted down to make the three-inch thick bell.  Writing in 1908, Reverend W.J. Howlett described the bell as embodying “the richness of gold and the sweetness of sacrifice.” The famous bell made a cameo in Willa Cather’s novel “Death Comes for the Archbishop.” Best of all, visitors can hit the old bell with a mallet! It does make a sweet sound. You can also look down through panes of glass in the sanctuary floor and see old adobe steps from the 1600s.

Admission is one dollar. The San Miguel Chapel offers Sunday masses in both Latin and English, and periodic evening concerts. Click here for more information on San Miguel Chapel

*Santuario de Guadelupe (Shrine of Guadelupe)*

The Virgin of Guadelupe is extremely popular in New Mexico, so it makes sense she has a shrine in Santa Fe. Visitors can’t miss the shrine due to the large, beautiful statue outside, which is especially pretty when lit up at night.

Initially a mission church at the end of the Camino Real – a massive road running from Mexico City to Santa Fe – it’s had a 200+ year history. Though the shrine fell into disrepair and closed at times, it’s a thriving parish church today. When I visited on a Wednesday at the ridiculously early hour of 6:30 a.m., about 40 people were there.

The shrine’s most outstanding feature is the altar screen painted by famous Mexican painter Jose de Alzibar in 1783. The painting was transported to Santa Fe by burro.

The history room behind the left side of the sanctuary displays a collection of old photos, art and lovely old stained glass windows depicting Mary. The gift shop behind the history room has many saint-themed souvenirs.

The shrine is open from 9 to 4 daily, or you can go for 6:30 daily mass.  Click here for more information about the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

*Saint Francis Basilica*

If you go downtown at all, you’ll see the cathedral towering over the plaza and silver shops, and you’ll hear the church bells ringing every 15 minutes. This is the site where a church was first built in 1610, the year the city was founded. The original cathedral was destroyed by an Indian attack long ago, and has been rebuilt or remodeled several times. Its current incarnation dates back to 1887. In 2005, Pope Benedict elevated the cathedral to basilica status. Stained glass windows depict the twelve apostles. Seven archbishops are buried beneath the sanctuary.

The 7 a.m. daily mass is celebrated in a little back chapel dedicated to Saint Joseph. The altar screen depicts scenes from Joseph’s life painted on wood. Locals and visitors convene for mass at the cathedral. I was especially impressed by a uniformed police officer sitting in the front row. He was so devout, he brought his own milagro-adorned cross for his personal devotion. Not a sight I’ve seen back home in Portland.

The Stations of the Cross
The Stations of the Cross

Behind the basilica is a Stations of the Cross Garden.

The metal sculptures capture the torture of Christ’s passion, which is hard to bear.

Click here for more information on the Cathedral Basilica

*Loretto Chapel *

The Loretto Chapel is probably Santa Fe’s most visited Catholic site, though the chapel has been desacralized. The Church of the Antioch offers services on Sundays. It’s also a popular place for weddings.

The miraculous staircase at the Loretto Chapel
The miraculous staircase at the Loretto Chapel

The chapel’s miraculous staircase has spawned many a story. Some believe that Saint Joseph, husband of Mary, carved the beautiful wooden spiral staircase. I also heard that the chapel burnt twice, somehow leaving the stairway untouched.

While the chapel is lovely and historically interesting, it’s not the place to go for a quiet moment of contemplation. During my visit, a loud recorded history played nonstop. The chapel is open from 9 to 5. Admission is $3.
Click here for more info on the Loretto Chapel

And that’s just the Catholic history. Santa Fe has more than 100 art galleries, fabulous museums, restaurants, Southwest-themed shopping, Native American culture, and many nearby places for hiking and biking. This city is a terrific place to vacation.


About the author:  Teresa Bergen lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. She’s the author of Vegetarian Asia Travel Guide and has penned hundreds of articles about travel, nutrition, health, fitness and yoga. Her articles and internet content appear in many periodicals, including MSN Healthy Living, travelandleisure.com, Northwest Travel & Life, the South China Morning Post and Whole Life Times. She’s the vegetarian editor of Real Food Traveler and holds a BA in journalism and an MFA in fiction writing.


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