The Heart of the Mission

New Mexico group works to restore a 17th-century chapel

On the Old Santa Fe Trail in Santa Fe, N.M., stands a Roman Catholic chapel that may be the country's oldest. It's thought that as early as 1610, Franciscan friars oversaw the construction of San Miguel Mission, which overlooks Santa Fe's Barrio de Analco Historic District. The chapel, damaged during a Pueblo revolt in 1680, was later renovated and partially rebuilt. In 1859, St. Michael's High School first began using the structure to hold mass.

But in recent years, the chapel had deteriorated because of poor drainage at the site, an antiquated roof, and an ill-advised layer of Portland cement added to the walls in the 1950s. In 2005, the St. Michael's school board sought help from Cornerstones Community Partnerships, a local nonprofit that promotes community-based preservation of adobe structures.

"It's a wonderful organization, very unique—there's nothing like it in the country because there's nothing like the adobe structures of New Mexico and Arizona anywhere," says Richard Moe, former National Trust president and Cornerstones Advisory Board chair. "It's a very important part of our heritage, and if these structures aren't properly cared for, they disappear."

To fund the restoration, Cornerstones relied on donations secured by St. Michael's and grants from such sources as the Getty Foundation and Save America's Treasures, a public-private partnership between the National Trust and the National Park Service. Last summer, crews began the first phase of the project, initiating work on the facades of the chapel and the adjacent gift shop, and analyzing the site's drainage issues. This spring, the group resumed work on the chapel walls and roof and began to install a new drainage system.

Miguel Chavez, a city councilor and woodworker who was married at San Miguel in 1978, replaced rotting sections of the chapel's wood cross in his workshop. "We need to encourage and expose the next generation to this method, to the history, and the culture," Chavez says.

More than 115 volunteers of all ages and backgrounds took part in the first phase of the project. Cornerstones hosts youth training seminars and public workshops on traditional adobe skills, an approach that "gets the community invested in saving these structures by getting people out, getting a little mud on their hands," Moe says.

The $700,000 restoration of the chapel's exterior is set to be completed by 2012, but Cornerstones' executive director, Robin Jones, says that with an earthen building like San Miguel, the work is never really done. "A community has to care for it," Jones says. "Otherwise, we'll go in and we'll help—and then three years later, it will be in just as bad a shape."

Dave Blackman, chair of St. Michael's Preserve San Miguel Committee, will ensure that doesn't happen: "The link we have to history is fundamental to all of us. We forget our history and we have to learn those lessons all over again."

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