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Franciscan Friars and the Golden Age of Missions

By Robert J. Torrez

Spanish missions were churches established by Franciscan Friars in Indian villages called pueblos, the Spanish word for town. The purpose of these missions was to have a place in each pueblo where the Indians could be taught about Christianity. When New Mexico was settled by Don Juan de Oñate in 1598, the first paragraph of the contract he made with the Spanish government made this goal very clear. "Your main purpose," the contract read, "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."

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Spanish established missions almost everywhere they settled. Missions for the various Indian tribes were built in Texas, Arizona and California, but the earliest were in New Mexico. When the Spanish arrived at the northern New Mexico Tewa settlement of Ohkay with Juan de Oñate in 1598, one of the first things they did after arriving was to build a church. Over the next several decades, the seven Franciscan friars who came with Oñate were augmented by others who began to build churches in the pueblos scattered throughout New Mexico. So many churches were built during the 1600s that this period is sometimes referred to as "The Golden Age of the Missions."

Mission churches were built of locally available materials. These ranged from the magnificent adobe buildings at Pecos and Acoma to the equally impressive stone construction of the churches at Jemez and the southern New Mexico pueblos of Quari, Abo and Gran Quivira. The typical mission church included an artio, a walled yard in front of the church which sometimes also served as a cemetery. As you walked through the yard, you faced a massive front wall which was often flanked by one or two towers at the corners. These towers were usually topped by a wooden cross and a bell which was used to call the faithful to worship. A large wooden door at the center of this front wall led to a large, windowless interior space which was usually devoid of benches or seats. The faithful stood or knelt on the hard-packed earthen floor. The interior walls were frequently adorned with colorful murals and locally carved santos, bultos, or painted buffalo hides. Some churches managed to acquire some very ornate and beautiful altars and statuary that were brought from Mexico along the Camino Real at great expense.

Tragically, most of these magnificent buildings were destroyed in the great Pueblo revolt of 1680. However, the ruins of several of these seventeenth century missions are preserved as part of a number of State and National Monuments or Parks throughout the state. A few that did survive or were rebuilt after the Revolt are some of the most magnificent examples of Spanish colonial architecture in North America.

San Estevan Rey in the Pueblo of Acoma is located in one of the oldest continuously settled Indian communities in North America. This mission church, named after St. Stephen the King, was described in 1760 as "The most beautiful of the whole Kingdom." Originally built by 1629, it is the only mission church in New Mexico which survived the Pueblo Revolt intact and may be the most original of any 17th century structure in the United States.

Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe in the Pueblo of Zuni: The mission church of Our Lady of Guadalupe was the most distant from the Spanish capitol in Santa Fe. Although most of the village of Zuni is built of stones set in a mud mortar, the church is built of adobe despite the chronic lack of water which characterizes this part of the desert southwest. The original church was begun about 1627 but was destroyed during the Pueblo Revolt. It has been rebuilt several times since the early 1700s.

San Agustin in the Pueblo of Isleta may be the earliest of the extant mission churches in New Mexico. Although it was destroyed during the Pueblo Revolt, subsequent restorations seem to have incorporated parts of the original foundation and walls which were constructed as early as 1613.

San Jose de Gracia in Trampas is not technically a mission church because it was built in 1760 for use by the Spanish settlers and not the Pueblo Indians. The church remains in use by the descendants of the hardy settlers who founded this mountain community more than two hundred years ago.

Santa Cruz de La Cañada is one of the oldest churches built for use by the Spanish settlers. This adobe structure was originally licensed in 1732 and completed in the 1740s. It contains some of the most magnificent examples of locally produced Spanish colonial religious art in the southwest.