La Castrense on the Plaza

By Gregg Gonzales

From 1760 to 1859, La Castrense Church (the Military Chapel), stood on the south side of the Santa Fe Plaza across from the Palace of the Governors. The church’s official name was Nuesta Señora de la Luz (Our Lady of the Light), however, most of the locals preferred to call it “La Castrense.”

New Mexico’s Spanish Gov. Francisco Antonio Marin del Valle (1754-1760) paid 8,000 pesos to have the church built and, at its completion, locals and visitors marveled at its appearance and at the artistry of the church’s altar screen. The altar screen, which is made of limestone, depicts Jesus, Mary and various saints. Carved by santero and cartographer Don Bernardo Miera y Pachéco, the altar screen measures 18-by-14-feet and is recognized as a masterpiece from the Spanish Colonial era. The altar screen’s inscription credits Gov. Valle and his wife for donating the money to build the church (the altar screen was later moved to Cristo Rey Church in Santa Fe).

By the early 1830s, La Castrense had fallen into disrepair and was no longer in use. With the invasion of the United States in 1846, the American military took possession of the church and used it for the storage of military supplies until early 1851. In August of 1851, Judge Grafton Baker asked the military for permission to use La Castrense as a courtroom. Many locals were unhappy that their former church was about to be converted from a sacred to a secular place where criminals would be tried. Bishop Lamy (later archbishop in 1875), who had arrived in Santa Fe to assume his new assignment only two weeks prior, asked Judge Baker for the return of La Castrense. Judge Baker denied the new bishop’s request and went so far as to remark to his drinking buddies that he would rather hang Bishop Lamy and his assistant than return the church. It wasn’t long before Judge Baker’s remarks spread through the Plaza. Judge Baker’s boast of hanging the newly arrived priest was not taken well by the citizens of Santa Fe.

Donaciano Vigil, formerly a secretary and governor of the Territory of New Mexico, 1847–1848, was selected to serve on jury duty. Vigil told Judge Baker, in front of the other jury members, that he wanted no part in serving and asked to be excused. He felt that conducting civil matters in a church would be a desecration of a holy place. Judge Baker called an hour and a half recess, and told the jury that their swearing in would be continued after the recess. The jurors and others gathered on the Plaza, and soon a petition was circulated. More than 1,000 signatures were gathered demanding the return of La Castrense, to the Catholic faith. Judge Baker, fearing for his life, fled and sought protection from the angry crowd with the American military and officials of the Catholic Church.

In the end, the judge held court elsewhere and the keys to La Castrense were returned to the newly appointed bishop. Locals raised more than $1,000 for repairs on the church and in the following year, 1852, Mass was once again held there. Services continued until 1859. Finally, in 1859, Bishop Lamy sold La Castrense to don Simón Delgado, who converted the old church into his residence and later into a store. Bishop Lamy received $2,000 and a parcel of land in the sale. On the parcel of land, the bishop built St. Michael’s College (later, St. Michael’s High School), Loretto Academy, and Loretto Chapel. Today the Inn of Loretto, Loretto Chapel, the PERA (Public Employees Retirement Association) and the Lamy building are on this site. When you visit the Plaza, look for a plaque at the old J.C. Penney site that commemorates La Castrense.