National Park Service
The Missions of New Mexico Since 1776

San Felipe

"Like something tucked in a corner," the Keres pueblo of San Felipe since about 1700 has occupied a flat wedge-shaped piece of ground confined on the east by the Rio Grande and on the west by dark and vast lava-strewn Santa Ana Mesa. Previously the people of San Felipe, who sided with reconqueror Diego de Vargas, had built a defensive pueblo on the very brow of the mesa. There they would be secure from their neighbors who chose to fight on. Once the Spaniards had quelled the revolt of 1696, it was safe to come down. Thus a new church and pueblo, reported Fray Juan Álvarez in January 1706, "are being built, the latter having been moved down from a high mesa." [1]

The church on the valley floor 35 miles southwest of Santa Fe was judged inadequate by Fray Andrés Zevallos, minister at the pueblo from 1732 to 1741. So he rebuilt in 1736. Preoccupied with the church, Zevallos paid little heed to the convento. When the veteran Fray Pedro Montaño moved in late in the summer of 1743, he could hardly believe it.

Once I had received this convento and mission of Lord St. Philip the Apostle, I, Fray Pedro Montaño, found its storerooms as well as the stable and corral utterly full of holes and almost gone; likewise a mirador that overlooks the entrance, fallen and gone; likewise another room or large cell that was full of manure, ruined, and gone; another portico of the same entrance unroofed, full of dirt, and gone. All this I repaired and put in order, raising up the walls anew, cleaning out and leveling everything that was uneven and full of sand for the most part, all at a cost of great diligence, care, and labor in order to incline the Indians. I stayed with them in person like a shadow, not even giving them the time to go and eat, so that they might not get away and quit their due labor.

In addition to this I provided two new doors, one where the hay or feed for the horses is kept and the other on an inner cell that I divided and formed from the large cell that used to serve as the church. Likewise I provided two more doors, one on the large cell and the other where the storeroom was. That makes four doors. I am leaving likewise two framed windows in place, as well as four wooden bolts. All of which, including the kitchen which I also repaired, putting selenite panes in all the windows, was accomplished and done in the space of just over three months that obedience placed me in this above-mentioned convento. [2]

San Felipe mission and church
140. Mission and pueblo of San Felipe in 1846. The two-tiered belfries of the church figure prominently in this stylized sketch.

From the sound of it, the San Felipe church in 1776 looked much as it does today. Less than a hundred yards south of the pueblo's main plaza and facing east on the river, it still features two buttress-bell towers flanking the doorway with a roofed balcony between them. Neither the continuous-nave plan nor the dimensions have changed much since then. Even the carved wooden statue of St. Philip the Apostle made by Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco, and sold to the pueblo at too high a price in the estimation of Domínguez, is still here, albeit much repainted. "And although it is not at all prepossessing," the Franciscan allowed, "it serves the purpose." [3]

A major rebuilding of the 1736 structure, which did not greatly affect its appearance, occurred shortly after 1801, the year Fray José Pedro Rubí de Celis took over. "The church," Father Pereyro noted in 1808, "was rebuilt with its two new towers." That meant, at the least, a new roof and probably the two-tiered belfries sketched by Lieutenant Abert in 1846 and by Lieutenant Bourke in 1881. [4]

Inside, Rubí had a new main altar fashioned, presumably with a wooden screen to fit the back wall of the sanctuary. This reredos, assuming that it is, under layer after layer of paint, the same one as today, featured pillars carved to look twisted. The latest thing in New Mexico church ornamentation at the turn of the nineteenth century, altar screens with twisted pillars must have appeared in numerous places. A few survive. At San Miguel in Santa Fe and at Zia, where they are dated 1798, and at Laguna and Ácoma, these screens have been attributed to a single artist, the now anonymous "Laguna santero." At San Felipe, however, and at neighboring Santa Ana, the twists are flatter, the capitals and finials cruder, plainly the work of less skilled hands. [5]

San Felipe
141. John K. Hillers climbed the slope behind San Felipe to get this view, looking northeast, in 1880. The mission convento was still intact. By 1899 the top tier of the belfries had worn down to nubs.

Lieutenant Pike, after crossing and noting carefully the ingenious eight-span wooden bridge over the river at San Felipe, met Father Rubí and found him a good host. A native of Puebla de los Ángeles in Mexico, Rubí was forty-two years old in 1807.

On our arrival at the house of the father, we were received in a very polite and friendly manner, and before my departure, we seemed to have been friends for years past.

During our dinner, at which we had a variety of wines, and were entertained with music, composed of bass drums, French horns, violins and cymbals; we likewise entered into a long and candid conversation as the creoles [Spaniards, like Rubí, born in America and discriminated against by peninsular Spaniards], wherein he neither spared the government nor its administrators. As to government and religion, Father Rubí displayed a liberality of opinion and a fund of knowledge, which astonished me. . . . When we parted, we promised to write to each other, which I performed from Chihuahua. [6]

Although much of the convento that Father Montaño worked so hard to repair, where Father Rubí entertained Lieutenant Pike, has long since crumbled to dust, the people of San Felipe have kept their church in good repair. "It is cared for most faithfully," wrote Prince in 1915, "being whitened every year until it glistens in the bright sunlight." Actually only the facade between the towers was whitened, in the old days with gypsum wash and now with stucco. Here from time to time as at Santo Domingo and Cochití, artists of the pueblo have availed themselves of the exterior wall sheltered by roof and balcony. At present two spirited pinto horses, light colored with black manes and tails, face each other at balcony level. All the wood of the facade, from massive cross timber and corbels to balustrade and doors, has been freshly painted in four colors—a light brownish gold, an orange rust, black, and white.

Many a tourist, alerted by the conductor, has snapped a photo of San Felipe across the river from a moving train. Others have got off, hired a conveyance, and attended the pueblo's famed Christmas Eve Mass.

In 1912, on the afternoon of December 24, young Father Jerome Hesse, a Franciscan at Peña Blanca, set out for San Felipe astride his horse. It was long after dark when "the dull sound of the old cracked church bell" announced his arrival. He ate supper, administered Extreme Unction to a desperately ill woman with the aid of an interpreter, and warmed himself a few minutes by the fireplace in the sacristy. Then he retired to a small room in back for a little sleep.

At two o'clock [A.M.] there came a rap at the door and then the brazen-tongued bell, hoarse and broken, sought to arouse the sleepers. Things began to move lively in the village. The fiscal beating a drum accompanied by his aides, led the way through the village to call the Indians to Mass. It is their custom to have the pregoneros go from house to house to gather the congregation. The ringing of the church-bell is of no consequence.

I entered the church where I found the altar tastefully decorated. Before the altar the Indians had erected a hut of cedar twigs, covered with a roof of straw. Tufts of cotton batten were interspersed among the branches, which gave it a wintry appearance, and, as it was bitterly cold, it seemed all the more real. One by one the Indians dropped in. Festina lente "make haste slowly" applies especially to them. In about an hour, a goodly number had arrived. Wrapped in their blankets, they squatted on the floor. Of course, it could not be expected, that all would be present. The dancers must "prepare" themselves in order to dance before the crib immediately after Mass; but to do both, attend Mass and then dance—impossible!

A dance? in Church? before the crib? What a scandal, a desecration, a sacrilege! someone might say. And the benches? Are they removed? Well there are no benches for, as I just mentioned, the Indians squat on the floor, which is not even a wood floor, but just Mother Earth. The interior of an Indian church is very bare, at least at San Felipe and Santo Domingo. Four adobe walls, whitewashed within, an adobe roof, generally leaking in places, with an adobe floor; truly not unlike the stable of Bethlehem! A few simple boards nailed together to form the altar, a statue of St. Philip, a few mural paintings to serve as ornaments, and you have a complete Indian church. [7]

Except for the tarpaper on the packed earth floor, the big gas heaters overhead, and the fluorescent light in the sanctuary, it is not so different today.

Copyright © 1980 by the University of New Mexico Press. All rights reserved. Material from this edition published for the Cultural Properties Review Committee by the University of New Mexico Press may not be reproduced in any manner without the written consent of the author and the University of New Mexico Press.

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