San Miguel Mission
San Miguel Chapel is the oldest Catholic Church in America. Built about the same time the City of Santa Fe was founded, circa 1610.
Before European colonization of the Americas, the area Santa Fe occupied between 900 CE and the 1500s was known to the Tewa peoples as Oghá P'o'oge ('white shell water place') and by the Navajo people as Yootó ('bead' + 'water place'). In 1610, Juan de Oñate established the area as Santa Fe de Nuevo México, a province of New Spain. Formal Spanish settlements were developed leading the colonial governor Pedro de Peralta to rename the area La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asís ('the Royal Town of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi'). The Spanish phrase Santa Fe is translated as 'holy faith' in English. Although more commonly known as Santa Fe, the city's full, legal name remains to this day as La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asís. The full name of the city is in both the seal and
the flag of the city, although, as pointed out by Associated Press in 2020, Assisi in Spanish is misspelled, reading Aśis instead of Asís.
The standard Spanish pronunciation of the city's name is SAHN-tah-FEH, as contextualized within the city's full Spanish name La Villa Real de la Santa Fé de San Francisco de Asís. However, due to the large amounts of tourism and immigration into Santa Fe, an English pronunciation of SAN-tuh-FAY is also commonly used.
San Miguel still sits upon its original foundation over a pueblo Indian dwelling. It is located at the crossroads of the Old Santa Fe Trail, El Camino Real, and the Old Spanish Trail. The chapel is dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel and has served as a place of worship for indigenous Mexicans, Franciscan Missionaries, Spanish Conquistadores, and native Pueblo Indians. Original construction was thought to be rectangular in shape and composed of a dirt floor and mud roof.
The Chapel was most likely constructed by the indigenous people from the province of Tlaxcala (Tas-cal’-a) Mexico who came to New Mexico as Spanish allies and settlers. They built the chapel for themselves and the Spanish soldiers under the direction of the Franciscans. The chapel is located in the Barrio de Analco district, which means the “other side of the river.” The district is 2-1/2 blocks north of the Plaza.
San Miguel was targeted by the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The roof was burned and part of the walls were damaged. Everyone hiding in the chapel perished; It was a concerted attack that drove the Spanish as far south as El Paso for a twelve-year exile. In 1692-1693 Governor General Don Diego De Vargas returned to Santa Fe and resettled the area for the Spanish. The second rebuilding of San Miguel was completed in 1710.
In 1798 the mayor of Santa Fe helped fund major repairs and the construction of the beautiful altar screen. It is believed the Laguna Santero (name unknown) carved the Retablo which is indicative of Spanish Colonial architecture for the period.
In 1848 a three-tiered bell tower was added to the chapel and in 1856, the 780 lb San Jose bell was added to the tower. There is more information below on the Bell.
In 1859 Archbishop Lamy commissioned the La Sallian Christian Brothers to start a school for boys. A 3-story building was constructed close to San Miguel which housed the dormitory students from 1859 to 1968. The third floor no longer exists due to a fire, but the Lamy Building was granted status on the National Register Historic District in 1975. St. Michael’s High School used the chapel during this time period and is the proud owner and caretaker of this historic treasure.
In 1872 a horrific windstorm destroyed the 2 top tiers of the tower and knocked the San Jose Bell to the ground leaving it in several broken pieces. When it was recast, it was brought into the nave of the church where it has remained.
In 1887-1889 the Chapel was in need of serious repair. The villagers built stone buttresses to shore up the adobe walls, and a tar and gravel roof replaced the old mud roof. Two years later buttresses were added to the north wall. The Christian Brothers added a wooden floor three feet above the earthen floor, a communion rail, and a large door at the western entrance.
In 1955 Ms Elizabeth Boyd (a Spanish Colonial art curator) initiated a restoration of the beautiful Retablo and removed white paint that was used to cover soot and dirt on the Retablo. The original dirt floor and sanctuary steps beyond the communion rail can now be seen through the plexiglass floor windows. Many human remains and pieces of pottery were discovered buried below the church floor.
In 2008 St. Michael’s High School entered into a collaborative relationship with Cornerstones Community Partnerships for the preservation of San Miguel Chapel. Cornerstones is noted for its preservation, restoration and maintenance of old adobe buildings throughout northern New Mexico. In 2010 The Portland cement stucco was removed, the adobe was repaired and adobe plaster finish coat was applied. In the spring of 2020, another external chapel wall was restored and preserved with adobe plastering and lime whitewash. See the video on this process on the Preservation page of this site.
The origins of the San Jose Bell are unknown. Legend and oral tradition state the bell was cast in Spain to commemorate a Christian victory over the Moors. The bell made its way across the ocean and up through Mexico where Senora Ortiz purchased the bell in Vera Cruz and brought it to Santa Fe. Another legend says the bell was cast in sand in New Mexico.