It is a cold, gusty Sunday, dirt spiraling in the fields and tumbleweeds flying across the roads toward the New Mexico border.
As ever, Colorado’s oldest church is a refuge.
In the hours before Mass, it is warm and quiet inside Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish. Two old men sit in a corner, whispering in Spanish and gently strumming acoustic guitars.
“Well, somebody’s gotta open the doors,” Alex López says. But that doesn’t entirely explain why he and his uncle have been first to Mass for as long as they can remember.
Most everybody in the 400-member congregation is related in some way, and they all feel some familial responsibility for the church, whether sitting in the same pew of previous generations every Sunday, preparing meals for celebrations, reading at the lectern, upholding the honor of caretaking mayordomos or singing in the choir.
They all come before the mother of Christ, depicted on the front wall. “The Lady, she’s the mother of all of us, and everybody loves their mother,” says the Rev. Sergio Robles. “Just to talk to her, to talk about their problems, they feel better because she’s listening to them.”
Even at 84, his knees weak and voice faint, Salomon López stands to sing and play the guitar beside Alex. “The side of my mother, they were all musicians,” he says. “My uncles, mother, my sisters and brothers, they were all musicians.”
And in these far reaches of the San Luis Valley, almost as barren still as the pioneering Spaniards found it, honoring one’s heritage is as natural as the wind that blows.
Escaped from the elements, five more singers join the corner. A visiting priest, a white man who has come before poor congregants to fundraise for Food for the Poor, tells the choir he will be preaching in English. “But please do what you do,” he says. “You do what you do, and it will work.”
It always has. Margie Jirón clutches a tattered songbook, filled with hymns written by members throughout the church’s history, dating to the 1850s. “We’ve had them forever, and we always will,” Jirón says with defiance.
Jirón is a name on a label beneath one stained-glass window, commemorating the family that provided it. Mondragon is another name.
“My great grandpa donated that window,” says David Mondragon, a former mayordomo at the church like the men of the family before him.
He remembers the stories those men told of past parishioners, the hardships they took on long before these windows were installed in the church’s last rebuild of 1948. And, of course, he knows the story about the mule.
It might sound like legend to outsiders, but people here know it as fact. Journeying to the territory, one from the pack train refused to budge, one that was toting a statue of the blessed virgin. The men took it as a sign: They were to stop and settle in the place they would call Guadalupe.
This was on the banks of the Conejos River. After the flood of 1857, settlers looked south of the river, packing their livestock and wagons again to build a new chapel.
The morning was sunny, then clouds and cold rain took over, according to an account by a clergyman. “We must suffer a little bit,” it reads, “and I take this as a sign that the old boy is angry with us on account of the success which is awaiting us on our work at Conejos.”
Another worship place was constructed, another mud adobe, “the best the early settlers could afford,” reads another account.
But by 1878, the church decided on grander plans: two towers flanking the entrance, similar to those standing today. The originals, though, and the rest of the church were claimed by a fire on Ash Wednesday 1926, forcing another rebuild.
In 1934, during an anniversary celebration, the bishop of Denver recognized the Lady of Guadalupe’s “kind protection and influence” for the parish’s miraculous continuity. That year, a Roman-style altar was meticulously made and delivered by Benjamin Chavez.
“My dad built that altar,” Tina Armijo says in the sanctuary, her eyes following the elegant details. “Those gold spots there? I painted them.”
And above the Lady of Guadalupe is what appears to be a gray cloud — a blemish left by the fire that sparked here two years ago, on the eve of Ash Wednesday.
People rushed to the parking lot to cry and pray, fearing that history was repeating itself.
But the next day gave way to relief. The altar, windows and so much more built by so much sacrifice were still intact.
Inside, the dark smoke cleared to reveal the Lady still there on the wall.
“When you come right down to it,” Armijo says, “this church is a blessing.”
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