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Places of Faith

The heartland of Northern New Mexico is the domain of many notable churches and shrines that embody the history of the region and the deep and abiding spiritual callings of its people. Though dating from significantly different historical periods, two Catholic churches in particular, located
within five miles of each other in the greater Española Valley — the Iglesia de Santa Cruz de la Cañada in Santa Cruz, and the Church of St. John the Baptist at Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo — are among the region’s most important religious, cultural and historical landmarks.

These two living structures are part of a local constellation of venerable houses of worship that includes the Santuario de Chimayó (site of the annual mass pilgrimage at Easter), the Iglesia de San Antonio in Cordova and the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Rosario in Las Truchas. All are located in the Santa Cruz watershed to the east of the Iglesia de Santa Cruz. In the opposite direction along the Chama River, just beyond Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, are found the Santo Tomás Church in Abiquiú and the Christ in the Desert Monastery with its modernistic chapel, visitor’s center, shop and overnight accommodations. Located close by on Chama tributaries are the old historic churches of Ojo Caliente and El Rito.

Many of these can be visited in a single morning or afternoon. But what may begin as just a visit could, with each stop, turn into an extended, insightful journey through time and space, multiple cultures and glowing but contrasting expressions of the 2,000-year-old faith that was transplanted to New Mexico from distant Spain, Mexico, the eastern United States and even France across a span of four centuries.

Iglesia de Santa Cruz de Cañada

The Iglesia de Santa Cruz de la Cañada, a much beloved parish church and active house of worship to thousands of faithful, is Northern New Mexico’s largest surviving adobe church from the Spanish colonial period. It is also one of the most artistically rich and architecturally well-preserved churches in all of New Mexico. The tall, monumental church, which contains two side chapels in addition to an enormous nave and a spacious central altar, was built in 1734. In 1733 a church dating to before the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 had been deemed structurally unfit, and permission to build a new church was sought from the viceregal government in Mexico City.

Although the area around Santa Cruz was sparsely populated by Mexicanos-Españoles prior to the Pueblo Revolt, the community in its present location did not coalesce until after the reconquest of 1692. In return for service in his army of reconquest, Don Diego de Vargas awarded much of the fertile land along the nearby Río de Santa Cruz to his soldiers and their families. Many of these lands had to be reclaimed from the San Lazaro and San Cristobal people who had migrated to Santa Cruz from the Galisteo Basin after the retreat of the Spanish during the revolt. Present-day Santa Cruz remains home to the descendants of many of the families awarded land — the Atencio, Borrego, Velarde, Alarid and Lucero clans, among many others. Surely, these original families, as well as others, were part of the legion of people required to assemble so enormous a structure during the 15 years that it took to build.

Santa Cruz’s strategic and considerable distance upstream from Santo Domingo Pueblo, the ecclesiastic hub of the Río Abajo — the lower Rio Grande region — ensured that it would develop into the dominant religious center for the Río Arriba — the upper Río Grande region — during colonial times. From Santa Cruz, for more than a century, many Franciscan priests made their way on foot or by burro to the numerous encircling Tewa-speaking Pueblo communities. There they spread the gospel of Christ and administered the sacraments to the recently converted Indian populations. From Santa Cruz too, the Cofradía de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno, also known as the Hermanos Penitentes, fanned out across the mountain villages of Northern New Mexico and southern Colorado to found their own moradas (lay religious houses), where the Catholic faith was kept alive for generations in the absence of resident priests.

The importance of Santa Cruz as the second of three royal villas (towns) decreed by the provincial Spanish government in Santa Fe during the colonial period, as well as its role as a powerful ecclesiastical center for the Río Arriba, guaranteed that few efforts were spared to make its church a most imposing and magnificent one for its time.

In many places, the walls of this monumental structure are more than six feet thick. Gigantic adobe buttresses fortify and hold in place its soaring walls and belfries, now capped with a shiny hipped tin roof — itself a tour de force. Its ceiling is nothing less than a forest of trees. One can only surmise how the men of the village succeeded in harvesting and moving these immense, heavy timbers from the high sierras located more than 20 miles away with nothing more than the simplest of tools and methods of transport. But then, one must remember that their Catholic faith lay at the center of their lives and impelled them to undertake enormous feats and sacrifices in its service.

The interior of the church is spellbinding in its vastness, simplicity and palpable sense of sanctity. No doubt, the way in which this building manipulates the light, which filters in through opaque stained-glass windows, adds to the effect; so does the profusion of artistic treasures from the past and present. The commanding front altar, in addition to harboring a crucifix by José Rafael Aragón (a prolific New Mexican santero, or maker of religious imagery, of the early 19th century), features six large oil paintings devoted to the lives of saints and the Holy Family. The canvases were painted by Mexican painters of the period and brought overland to Santa Cruz in ox-drawn carts along the Camino Real, or Royal Road. This tortuous and precarious road, fraught with perils of every kind, connected Mexico City to Taos, 1,500 miles apart.

A massive old reredo (an altar screen of carved stone or, more commonly, painted wood panels, as found here), also created by José Rafael Aragón, occupies a portion of the north wall of the nave. St. Joseph, St. Rita, St. Rosalia, St. Lawrence and the Virgin of Guadalupe are all featured prominently in it. On the south wall, ensconced in an alcove, lies the Santo Entierro, or Holy Sepulcher, with a reclining Cristo by Fray Andrés Garcia rendered in painted wood. Next to it stands a small exquisite bulto (painted wooden statue) of a sorrowful Virgin Mary, and on the opposite side, one of a standing robed and bound Christ. Elsewhere in the church are examples of the work of nearly all the master santeros from the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as of local contemporary masters.

For nearly a century, this parish church and its parishioners have been served predominantly by clergy originating in Catalonia in northeastern Spain. They belong to the order the Sons of the Holy Family.

Church of St. John the Baptist

Each year without fail, on June 24, the pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh, located just a few miles north of Española, celebrates the feast of St. John the Baptist with a Christian mass and spectacular
Native dances. Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, whose name means “Place of the Strong People,” has enjoyed the same location, not far from the Río Grande, since at least 1200 C.E., when the Tewa ancestors of this community, now numbering approximately 6,000 people, are thought to have migrated southward from Colorado along the Chama River to this choice spot. On June 24, the neat redbrick church, with a single central tower of decidedly French origin, provides a dramatic, if somewhat incongruous European backdrop to what otherwise would be a totally Native scene.

When one considers the enormously challenging task of diplomatically integrating into one’s Indian community powerful foreign influences such as Catholicism, while retaining one’s own culture and beliefs, the descriptive “Place of the Strong People” rings with even greater significance. For it was at Yunque, a pueblo complex on the other side of the river from Ohkay Owingeh, that in 1598 the Spanish, under Juan de Oñate, chose to found the first capital of New Mexico. The proselytizing and conversion of the Tewa people began in the wake of this colonization. The Parish of St. John the Baptist, the oldest in the nation, dates from this founding period of history.
Until the early 1900s, on the same spot as the current church, there stood an imposing ancient adobe church of beautiful proportions and design, built hundreds of years before by Pueblo people under the direction of the practical- minded Franciscan priests who served the region. It held a great many religious paintings done on buffalo hides, illustrating biblical scenes intended to drive home many of the key points of the new faith.

Not long after the U.S. occupation of New Mexico in 1846, the Mexican clergy serving New Mexico’s faithful was replaced by a contingent of French-born clergy, who were summoned to serve in New Mexico by Archbishop Jean Baptíste Lamy, a Frenchman who oversaw the Archdiocese of Santa Fe beginning in 1850.

Were the original church still standing, it would no doubt be considered an outstanding and invaluable example of early New Mexican earthen ecclesiastical architecture. Lamentably, the French clergy, accustomed to the refined aesthetics of European churches, viewed the original humble adobe church in less than favorable light. As a result, it was razed. Replacing it was a modest brick-and-masonry building with sure and elegant lines such as one might find east of the Mississippi. But because examples of French-derived architecture are relatively few in this part of the country, the church is special and deeply beloved to the community.

As you approach the front entrance of the church, you are greeted by a graceful, larger- than-life statue of the Virgin Mary, set beautifully in an enclosed garden courtyard. Above the doorway to the church one encounters a depiction of St. John the Baptist baptizing Christ in the River Jordan. This work of art was designed by one of the parish’s priests not long ago and was carved in wood by one of the parishioners.

On the inside, the large doors hold many fine examples of small, carved wooden religious icons created by local, mainly Nuevo Mexicano artists. Upon entering this hallowed space, one is overcome by a sensation of complete otherworldliness. The pure white walls, pierced by stained-glass windows and bordered by delicate lace-like wooden ornamentation, seem almost weightless and insubstantial. The altar is dazzlingly beautiful. Unlike the Iglesia de Santa Cruz, where all items have been wrought by hand, the statuary in this bastion of French ecclesiastical culture is made of flawless plaster of Paris casts painted in realistic colors. They include large, magnificently attired and blissfully ecstatic angels, saints and Madonnas of a kind totally unlike those of Santa Cruz.

The real treasure of this church, however, is found in the smallish north chapel, which harbors a modern altar screen depicting several dramatic scenes from the life of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be declared a saint. A Mohawk from upper New York State, she was a product of French Catholicism and her own unbreakable will and courage in the face of great odds. Regardless of her distant origins, what is most significant to the people of this community is that she was Native American and that she capably, even brilliantly, succeeded in spanning the two cultural and spiritual worlds that the people of Ohkay Owingeh have also been asked to bridge.

Indeed, the altar screen serves as a kind of touchstone that seems to communicate to the faithful and visitors alike the fact that somehow opposite worlds can be reconciled, particularly
if one keeps one’s eye on what is universal and transcendent, which, after all, is the point of religious faith.

Visiting Regional Churches

St. John the Baptist Church at Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo holds masses on Sundays at 8 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 5 p.m.; on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 7 a.m.; on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6 p.m.; and on Saturdays at 5:30 p.m. Oftentimes, its large and talented Tewa Women’s Choir can be heard singing in their native Tewa.

The Holy Cross Church at Santa Cruz hosts masses on Sundays at 7 a.m., 8:30 a.m. (in Spanish), 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.; and on Saturdays at 5:30 p.m.

For people wishing to extend their visits to regional churches, Taos County is home to San Gerónimo de Taos in Taos Pueblo (built circa 1850), San Francisco de Asis Church in Ranchos de Taos (with its graceful exterior, it’s perhaps the nation’s most photographed church), San Lorenzo Church at Picurís Pueblo and San José de Gracia Church in Las Trampas (built circa 1760). In the vicinity of Santa Fe are the Catholic churches of San Ildefonso, Nambé, Pojoaque and Tesuque pueblos, each a gem in its own right. In addition, there is the commanding Nambé village church and, in Santa Fe itself, Cristo Rey Church (designed by noted architect John Gaw Meem, with an impressive stone reredo), San Miguel Mission (often referred to as the oldest church in the nation due to its original foundations), St. Francis Cathedral, San Isidro Village Church of Agua Fria Village and the relatively new Santa María de la Paz. The adobe church at the town of Galisteo, southeast of Santa Fe, is yet another worthy example of Northern New Mexico’s architectural and religious heritage.

Because the churches are very much centers of devotion for local residents rather than tourist attractions per se, visitors are asked to be respectful in manner and dress. Photography during services is generally prohibited. Donations for entry are always appreciated.




Appreciation of Northern New Mexico’s landscape and agricultural traditions comes with a spiritual acknowledgement of place, of land that has been prayed to since time immemorial. Here there are people who talk to plants, who fluently nurture the engineering of their ancestral acequias and waterways and act as organic caretakers of fields of sustainable knowledge while reclaiming traditional foods and medicines. It is a land where you must follow the waters and traverse dusty back roads to find the lush diversity that has nurtured countless generations of indigenous and land-based peoples, coexisting within this beautifully fragile high desert. The open doors of respectful relationship and reciprocity with Mother Earth and each other are basic to gaining an understanding of the sacred, seasonal time that exists in the northern Río Grande region.

In this manner, small-scale farming in north-central New Mexico is undergoing a renaissance, as Hispanics, Indian tribes and Anglo cultivators are drawn to reviving and strengthening the region’s deep farming roots.

Tesuque Pueblo Farm

At Tesuque Pueblo, located just north of Santa Fe, the tribe has been working on a restorative agricultural initiative for more than 10 years. Helping them do this is Emigdio Ballon, director of Tesuque Pueblo’s agricultural program. Ballon is a renowned plant geneticist of Bolivian Quechua ancestry and an expert farmer. Known to the Pueblo people he works with as Brother,
Ballon is always willing to share knowledge and give tours.

The farm spans more than 70 acres and houses solar-powered greenhouses; fruit orchards of apple, peach and apricot trees interplanted with medicinal herbs; community fields; and a solar-powered native/heirloom seed bank and processing house made of recycled and natural materials. Crops include traditional corn, beans and squash; strawberries; and asparagus. Beehives provide honey and beeswax.

The Tesuque Pueblo projects are an example of the importance of taking into account what Ballon describes as the integrated “social, infrastructural, economical and ecological impacts” that foster sustainability. He speaks about traditional values mixed with science. There is “one god, one language — the Earth,” he says. “Water is the tears of the Creator, and we kiss the ground because we get everything from Mother Nature and we need to show her love.”

Volunteers on the farm help community members with their plots, balance plant and seed production and provide free food for the pueblo’s senior centers and schools. Ballon speaks of generations to come and notes, “Whatever we’re doing here is going to be the future for our children; this food we’re growing is going to be the most important thing. The future is sustainable, if nothing gets wasted, where we follow traditional ways of using water.” To learn
more from Ballon and to visit Tesuque Pueblo Farm, call (505) 699-6408.

Santa Cruz Farm

Along the Río Grande — called Poh Songeh by the Tewa Pueblo people — in the Española Valley are networks of ditches, each connected to their acequia madres (mother ditches), diverting the Río’s life-giving waters into a place rich in agricultural traditions. Here the pueblos of Santa Clara and Ohkay Owingeh have evolved to coexist with the multicultural communities that today share the river’s resources. If you follow these arteries of water, they will take you into pockets of ancient agriculture. Liquid networks create pathways to places you would otherwise miss.

One example is Don Bustos’ farm in Santa Cruz. Located at 830 El Llano Road, it is open for visitors daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. You can purchase produce directly from the farm — including chile tomatoes, cucumbers, salad greens, spinach and asparagus — and if you get there late in the summer, you can help harvest fresh raspberries and blackberries. Bustos’ farm is a lush, buzzing strip that extends from the roadsides beneath desert hills toward the nearby Santa Cruz River. A singing acequia rushes through the upper portion, watering grandmother cottonwoods watching over the farm.

The farm also serves as a training ground for eight aspiring farmers every year, with hands-on, paid positions. The trainees work here and at other community demonstration sites, becoming ‘seed scholars’. In the winter they learn about farm business planning. A lasting impact comes from helping the local community build its capacity for farmers. "More people who are struggling can be given support; you need family and friends to support you," notes Bustos. The support network created among participants weaves a social fabric, strengthening the region's heritage and resiliency. "'This has always been happening; (small-scale organic farming) has never gone away. To set up a tour, contact Bustos at (505) 514-1662.

Other Española Farming Operations

Also located in the Espanola Valley is Northern New Mexico University's !Sostenga! Center for Sustainable Food, Agriculture and Environment. Found at 1027 Railroad Avenue, iSostenga! is a farm and commercial kitchen, where students are learning and developing a local, student-based food collaborative.

The center hosts an annual Garlic Harvest Festival in late June or early July. Here you can compete on a team for the biggest ajo harvest, taste creative garlic-based dishes and products, and otherwise participate in this fun food celebration. Among the crops one can purchase here during harvest Wednesdays are blue corn, mixed salad greens. chard, kale, garlic and garlic powder. Call manager Charles Tilachy at (505) 927-9449 for details or see the group's Facebook

Just another field down from ¡Sostenga! is the Española Fanners Market, which is celebrating its 20th season this year. In peak summer season, the market is open every Monday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Fridays from 2 to 7 p.m.

Tiwa Farms of Taos

Continuing upstream on the Poh Songeh (Río Grande), you find the vast mountains and sprawling landscapes of Taos and Taos Pueblo. Here, Taos Pueblo musician Robert Mirabal is helping reclaim the growing of traditional crops through his Tiwa Farms program. Tiwa Farms provides free tractor work for pueblo members and preserves heirloom seeds. Mirabal performs fundraising concerts benefiting the project and local farm-to-school programs. Through an alliance with Micah Roseberry of the Farmhouse Café & Bakery, Tiwa Farms also provides community education projects and hosts evening family cooking classes. The Farmhouse Café buys from many local farmers, including Tiwa Farms, which provides the café with blue popcorn and cornmeal. Tiwa Farms can be reached at To learn more about the Farmhouse Café, call (575) 758-LOVE, visit or stop by any day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 1405 Paseo del Norte in El Prado, three miles north of Taos Plaza.

Red Willow Farmers Market

Located in Taos Pueblo, at 885 Star Road, surrounded by summer fields of purple flowers, is Red Willow Farmers Market. This summer the market sponsored two programs that employed Taos Pueblo tribal members and hosted the Summer Farm Internship Program for teens ages 14 to 18 and the Entrepreneurial Incubation Program for people ages 18 to 30. The farmers market is open year-round 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Wednesday (indoors in winter) and boasts renewable-energy-heated greenhouses and state-of-the-art eco-friendly facilities. For details call (575) 770-8688 or visit

La Madera’s Owl Peak Farm

The small town of La Madera — an old, mostly Hispanic land-grant community — is now home to Owl Peak Farm, owned by C.C. Culver and managed by Yesika Medina. Owl Peak is a 10-acre demonstration farm specializing in agro-ecology in the floodplain of the Río Tusas and Río Vallecitos. In summer and fall, Owl Peak hosts a communal meal and farmers market on Fridays from 4 to 7 p.m. at Apache Drums in La Madera, less than a mile from the farm. Farm staff members teach and practice permaculture techniques, such as soil building and watershed restoration, use of hugelkultur beds, beaver conservation, compost tea making, no-till cover cropping, passive rainwater harvesting and earthworks construction. They also provide the local community with compost, seeds, space to grow and farming education. Owl Peak is located at 24-B NM 519; call (505) 927-9345 for details.

Water is life for Northern New Mexican peoples; follow the waters and contribute however you can to the ancestral, life-affirming energy of this special place and learn about the true meaning of existence from those who are a part of its unique farming heritage.