Oldest church in the continental United States
For tourists and history buffs alike, San Miguel Chapel should be on the "must-see" list while visiting New Mexico's capital city of Santa Fe. Lovingly referred to as "The City Different", Santa Fe is world renowned for its history, culture, food, native art scene and complete lack of urban planning when it comes to the roads. If you want to see the sights of Santa Fe, it's best to bring your walking shoes!
Located at 401 Old Santa Fe Trail in Santa Fe, New Mexico, San Miguel Chapel has visiting hours during which it is open to the public and there is always a docent on duty ready to answer any and all questions related to the history of the church. There is no entrance fee but the church does ask for donations as that is their only source of income to fund the ongoing maintenance of the historic adobe structure.
Visiting hours vary throughout the year and in response to COVID so it always best to visit their website prior to planning a visit.
History of San Miguel Chapel
While San Miguel Chapel's claim to be the oldest church in the continental United States is not usually challenged, the exact date of its original construction is somewhat speculative. The earliest written documentation of San Miguel Chapel is from 1628, at which time it was already in existence so we know it was built prior to 1628. Oral history claims an original construction date of 1610.
The original church, "Hermita de San Miguel", was built on the site of an ancient kiva of the Analco Indians which, not for nothin', seems a little inconsiderate. Manpower for the build was provided by the Tlaxcalan Indians who traveled to New Mexico from Mexico in 1598 with a Spanish contingent lead by Don Juan Onate. Here again, we can only speculate as to why the Tlaxcalan people would've done this but, sufficed to say, it probably wasn't their idea.
Over the past 400 years, San Miguel Chapel has undergone numerous restorations in an effort to keep it alive and well.
The first destruction came in 1640 when a provincial governor by the name of Luis de Rojas was feuding with church authorities. It was reconstructed but severely damaged again only forty years later during the pueblo revolt of 1680. This time, the church sat in ruins for at least twelve years until the Spanish returned around 1692 and a restoration effort was ordered by governor Don Diego de Vargas. The work was completed by 1710.
In 1798, San Miguel Chapel was once again falling into a state of disrepair and the mayor of Santa Fe helped fund major repairs and the construction of a new alter screen at the front of the sanctuary.
In 1848, an elaborate three tiered bell tower was constructed but apparently didn't work out because by 1856 the three tiered bell tower had been reduced to a single tier bell tower to accommodate the 780 pound San Jose Bell.
In 1859 Archbishop Jean Baptist Lamy purchased the chapel and adjacent land for the De LaSalle Christian Brothers who developed a school on the adjacent property. In 1862, the Christian Brothers initiated another round of repairs and renovations. They added a wooden floor, a communion rail and a large door at the entrance. Part of the original dirt floor and adobe steps can still be seen today through glass panes in the floor at the alter.
It seems that bell tower construction was very much not an exact science because in 1872 a strong storm hit Santa Fe bringing the bell tower, and 780 pound, bell crashing to the ground. Once again in need of major repairs, members of the local community provided financial support and the first two stone buttresses were built on the front of the building, interior and exterior walls were plastered, a new roof was added and the bell tower was once again rebuilt but smaller this time and also with a smaller bell.
In 1955 another major restoration was carried out under the direction of Santa Fe painter and Spanish Colonial Expert, Ms. E. Boyd. It was during this restoration that the original alter screen was restored and the glass panels were installed in the floor behind the communion rail.
Historic Art of San Miguel Chapel
The wooden alter screen at the front of San Miguel Chapel was erected in 1798, making it one of the oldest in New Mexico. The alter is reputed to be designed by an anonymous artist calling himself the "Laguna Santero". Her was a hugely influential artist who worked in New Mexico between 1796 and 1808.
Sometime in the late 1800's, the original alter screen was painted over with several layers of house paint. Just so we're all on the same page, somebody made an evaluation of the irreplaceable original artwork that was already almost 100 years old at that time and was like, "Let's slap some house paint on it!"
It was through the painstaking work of Ms. E. Boyd that the original artwork was able to be restored to its current condition.
The Mystery of the San Jose Bell
The 780 San Jose pound bell that crashed to the ground from atop the bell tower in 1872 is no worse for the wear and is still in this church! This bell was, by far, the most entertaining part of my visit to San Miguel Chapel. There is a rubber mallet on the bell stand and visitors are allowed to use it to ring the bell, which sounds amazing. Cast of Copper, Silver, Iron and Gold, this bell produces a deep and resonate tone like a dark red wine and carried a sustain which lasts for almost a minute.
During my visit, the docent on duty told me a story about the bell that I thought was interesting. It seems that the construction date of the bell is a matter of debate. As you can see in the photo below, the date is kind of hard to read. Some people think the year is 1356 while others believe that 3 to be an 8 creating a 500 year discrepancy regarding the age of the bell.
The complete inscription reads, "San Jose, ruega por nosotros - Agosto 9 de 1356 (or 1856). Translation, "San Jose, pray for us".
If the date on the bell really is 1356, then it would've been cast in Spain during the time that the Christians were losing the fight against the Moors in Andalucia. Apparently they believed that building this bell would assist them in their endeavors, so they did, and it worked because the Christians were eventually able to drive the Moors out of Spain.
Or maybe the date is 1856 and the bell was constructed in North America. Arguably, that 8 does look like a 3 but the docent, who knows a lot more about the church and the bell than I do, thinks the date is 1856. While this is somewhat disappointing because the 1356 story has a much more mystical feel about it, the docent tells me that there is a problem with the dialect in which the inscription is written. I don't speak Spanish, so I'm just taking his word for it, but he explained that the inscription is in a modern Spanish dialect and that the sentiment would've been phrased differently in 1356. So that means either one of two things. Either the bell was constructed in 1856 or the inscription was added later.
Which version of the story is true? I have no idea. I found a website with a historical account of the San Jose Bell under the assumption that it was constructed in 1356. You can read more about it here if you like. They also have a great photo of the church from 1856 and, from the looks of it, it seems pretty obvious why the bell tower kept falling down.
If you are planning to visit San Miguel Chapel on your next trip to Santa Fe, be sure to stop in at the Loretto Chapel as well. The Loretto Chapel is home to the world famous "Miraculous Staircase" and is only a block away from San Miguel!
I am DeAnna Vincent, fine art and portrait photographer in Los Lunas, New Mexico. These are the photos from my everyday adventures.