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Telling the SAT Story: San Miguel Church



Cornerstones Community Partnerships
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Year of Award: 2009
National Park Service SAT Grant: $200,000
Matching Share Leveraged: $308,039

Save America’s Treasures (SAT) grants have not only played critical roles in helping preserve and restore bricks and mortar but they’ve also been catalysts for additional economic support and community involvement in the projects being funded.  And in the case of The San Miguel Church Preservation Project in Santa Fe, New Mexico, SAT played a role in helping an old story come full circle.

San Miguel Church is believed to be the oldest continuously used church in North America, built in approximately 1610, and is part of the National Landmark Barrio de Analco Historic District in Santa Fe. The chapel is open to the public seeking an authentic experience whether as a heritage tourist or those who have a special feeling for this spiritual place.  Although there is no longer an active parish for the church, volunteers and community involvement overwhelmingly confirmed the community interest and love for this building.

The SAT project addressed two goals – to stop structural deterioration that could result in potentially disastrous consequences including life safety concerns due to potential collapse of wall sections and to mobilize and bring together community and funding interest in preserving the structure.

Volunteers at work, courtesy of Cornerstones Community Partnerships.

Volunteers at work, courtesy of Cornerstones Community Partnerships.

The $200,000 SAT grant awarded in 2009 started a momentum of fund raising and public support that has continued and grown to the present.  Cornerstones Community Partnerships, the project leaders, have reached out with tenacity and focus to create new funding partnerships with federal and state governments, foundations, and individuals to not only financially support the project but to roll up their sleeves and become personally involved to help get the job done.

The most tangible result of this SAT grant was the stitching of new adobe into the old adobe where damage was the greatest.  This process offered a tremendous training opportunity to many wanting to learn these techniques.  The project engaged 513 volunteers for a total of 5,942 hours over the three-year project period.  New adobe bricks were inserted into deteriorated wall conditions in such a way as to actively pick up the loads for the wall above.  In addition, the group went to extra lengths to get the best possible adobe plaster to cover the exterior walls.  This involved finding a source for pure clay that was hydrophobic without expansive qualities.  Once secured, this material was crushed by volunteers into a fine powder and processed through a pug mill to completely hydrate it before being placed in barrels ready for use.  Then they processed this clay with concrete sand and straw to make a mix without silt and other organics typically found in soils.  In other words, they maximized the material capacity.  They then applied this mix in thin layers making sure it was well attached before applying additional coatings.  In some areas, as many as 12-15 coats of this plaster were applied.  The walls first done this way are now five years old and are still performing admirably.

Volunteer at work on the restoration, courtesy of National Park Service.

Volunteer at work on the restoration, courtesy of National Park Service.

Ninety percent of the restoration work was done by volunteer labor.  Outreach informed the community at large and provided opportunities for people to become directly involved.  Many young people had their first job experience working on this restoration project and learned adobe skills as well as basic job skills.  The site has become a focal point for preservationists to visit and bring other visitors from outside the Santa Fe area to learn from the San Miguel Church experience including some international participants with a desire to advance their skills in adobe repair.  Santa Fe now has one of its most important buildings treated with an historic mud plaster which is unusual as most structures have been covered over with cement plasters of the 20th century.  One reason people visit Santa Fe is often to look for authenticity.  They can now find it at San Miguel Church.

One very significant cultural aspect occurred during the work process.  Jake Barrow with Cornerstones Community Partnerships and project manager for the SAT grant tells the story this way:

“We brought interns to participate from the Okay Owingee Pueblo where a major effort has been underway to rehabilitate the old Pueblo built entirely of adobe.  These tribal youth and interns were in a training program there which included the specialized work of structural stitching.  We employed these youth to lead our stitching projects which they embraced with enthusiasm.  We were able to train others who worked with them to accomplish the localized goals.  A part of this project involved an elder from the tribe who was meant to interact with these youth on their terms and in their language (Tewa). The purpose of this was to make sure that culturally sensitive subjects and cultural connections would be included in their activities.

I arrived on site one day to witness the elder conducting a ceremony with the youth outside the church.  This was in the parking area behind the church and no effort was made to privatize the ceremony by the elder.  Much of this ceremony was conducted in Tewa but he made some final conclusions in English.  The most moving part of his presentation was a reconciliation prayer that asked the interns to be present to their ancestors particularly in light of the Pueblo revolt of 1680, in which the church was partially destroyed by the Indians.  This Pueblo is believed to have started the revolt.  For 10 years, Pueblo people occupied the town of Santa Fe (after the revolt).  Now these youth were participating in its revival and repair.  A full circle has been achieved.”

While the original grant funds have been expended, this cultural heritage project lives on as a result of the original seeds planted at San Miguel Church by the SAT grant.

Completed restoration, courtesy of Cornerstones Community Partnerships.

Completed restoration, courtesy of Cornerstones Community Partnerships.

For more information on The San Miguel Church Preservation Project and Cornerstones Community Partnerships, please visit www.cstones.org.

Established in 1999, the Save America’s Treasures program is managed by the National Park Service, with the National Endowment Agencies, to preserve and protect nationally significant properties and collections for future generations of Americans.  Stories of saving those treasures will be shared through partnership with the American Architecture Foundation.

Title photo courtesy of National Park Service.

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Posted in: Center for Design & Cultural Heritage, Print, Save America's Treasures
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