Silently, but elegantly standing just to the side of State Road 68 in the Ranchos Plaza in Ranchos de Taos are thick, curving, organic adobe walls with visible strands of straw meshed within the dried clay. The historic structure is set back from the road. It’s an architectural blessing that has stood for centuries as a place of faith. Its back side, in particular, has been as a model for many an artist, including Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams. When you first come upon it, you are looking at its famous back side, which is probably more recognizable to most people.
This “Fifth Wonder of Taos,” as local author and historian F.R. Bob Romero calls it in his book “History of Taos,” is San Francisco de Asís Catholic Church. It was named for Saint Francis of Assisi (born in 1181 at Assisi in Umbria, Italy), the patron saint of animals, merchants and ecology.
More than 200 years old, the church raised by Spanish colonists was completed by 1816 and served at one time as diocesan headquarters when the area was still a territory of Mexico. The exact year of when construction commenced is not certain. But it is the oldest existing Catholic church structure in Taos Valley. It is an excellent example of Spanish colonial church architecture.
The plaza in which it sits is older than Taos Plaza. Built in the 1700s, Ranchos Plaza was erected for protection against nomadic Indian raids.
In the mid-18th century, Spanish colonists moved just south from the bigger American Indian and Spanish community at Taos Pueblo to grow wheat and corn in the fertile land. The Comanche were attracted to the rich Taos Valley earth and often raided the settlers. To defend themselves, they built their adobe homes close to one another around a common plaza. The mission church sits in the middle.
San Francisco de Asís Church still serves as a place of worship today, along with being a popular tourist attraction. Mass is open to the public, including during Christmas and Easter services.
San Francisco de Asís Church is a National Historic Landmark. The fact that it houses Henri Ault’s famous mystery painting also peeks many a visitor’s curiosity.
Every year during the first two weeks in June, this church experiences something else that makes it a different kind of place — the “Enjare” or the re-mudding of its adobe facade. Adding a new layer of fresh adobe keeps it from cracking and crumbling. Parishioners and volunteers come together every year to help maintain this important structure in a most traditional way.
The massive structure reflects the nature of the religion it enshrines — solid and impregnable, a part of the earth and yet with its bell tower thrown heavenward in praise.
The church is open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (except for special occasions such as weddings). Please note that photographs cannot be taken of the inside of the church.
— Scott Gerdes