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Santa Fe, New Mexico: Featuring 3 Memorable Places of Worship

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Cristo Rey Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico

Cristo Rey Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico

Santa Fe, New Mexico

What do you think of when you think of vacationing in Santa Fe, New Mexico? Is it the adobe construction on many homes and businesses, or the native American and Spanish influences that have left their marks over time?

Is it the terrific art galleries that seem to flourish and thrive in this high-altitude sunny spot? Is it the abundance of excellent dining spots or the historical places to visit? Is it the beauty of the churches, large and small such as the St. Francis Cathedral, the Loretto Chapel, or the Cristo Rey Church, or is it all of the above and more?

This article will take you on a journey into the three churches just mentioned. Whether you are a tourist interested in merely the history and architecture of such buildings or a visitor looking to attend a church service, you should find something of interest here. All three of these places of worship certainly add to the color and ambiance of what is in Santa Fe.

1. Cristo Rey Church

What makes this relatively new church (by Santa Fe standards) unique among other buildings is one thing. It is the most massive adobe structure in all of the United States! You can find it at the eastern end of Canyon Road, a street known for its numerous art galleries, restaurants, and shops.

While on a guided tour taking us to places like Cristo Rey Church, we passed large homes located off of Canyon Road in the surrounding hillsides. The minimum square footage requirement was 5,000 square feet when having these residences designed and constructed. Many were much more extensive, and obviously, wealthy people like living in areas like this.

Keeping with Santa Fe's architectural standards and commitment to keeping with the cultural flavor of the place, when Cristo Rey Church was designed in 1939 by architect John Gaw Meem, he did it in classic New Mexico Mission style.

The interior of this large adobe church is simple. The wooden beams on the ceiling counter-balance the wooden pews on the ground, and unadorned windows cut through the thick adobe walls shed light into the interior. The altarpiece shown above is believed to be very old and is stone.

Along the walls are the typical Stations of the Cross found in most Catholic Churches, but these are special. The frames are hand-worked tin, which is just about a lost art. Undoubtedly these were inspired by people who migrated here from Mexico. The most active period of creating pieces like these frames around Stations of the Cross and other items like candle holders and sconces was from 1860 to about 1890.

Rarely were the tinsmiths who created these pieces viewed as artists. It is nice to see such handcrafted pieces recognized for what they are, genuine works of art. They represent an era long past.

2. Loretto Chapel

In contrast to the simple adobe construction of the Cristo Rey Church, the Loretto Chapel is in the Gothic Revival style. It has pointed arches, and flying buttresses, which are needed supports to keep tall buildings like this intact.

It was constructed between 1873 to 1878 and entrusted to the Sisters of Loretto on the Old Santa Fe Trail to manage. The designer of this building was Antoine Mouly, a French architect.

Most Catholic churches and many, if not most Lutheran churches, have physical representations of the Stations of the Cross inside their buildings. They give people a place to meditate upon the sacrifices that Jesus made when he was convicted to death on the cross, giving up His life on earth as a "sacrificial lamb" so that the rest of us could attain heaven after our deaths.

The Stations of the Cross inside of the Loretto Chapel are beautiful. They follow His journey of carrying the cross up to his tortured death and removal from the cross. In some places, they go beyond that point and up to His ascension into heaven.

If you look closely at the last picture above, the altar's base is a Bas-Relief of Leonardo Da Vinci's The Last Supper.

The stained glass windows inside of the Loretto Chapel are from France, made in 1874. The Daprato Statuary Company made statues about 1915.

This Loretto Chapel no longer functions as a church, but scheduled weddings can happen in this beautiful space.

Loretto Chapel Staircase

There are several stories about this famous staircase inside of the Loretto Chapel. The most popular rendition goes something like this: Construction of this chapel for the Sisters of Loretto was almost complete. It became apparent that the original plans for a staircase up to the choir loft would not fit. The nuns prayed for a solution to their problem. A carpenter appeared out of nowhere and built this fabulous staircase using wood that was not local and no nails.

The curved staircase making two complete 360 degree turns also had no visible means of support. After completion, the carpenter disappeared, receiving no pay from the nuns. They would like to think that St. Joseph himself arrived and built this miraculous staircase as an answer to their prayers. St. Joseph is the patron saint of carpenters.

No matter who created it, it is a masterful construction and draws many tourists who like to gaze upon it in wonderment.

3. St. Francis Cathedral

Named after St. Francis of Assisi, this majestic cathedral dominates the downtown horizon of Santa Fe, New Mexico. It is an active church, and the tolling church bells still call the faithful to services.

St. Francis is a highly venerated saint to people from all around the world. He gave up a life of privilege and wealth and took on vows of poverty while teaching and preaching what Jesus Christ taught while on earth. He started the Franciscan Order, which accepts the tenets of not amassing a wealth of material things.

St. Francis had a special rapport with animals and could communicate with them. A blessing of the animals takes place in many places around the world on his Feast Day of October 4th.

St. Francis Basilica

In 2005 on the Feast Day of St. Francis (October 4th), Pope Benedict XVI changed the status of the St. Francis cathedral to a basilica. In Catholic churches, a cathedral is the home church for bishops and archbishops.

What makes a basilica special? It is deemed such due to special spiritual, historical, or architectural significance. Indeed, this St. Francis basilica is of historical importance. It sits atop a location of two former churches, the earliest one dating back to 1626. Architecturally it was built in a Romanesque Revival style starting in 1869. Local yellow limestone was utilized. While the towers were never completed as planned, it is a beauty.

Inside of the St.Francis Basilica is a beautifully crafted round rose window installed in 1884. The firm of Felix Gaudin in Clermont-Ferrand in France produced it, along with twelve large other stained glass windows depicting the 12 apostles of Christ. The artistry is exquisite. These windows are luminescent, especially when the sunlight is bright outside, sending shafts of prismatic colors into the church's interior.


There is a smaller chapel inside the much larger cathedral, common in large churches and cathedrals. The altar is carved and painted wood, reminiscent of the more simple altars found in many smaller places around the State of New Mexico and elsewhere. A large crucifix of Christ on the cross adorns one of the adjacent walls inside of this chapel.

The statue that highlights this altar is called La Conquistadora. She represents Mary, the mother of Jesus, and consists of willow wood from Spain. She is the oldest Madonna that is present in the New World.

At one point, taken from Santa Fe down to Juarez, Mexico, due to fighting and hostilities with Native Americans, she was returned to Santa Fe by Fray Alonzo Benavidez, representing the Spanish government in 1629.

Spanish influences and Catholicism meshed together with the Native Americans' customs have substantially influenced the culture in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Peggy Woods