Monday, February 25, 2013
Saint Augustine Mission - Isleta Pueblo
I attended Mass yesterday at Saint Augustine Mission Church in Isleta Pueblo approximately 14 miles south of Albuquerque.The Mission church belongs to the New Mexico Missions established by the Franciscan Friars. Saint Augustine is one of the oldest of the Missions as it was originally built in 1612, making it one of the oldest churches in the United States. The church was abandoned in 1680 at the time of the Pueblo Indian Revolt and was later restored from ruins in 1692 when the Spaniards under De Vargas returned to Isleta Pueblo. It was subsequently rebuilt with its original four foot adobe walls in 1716 when its name was changed from Saint Anthony to Saint Augustine, the patron saint of Isleta Pueblo. In 2007 the Church underwent restoration owing to water damage to the historical adobe walls.
The white-washed church is located in the center of Isleta town and fronts a large courtyard. It dominates the landscape of Isleta Pueblo as well as provides a space for religious festivals, tribal ceremonies and other public gatherings. Architecturally what stands out are the massive adobe walls which were built wider at the bottom to bear the weight of the higher adobes. The bell towers, which were added in the 18th century by the direction of Bishop Lamy, reflect his French influence on regional Spanish mission churches. Entering the main church portal one notices the winding wrought iron staircase leading to the recently constructed choir loft. The floor has been rebuilt with wood and the ceiling vigas are darkly stained and horizontally line the interior length of the chapel. The immediate impression is that this is a long and narrow church belying its external image, created by the outward appearance of its massive adobe walls. Indeed the inside of the church is 110 feet by 27 feet and is lighted by 4 large recessed stained glass windows, one a depiction of Kateri Tekakwitha, the newly sainted Native American. The altar is also recessed with a statue of the crucified Christ hanging from the ceiling by chains. An over-hanging lamp, the only artificial light in the church, illuminates the Christ figure.. There are large oil paintings hung, one on either of the long walls depicting Saints Batholomew and Rosalia respectively.
In my research on this Church I came across the the stories of Padre Padilla and the Blue Nun which are worth summarizing for the sake of their historical and religious interest. According to historians, New Mexico's first Catholic martyr, Padre Juan Francisco de' Padilla, who accompanied Coornado in 1542 in his search for the city of gold, was killed by Indians after leaving Coronado to minister to tribes on the western plains. It was said that his body was subsequently brought for burial to the Mission Chuch in Isleta. Reportedly his cottonwood coffin rose to the surface of the church's earthen floor on several occasions. On the second time in 1819 the coffin was opened and the body was observed to be remarkably intact. He was redressed in a new robe and fragments of his old clothing were then used by the Native Americans of Isleta for healing purposes. In a different version of this story, Padre Juan Jose de' Padilla, the pastor of Laguna Pueblo died while visiting Isleta Pueblo in 1756 and it was his body that was buried in the coffin. In either case Padre Padilla now rests in peace for during a 1962 restoration of the Church's sanctuary, his coffin was covered with concrete.
The story of the Blue Nun is more mystical than that of Padre Padilla. In the early 1600's a group of Jumanos Indians traveled to Isleta Mission to be baptized upon instruction form the Blue Nun. In Spain, Sister Maria de Agreda, wrote in her memoirs that she was" biported" during a religious trances from her abbey in France to the American Southwest to do missinoary work with the Native peoples of the Rio Grande. These claims brought scrutiny from the Spanish Inquisition who commissioned a Franciscan Friar panel to travel New Mexico to investigate the Nun's claims. When these Franciscans arrived at the Isleta Pueblo they interviewed several Jumanos Indians who described a Blue Nun, similar to the description of Sister Maria de Agreda, visiting them frequently in visions to teach them about Christ and to encourage their baptism. Upon their return to Spain, the Francisca Friars reported their findings to the Spanish Inquisition who released Sister Maria de' Agreda back to her abbey with a pledge to cease missionary work in the New World. Although Sister Maria de Agreda remains a controversial mystic of the Catholic Church, a banner in her honor hangs from the right altar railing in Saint Augustine's chapel.
The Sunday 10 A.M. service I attended at Saint Augustine Mission was packed but there was no difficulty finding a pew. I sat right behind the youth group who filled the front right pews. The new catechumens about to receive the Sacraments of Baptism and/or Confirmation sat with their sponsors in the reserved front left pews. They were acknowledged by Father George Pavamkott just before the offertory and they received hearty applause from their fellow church members. The church choir was led by guitarists who descended from the choir loft to play the offertory hymn in front of the congregation. When the service had ended they also played Happy Birthday to an elderly woman in attendance. People stayed in their pews and sang along. Several parishioners greeted me after the service and I joined some of them for coffee in the adjacent CCD building. My overall impression was that Saint Augustine Church, for all its historical relevance to the Southwest, was a neighborhood church within a close knit, predominantly Native American community yet was very welcoming to visitors such as myself. My insight while driving back to Albuquerque from Saint Augustine's in Isleta was that the Catholic Church in New Mexico is truly Catholic - universal in its appeal to the faithful. I encourage Catholic pilgrims to visit Saint Augustine's Church in Isleta Pueblo. Join your fellow worshippers and stay for a celebration of the Mass.
For Mass times and more info on Saint Augustine's Church click on -