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Isleta Pueblo:
San Agustín

1613–1617?; (1690s?); 1923; 1962

Even in subdued light filtered through cloudy skies, the general brilliance is dazzling. As one emerges from the narrow streets of the pueblo, the drastic change in light forces the eyes to close involuntarily for a moment until they can adjust. Across the plaza sits the imposing body of San Agustín, a church that in one form or another has existed on this site for nearly three hundred fifty years. On the hot, glaring days of summer, crossing the plaza is almost an effort. The heat and light make the space seem even larger than it actually is. Finally at the gate of the campo santo the traveler is greeted by a spacious courtyard. The massiveness of the walls becomes more apparent as one enters the church.

Through the doors lies another world: cool even in the hottest weather, dark even in the most intense sunlight. The clerestory casts a splash of light across the crucifix [Plate 16]. The modulation of religious theatrics could hardly be improved, even with the use of greater architectural resources. Perhaps no other church better exemplifies the Franciscan use of two basic New Mexican architectural materials: mud and light.

San Agustín is certainly among the most impressive of the mission churches in New Mexico. It sits on a superscaled plaza and is itself substantial in bulk and dimension; it was built to shelter the entire congregation on feast days and Christmas. In 1915 Isleta was said to be the largest of the Rio Grande pueblos.[1] The southernmost of the Tiwa group, the pueblo originally occupied a small delta or island in the Rio Grande adjacent to its steep banks. Joe Montoya gave the Indian name for the pueblo as Shiahwibak, meaning "knife laid in the ground to play hwib ," an Indian game.[2] Like Laguna, the Spanish were more content to name the pueblo after its physical setting rather than its Indian name.

Isleta has always been a successful agricultural community situated on fertile and strategically important land. Its lands are distinguished by diversified crops, including fruits such as apricots, pears, and peaches and more common grain stuffs.[3] Its location at the intersection of routes to the north, south, and west was both reinforced and modified with the establishment of the Spanish villa of Albuquerque in 1706, although the pueblo's position on the river as a gateway to the Rio Abajo certainly contributed to its continued economic advances. Even the railroad's arrival was a benefit, albeit a mixed blessing, for nearby the lines divided in two; the first continued east-west, while the second headed south toward El Paso.

Coronado passed through these pueblos in 1540


San Agustín


and named them the Tiguex group. By 1612 there were twenty Franciscans working as missionaries in the New Mexican province, and one of them, Juan de Salas, was stationed at Isleta. He stayed there almost seventeen years and was responsible for the construction of the first church dedicated to San Antonio de Padua, who had lived as a member of the Franciscan order. By 1629, when Benavides visited the province, a church was standing, probably constructed between 1613 and 1617. Benavides referred to the structure as one of the finest in the province, with a flourishing mission.[4] Roughly two decades later Isleta was documented as having "a very fine church and convento . It has very good music and organ."[5] Seven hundred fifty souls were under its administration.

Of course, the Franciscans' Christianization attempts were also beset with certain problems, among them a reluctance on the part of the Indians to detach from the ancient ways. Montoya put it succinctly: "They had become Catholics, paid the taxes and did the work required of them and their reward seemed to be sickness, starvation, exposure to Navajo and Apache attack, and death—not a very good exchange."[6] These, of course, were exactly the problems that plagued all the pueblos in their dealings with Europeans and European culture. While promises of heaven might be ultimately granted, there were certainly no assurances of reward on earth.

The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 also affected Isleta. Governor Otermín, fleeing Santa Fe with about one thousand Spanish refugees, headed south toward Isleta with the intention of meeting up with Lieutenant Governor Alonso García. When the Otermín party arrived, it found the pueblo deserted by its reported two thousand inhabitants. The refugees, now including some Isletans, continued south, eventually overtaking García on August 27 at Alamillo near Socorro. From there the parties continued safely to El Paso del Norte.

A year passed and Otermín set out to retake New Mexico. He managed to regain control of Isleta, although the Indians had first planned to resist but then reconsidered. A segment of his group continued north along the river to Cochiti and Santo Domingo. They returned to Isleta, however, on realizing that they were overextended, with the rear flank unprotected. They also recognized that Isleta itself was vulnerable to the revenge of still-hostile Indians. The party headed south once again to El Paso del Norte, this time accompanied by about one thousand Christian Indians who founded the community of Isleta del Sur, still extant as part of Texas.

San Agustín
Aerial view of the pueblo.
[Dick Kent, circa 1957]


How much of the original 1613–1617 church is incorporated into the present structure is open to question, although general opinion holds that the location of the building remains the same. If this is so, there is some justification for claiming that San Agustín is the oldest continuously occupied church in the United States. The body of the structure was repaired in 1706 and again in 1716, although to what degree is speculative. The church was built in the typical single-nave plan of the pueblo churches and originally sported a simple facade with neither towers nor buttresses. In the earliest known photograph of the church, taken in 1867 by Dr. William Bell, the flat facade similar to the old Santa Clara appears. On the corners of the facade are the indications of intended towers, although these features all share the same plane. A single bell sits somewhat uneasily in a single arch at the top of the wall. To the right is a two-story rectory with one of the few known uses of the arch in New Mexican colonial architecture.

The combination of church and convento, even in the earliest reports, impressed visitors. Benavides reported that the church and the convento "were very spacious and attractive."[7] By Tamarón's 1760 visit the patron saint of the church had been changed to San Agustín. There were 107 families, with 304 persons in the village, which was not inundated when the Rio Grande was in flood "because it stands on a little mound. . . . The Isleta church is single naved with an adorned altar."[8] Tamarón seemed pleased with the village, the church, and its management.

Domínguez recorded his mixed reactions during his visitation. He noted the presence of the baptistry to the right of the church and the campo santo fronting it with a surrounding wall, but he ambiguously referred to the interior of the nave as "like that of a rather dark wine cellar."[9] Whether the Franciscan regarded this as a positive or negative quality is not clear. He was less ambiguous about the access to the choir loft, which could be entered only from the exterior of the church through the warrenlike circulation of the convento. "The plan is so intricate that if I describe it I shall only cause confusion. It has upper and lower stories so badly arranged that in proof of the poor arrangement I reveal that the entrance to it all is by a stairway which gives on the corral."[10]

This lack of comprehensive planning and structural integrity suggests that church construction was incremental, with only a general notion of the overall extended form, or that modification proceeded on an ad hoc basis. Even Catholic architec-

San Agustín
In this early photograph of the church the arched facade of the convento
is still visible to the right.
[William Bell, Museum of New Mexico]


ture reflected Indian construction practice inflected toward Christian purpose. The pueblo walls were rarely aligned directly one above the other, and each floor was regarded as its own integral unit. Through overdesign or oversizing of the beams, not through any consistent support system, structural problems were avoided.

The adobes for the church were prepared on the site, which Montoya credited as the reason for the slight depression in the plaza, a feature shared by the plaza at San Felipe further north.[11] The large vigas were cut in the neighboring Manzano Mountains and were dragged by oxen to the pueblo. San Agustín has a pronounced batter to its walls that at the base measures some ten feet thick. The tapering is beyond the normal deposit of eroded earth at the base of adobe walls and must be considered to have been purposely executed. The four windows are said to be original and appeared in the Domínguez report, although their dimensions have been increased, as can be seen by comparing photographs taken in 1895 and 1981.

The clerestory provides the most important light in the church and grants significance to its interior. The effects of restoration are always problematic, and this has been particularly true at San Agustín. There is no question, however, that the repatriation of the clerestory during restoration reinstated the feeling of the original edifice, even though the increased light entering through the west windows reduced the contrast between the ambient light in the church and the directed light on the sanctuary and altar.

Kubler believed that the transverse clerestory, perhaps the most singular and characteristic feature of New Mexican colonial architecture, was a vestigial remnant or optimistic attempt to recreate the lantern of the baroque prototypes of Spain and the Hispanic New World. This may be the case, but the clerestory nevertheless elucidated the drama of the church and the emotional basis of the religion and played on the fears and feelings of the Indians. Indeed, the conscious manipulation of emotions through architectural design was basic to the missionary effort. The point was to generate wonder. In Mexico this effect derived from scale, ornamentation, and precious materials. None of these properties was available to the New Mexican missionaries. In their place were only mud and light. And yet through the clerestory and other limited means, the presence of God and the definition of the sacred precinct could be manifest. That the church's builders could accomplish this effect through the simplest and most rudimentary of materials is to their lasting credit.

San Agustín
By this date, the floor had been covered with boards, a small stove had
been added for heat, but—typically—there were no pews.
[Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, Churchill Collection]


The mud construction of San Agustín, while appearing stable, is actually quite volatile. By the turn of the nineteenth century, with the transference of the New Mexican archdiocese from Durango to Santa Fe and with the importation of French and Anglo styles into the territory, the church registered certain physical changes. By 1881, when Ben Wittick photographed Isleta, the facade had been replastered and its elements reduced to a single entry, a window over the choir loft, and a simple pediment. But two wooden turreted towers were installed on the east and west corners of the principal facade. Their shape then recalled the eastern United States as much as Spanish America; and here was the first instance of a major stylistic change at Isleta. By this time the top story of the convento was so badly deteriorated that it either was pulled down or tumbled of its own accord. The arches, however, remained.

Although originally packed earth, the floor in Whittick's interior photo is covered with sawn boards, another example of American territorial material benefits. Nevertheless, there are no seats or benches, which was the case well into the twentieth century.

Bourke's journal entry of November 2, 1881, complemented the image of the church captured by the photographer:

People began thronging to Church; not only from the pueblo itself but from the adjacent hamlets. . . . Dozens of kneeling women in their finest raiment [were] in the "campo santo" in front, each with her offerings for the "animas": burning candles, baskets of corn, cakes, fresh bread, "turn-overs," pies, apples, grapes, and slices of watermelons, onions, and canteloupes. The interior of the church was resplendent with the light of candles. Upon the steps of the altar and upon the wooden floor of the nave, there were two or three hundred of these blazing at once which produced an imposing effect.[12]

By the artificial illumination of candles the interior was no less magic.

The church was not without deterioration, however. Perhaps settlement or coving at the bases of the south facade caused structural problems because in a late 1890s photograph by Vroman two thick buttresses are present. Or perhaps these represented the halfway point toward the subsequent remodelings of 1910–1923, certainly the most major in the church's history. The effect of the renovation—conducted by Father Antonine Docher, pastor from 1891 to 1926—was cataclysmic. The church looked strange and uncomfortable, as if wearing foreign and ill-fitting new clothing. Atop the massive adobe

San Agustín
circa 1885
The facade has been restored, and wooden boards protect the tower
tops, but the second story of the convento has disappeared.
[Ben Wittick, Museum of New Mexico, School of American Research


San Agustín
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the convento had vanished, and two massive blocks were buttressing the
[Jesse L. Nusbaum, Museum of New Mexico]

San Agustín, Plan
[Sources: Kubler,  The Religious Architecture ; and measurements by
Dorothée Imbert and Marc Treib, 1987]


San Agustín
Within twenty years of its cataclysmic renovation, San Agustín began to return to its native soil, the balcony railing
being the first of the architectural additions to be lost.
[New Mexico Tourism and Travel Division]


base were two richly intricate, Neo-Gothic turrets. A tin pitched roof covered the entire church,[13] and a balcony without direct precedent in mission architecture extended along its front. In time even these decorative touches suffered, and by 1931 the porch railing had disappeared, and the ornamentation on the towers had been greatly simplified. In the rear, over the crossing, a curious little brother of the facade towers looked rather out of place and a bit forlorn.

By the 1940s even the porch itself had vanished, which was no great loss functionally as there had been no way to get out to it—except rather precariously over the top of a buttress. The loss of the porch left the church with a rather strange, yet fascinating juxtaposition of architectural styles, a sandwich of historic strata.

The next great rebuilding occurred in 1959 when the church was "restored" to a more cohesive adobe style under the guidance of the controversial priest Frederick A. Stadtmueller and following a design by McHugh and Hooker, Bradley P. Kidder and Associates[14] [Plate 15]. The pitched roof was removed, the clerestory reinstated, and the wooden towers rebuilt with adobe more in keeping with the remainder of the structure. Hard cement plaster was applied to the exterior walls, a mixed blessing that created as many, if not more, problems than it solved. Pews were installed for the first time, the auxiliary convento buildings were renovated, and a general refurbishing was carried on throughout the church itself. If today some of the details seem out of keeping, in particular the harshness of the colors and some of the decorations, one must bear in mind that this church is the home of a living congregation and not a museum.

There was no attempt to "restore" the church in the early sixties, only to remove those elements deemed inharmonious with its adobe construction. Certainly one can be grateful for the removal of the metal roof and the reinstitution of the clerestory, which makes the light quality at Isleta one of the most beautiful and effective of all the mission churches. At the same time, one misses the presence of the discordant wooden elements that were so illustrative of the territorial and early twentieth-century history of San Agustín. In those details, the church was unique. Today only San Felipe Neri in Albuquerque still wears its elaborate Victorian garb, the only major remaining example of this period of mission history.

San Agustín in its three or more centuries of existence has acquired a history and the stripping away of any aspect of history—restoring to a single point in time or to no particular point in time, as is the case here—reduces the value of the message. The result is a more consistent piece of adobe architecture, but there is a definite diminution of character. What is lost in the end is a concrete expression of the Victorian period, the architectural expression of a social phenomenon.

Elsie Parsons described a 1925 Christmas service at Isleta. The story is valuable in two respects. First, it illustrates the mixture of Indian ceremony with Catholic ritual and the somewhat indistinct border between the two. And second, it provides one of the relatively few recountings of a church in use.

"The pueblo was illuminated with rows of lanterns on the dwellings augmented by small bonfires on the ground. About ten at night the dancers, arranged by moiety, entered the church in single file. Alternating men and women, they dance-stepped to the altar, then reversed direction toward the choir loft."[15] Since there were few seats and no pews at the time, it was possible to accommodate the dance inside the church itself. The arrangement was, in Parsons' terms, "quadrille-like." The men faced east and women west; then they all shifted so that the men faced south and the women north, but both groups continually maintained their opposing directions. After the dance ended a few people stayed for the mass. About half past ten the following morning the dancers moved from the center of the plaza to the churchyard. Women standing in the churchyard gave gifts to the dancers.


San Agustín
Despite the enlarged side windows, present-day San Augustín provides an
almost perfect example of clerestory illumination. As the eyes adjust to the
darkness, the power of the brilliant sanctuary grows to dominate the interior.

San Agustín
Seen from the apse end, the beauty and fragility of adobe are apparent,
especially when the protective coating of mud plaster has been washed
away, exposing the individual bricks.
[Adam C. Vroman, Museum of New Mexico]


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