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San Felipe is a Spanish Colonial mission church at the crossroads between Native and Christian rituals.
The first church was built by 1605 on the east bank of the Rio Grande, after the mission of San Felipe was established by Fray Cristóbal de Quiñones in 1598. No evidence documenting its construction survives, but the church was probably the single-nave (hall) type typically found at early seventeenth-century missions. Even though it was recurrently reduced in status to a visita of the nearby mission at Santo Domingo Pueblo, San Felipe had a friary (convento) by 1621 and, exceptionally, a hospital that was maintained through at least mid-century under Fray Gerónimo de Pedraza. By this time, according to the report of Fray Alonso de Benavides in 1626, the people of San Felipe had successfully been converted to Christianity.
The church was destroyed during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680–1692, when San Felipe’s inhabitants relocated to the top of Black Mesa. After the Spanish reconquest of New Mexico in 1692–1693, a second church, probably of stone, was built in 1694 on the edge of the mesa, where part of its foundations are still visible.
By 1700, the pueblo had relocated to its present site below Black Mesa in the fertile floodplain of the Rio Grande, where both a new village and a new church were built. Begun in 1706, the third mission church of San Felipe was oriented east toward the Rio Grande and sited south of the village and its plaza. Built of adobe with a timber and earth roof, the original, single-nave adobe church had been outgrown by 1736, when Fray Andrés Zeballos lengthened the nave and installed 84 canales (drain spouts) along its exterior. The mission convento and stockyard (corral) on the south side of the church were reportedly rudimentary until they were repaired and expanded in 1743 by Zeballos’ successor, Fray Pedro Montaño.
Fray Francisco Atanasio Domínguez described an impressive structure when he visited the pueblo in 1776, at which time the mission served 406 people. In front of the church, a cemetery ( camposanto) extended out nearly 82 feet and was enclosed by a three-foot-high wall of stone and adobe. The facade appeared much as it does today, with an entrance porch and balcony between framing buttress towers at the corners, the one to the north housing a bell gifted by the Spanish crown. Inside, there was a choir loft, which opened to the porch balcony, and a small baptistery to the right. The single nave church measured over 100 feet long on the interior and 19 feet wide by 16 feet high, with thick adobe walls, an earthen floor, and an earthen roof supported by forty vigas on carved corbel brackets, with seven more vigas spanning the trapezoidal apse above a raised sanctuary. Though Domínguez complained that the interior was poorly lit by three small, south-facing windows with wood grates on the north side of the nave, he also noted that the sanctuary was lit by a transverse clerestory at the west end of the nave.
The church suffered after it was again reduced to a visita of Santo Domingo in 1782, and had to be rebuilt under Fray José Pedro Rubí de Celis after 1801. Besides repairing the walls and replacing the roof, Rubí also installed a new main altar and wooden altar screens (reredos) with carved twisted pillars.
San Felipe combines Native and Christian practices. The nave is left open, without benches, to provide the space needed for the ritual dances that spill out to the camposanto on feast days. Decorations often mix Native and Christian iconography. Contradicting the conventional earth tones of New Mexico’s adobe churches, all or parts of San Felipe are whitewashed on May 1, the saint’s feast day. Presently, the recessed portions of the facade are painted white and brightly accented with the sacred Keresan colors of turquoise, red, and yellow; two horses flank the entrance portal.
Except for specific celebrations, like the annual feast day of San Felipe, the church and pueblo are closed to the public. Photography is not permitted.
Adams, Eleanor, and Fray Angelico Chavez. The Missions of New Mexico, 1776: A Description by Fray Francisco Atanasio Domínguez with Other Contemporary Documents. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1956.
Kessel, John L. The Missions of New Mexico Since 1776. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1980.
Kubler, George. The Religious Architecture of New Mexico In the Colonial Period and Since the American Occupation. 1940. Reprint, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1972.
Nabokov, Peter, and Robert Easton. Native American Architecture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Ortiz, Alfonso, ed. Handbook of North American Indians: Southwest. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1979.
Purdy, James, “Pueblo of San Felipe (Katishtya),” Sandoval County, New Mexico. New Mexico State Register of Cultural Properties Application for Registration Form, 1972. New Mexico Historic Preservation Division, Santa Fe, NM.
Scully, Vincent. Pueblo/Mountain, Village, Dance. New York: Viking Press, 1972.
Treib, Marc. Sanctuaries of Spanish New Mexico. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
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