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Cristo Rey Catholic Church

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Cristo Rey Parish Church
1939–1940, John Gaw Meem. 1120 Canyon Rd.
  • (Photograph by Christopher C. Mead)
  • (Photograph by Christopher C. Mead)

John Gaw Meem’s Spanish Colonial design for Cristo Rey (Christ the King) Church lays claim to the cultural heritage and adobe architecture of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century New Mexico, but relies on a modern structure of concrete and steel to make the building stand.

Three motives drove the commission. First, a growing Catholic population on Santa Fe’s east side justified the need for a new parish church. Second, its construction would celebrate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Spanish colonizers in New Mexico with Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s expedition of 1540–1542. And third, it would realize a project dating to 1932 to provide a sanctuary in which to display properly the carved limestone reredos from La Castrense, the military chapel dedicated to Maria Santissima de la Luz (Our Lady of Light) that once stood on the south side of the Santa Fe Plaza.

Built in 1754–1761 and closed in 1835, the chapel was used to store ammunition after the American occupation of Santa Fe in 1846 and became a courthouse in 1851. Protests over this secular misuse led that same year to its return to the Catholic Church. In 1860, Bishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy sold La Castrense to the merchant Simon Delgado and moved its reredos to the apse of his remodeled cathedral. With the construction of a new cathedral in 1869–1895, this apse was first screened behind a canvas partition and then completely walled off, leaving the reredos hidden and largely forgotten for the next 40 years.

Cristo Rey has a balconied, double-tower facade, a single nave lit by six windows, deep transepts to either side of the nave crossing, and a polygonal apse lit by a transverse clerestory. A compendium of colonial churches in New Mexico, it combines the towers of San Esteban mission at Acoma Pueblo with the balconied facade of San José de Gracia in Trampas, and the nave with extending transepts of the eighteenth-century Parroquia (parish church) of San Francisco in Santa Fe with the transept clerestory of Santa Ana mission at Santa Ana Pueblo. Framed by these carefully assembled quotations of the past, the reredos installed in the apse is Cristo Rey’s only authentic artifact of Spanish Colonial craft.

The church was built with community labor from an estimated 150,000 to 180,000 adobe bricks and 222 vigas. This apparently traditional fabric depends, however, on concrete foundations and a concealed steel frame: the corbelled vigas spanning the nave are suspended from steel girders that rest on steel columns inside the adobe walls. Meem’s use of modern materials both facilitated the process of construction and insured that the monumental structure, 155 feet long with a nave 36 feet across and transepts extending 98 feet, met twentieth-century building codes and engineering specifications for stability.

In addition to services, the church is regularly open during the week.


Bunting, Bainbridge. John Gaw Meem: Southwestern Architect. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1983.

Chauvenet, Beatrice. John Gaw Meem: Pioneer in Historic Preservation. Santa Fe: Historic Santa Fe Foundation and Museum of New Mexico Press, 1985.

Ellis, Bruce. Bishop Lamy’s Santa Fe Cathedral. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1985.

Kessel, John L. The Missions of New Mexico Since 1776. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1980.

Krahe, Daniel W. Cristo Rey: A Symphony in Mud. 2nd ed. Santa Fe, NM: Sunstone Press, 2015.

Historic Santa Fe Foundation. Old Santa Fe Today. 3rd ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982.

Treib, Marc. Sanctuaries of Spanish New Mexico. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Writing Credits

Christopher C. Mead
Christopher C. Mead
Regina N. Emmer



  • 1939


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Christopher C. Mead, "Cristo Rey Catholic Church", [Santa Fe, New Mexico], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

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