Clouds loom over historic San Miguel Mission Church

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If there’s one landmark that signifies the cultural and historical landscape of Socorro, it’s the church of San Miguel. Dating to a land grant from the King of Spain, the San Miguel Mission has been at the heart of Socorro for more than 400 years. More than just a piece of the past, it’s as central to the community today as it was centuries ago.

 

 

Now it appears that the church, in which countless generations of Socorroans have grown up, married, baptized their children and mourned their dead, is in imminent danger. Moisture trapped in the thick adobe walls could cause the building to collapse.

Father Andy Pavlak began to realize the potential seriousness of the problem only a few months ago, when core samples were taken of the building’s adobe walls, and raised some concerns.

“On Aug. 14, we held a big work weekend,” Pavlak said. “Essentially, we did some exploratory surgery to find out some basic information with regard to the structure.”

On Oct. 29, a team of adobe specialists, engineers and architects from the archdiocese did more investigative work, and last week Pavlak received their report.

“It wasn’t favorable,” he said.

What he learned is there is critically high moisture content in the south wall which abuts the school, and the north wall as well. The engineers also noted some problems with ceiling beams that will require further evaluation.

The south wall, Pavlak said, was probably failing in the 1970s, and repairs were made then that were ultimately not helpful.

“What they did in the ’70s was good at the time, but detrimental in the long run,” he explained. “A real contributing factor in the problems that have developed is the use of cement-based stucco and concrete sidewalks that have not allowed the adobe to breath and dry naturally.”

Until the full extent of the structural problems are understood, Pavlak said he wouldn’t know the extent of the work that needs to be done, or the how much money it could take to do it. What he does know is that the building is potentially unsafe, and beginning Sunday all services will be held in the parish hall.

“We know that we’ll have to build a bracing system to encapsulate the walls and to catch the roof were it to fall,” Pavlak said. “I believe we’ve caught it at a point where what we’ll have to do is repair major portions in some way.”

There’s no question in his mind that the building can and will be saved.

“A church that has stood for 400 years will not be lost, at all costs,” Pavlak said.

The parish was already putting money into a building fund, and at last Sunday’s services, when Pavlak had to tell his flock the bad news about the church, he was able to give them good news as well.

“Last week in the mail, we received a nice note from the Nicholas Sanchez family of Albuquerque,” he said. “They’re not related to people in the local community, but they said they had seen and heard me speak about the church, and the problems.”

Included with the note was a check for $30,000.

“It was a huge, huge gift,” Pavlak said. “It was like a spoon full of sugar helping the medicine go down.”

While Pavlak acknowledged that the donation was likely only a drop in the bucket compared to the ultimate cost of making the church safe again, he said it was just one among several rays of hope.

Another piece of good news Pavlak was able to share with his parishioners was word that the mission’s insurance company will pay for the rebuilding of the 179-year-old La Sagrada Familia Church in Lemitar, where a wall collapsed after a prolonged, heavy rain in June.

“It will be rebuilt on a smaller scale, but the insurance company will pay for it, because we could tie the collapse to two events,” Pavlak said. “In Lemitar there was a measurable earthquake and significant rainstorms that were contributing factors.”

Insurance will not cover the restoration needed at San Miguel Church, however, because the problems there can at least partially be traced back to the concrete-based repairs done decades ago.

A third church that’s part of the San Miguel Mission, in San Antonio, N.M., was closed in September when its walls were also found to be at high risk for collapse due to a high moisture content.

“That church was 80-years old, and was actually the third church built on that site,” Pavlak said. “The building had other serious structural problems, with the heating, wiring, plumbing and roof beams.”

Still, Pavlak said there’s much to be thankful for.

“Praise God, no one’s ever been hurt,” he said.

Pavlak said he’s also grateful for the Commission for the Preservation of Historic New Mexico Churches, established in the 1980s by Archbishop Robert Sanchez and continued by his successor, Archbishop Michael Sheehan.

“The commission has been revitalized in the last few months,” Pavlak said. “The problems that we’re having here are being replicated throughout the archdiocese. There are approximately 300 churches in the same position.”

 


Contact Suzanne Barteau