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An Architectural and Spiritual Awakening in the Heart of Albuquerque
The region now known as New Mexico has a culture and history deeply embedded in the past. The modern Native Americans who lived here have ancestors who dwelled on this land for centuries. A few hundred years ago the population became diversified with the arrival of the Spanish. Their customs and culture are still present today. The San Felipe de Neri Church in the Old Town section of Albuquerque was founded in 1706, or so it is written on the wooden plank outside the church. Roughly 300 years of history have passed by or through the structure of the Catholic Church, proof that the way of life of the Spanish settlers who once lived there is still present today. The Church brought religion and a standard of living to the region. The San Felipe de Neri Church was built by the Catholic Spanish settlers to worship Christ and all who served and continue to serve him, and to help tame a land that was once considered wild and uncivilized. The structure itself is true Southwest architecture at heart and shows how deeply the presence of the Catholic religion changed the Albuquerque region forever.
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At first glance, the structure looks like any old church and the passerby is just that, another person who walks uninterestedly past it, but the adventurer, tourist, artist, imaginer, dreamer, wonderer, or art history student knows there is much more than a plain old church standing within the gated enclosure on the north side of the Old Town plaza. The day is unusually warm for February and the sunlight shines abundantly down on the structure. All is quiet except for my footsteps, which can be heard without the slightest hint of an echo, passing through the adobe archway into the enclosure. The sandpaper-like, tan adobe is typical for this region of the Southwest, United States. Adobe is seen virtually everywhere in Albuquerque and Santa Fe and is due to the architectural medium of the Pueblos. Pueblos have used adobe for centuries and it is as native to the region as any of the living Pueblo descendants. The public structure looks quite immense and intimidating. Adding to the enormity of the structure are two very tall symmetric towers that are topped with two smaller white towers. The white towers reach upward like two hands trying to touch the sky. They draw the eye upward to the heavens and evoke a feeling of being miniscule. Then the shape of the ever religious white cross is seen in several different places. Their numerous presences almost shout that they want to be seen. If the towers did not tell you this is a Church, the crosses will most definitely complete that task. Finally, right behind the most central white cross, a statue can be seen in the form of the Mother Mary and the Baby Jesus. Their peaceful, serene faces are the only welcome invitation to this Holy place. What can be more inviting than a mother with her son?
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One’s focus slowly becomes the big, gray, seemingly harmless doors. A slight hint of hesitation and worry is overcome by the need to finish the task at hand. With that, the doors sluggishly open to reveal a very tiny room. Suddenly, a feeling of quiet claustrophobic tendencies sweep through my mind with a sense of knowing that after this second set of cross carved doors is opened the loud, rapid, everyday noises of the city must be left behind for the quiet, sanctity of the space within. Is the cell phone ringer off? Yes. With another push the second set of Holy doors open to the nave of the Church. The lining of the pews, their forward facing position, and the center lane that separates them symmetrically quickly leads the eye to the altar where the ritual sermons take place every Sunday. One can already see three big statues standing there, waiting for the presence of people. All is quiet and still, a person’s presence is barely felt but can simultaneously break the silence. The echoing footsteps begin to take form with every small step taken. The light from the windows on the west side stream in to fill the Church and alter with light but there are a few chandeliers above to bring only slightly more light into the still modestly lit Church. The position of the windows and angle of their neutrally colored frames allow just enough light to be let in but only allows a person a view of the cerulean sky. In this Church the focus is either the sermon or the heavens. The arches expose the high, textured ceilings that induce a diminutive feeling. People are not the focus of any attention here. People are to be quiet, respectful, and attentive. Being here is allowed but one’s behavior must be at its best at all times. The statues continue to watch as awkward, uneasy steps become increasingly comfortable.
Who is that man in the middle staring down at me with his rosary in hand? Why does the one on his right hold a book and staring blankly ahead? And finally, who is the man on the left pointing upward and holding a cross? These questions go unasked and unanswered due to the seclusion of the Church. Two angels bow to the three men in the middle of the altar. If they can command that kind of attention from heavenly angels, they must be important. Their size and elevation also impose a position of power. They are in charge. They are watching all who enter this space. On the far right side of the Church stand two men holding babies. They are quite different. The first is wrapped in a gold cloth and both he and the baby are bequeathed with halos. They appear to be sad. The second may be a monk who is holding food and a baby. They appear neither happy, nor sad, but rather content. The nature of these statues brings a hospitable feeling, just as the Mother Mary and Baby Jesus did upon the entering the Church. A sense of solitude disappears.
The brown framed paintings are smaller than the windows but stand out a great deal more from the white walls they line. Their dark colors are purposefully meant to be seen and it is understood why. The fifteen paintings begin with the strict number I on the west side of the Church, near the statue of the Mother Mary looking down with her hands stretched out toward her wooden son entombed in a glass case. It is as if her maternal instincts are reaching out toward her obviously troubled son. Her motherly sorrow is shown in her serene look. This is where the story begins. It cannot begin anywhere else but with the beginning of Christ’s crucifixion. The story drags on, II, III, IV, V, …XV, with the ever persistent cross insisting to be noticed in nearly every painting. All eyes are on the central character, Jesus himself. His face and being is one that draws mixed feelings. He died for us and lives on through us. Is that joy or sadness? Upon closer inspection, the wooden sculpture of Christ, where the story begins, looks quite sad and very near the doorstep of death. It is no coincidence that the sculpture is made of wood and the crucifix Christ dragged until he was hung on it was also wooden. He died on the cross and he is now forever transfixed in wood. Yet, the stone statue of Christ, placed after the last painting of Christ’s crucifixion, looks far more pleasant, inviting, and heavenly. The white of his robe is pure, clean. His golden halo, the red cloth across his body, and the golden cross and red heart on his chest show how much he sacrificed for his followers. The paintings tell the story.
The white and gold outlined pulpit appears to have caught my attention. What could such a strange structure be used for? Obviously, a person of high importance must stand there and speak to the members of the congregation. The pulpit demands more attention than the altar because it is elevated and juts out of the wall rather inharmoniously. The smoothness of the walls give way to the semicircular pulpit. Even the word pulpit is rough on the lips. There is no ladder, stair, or point of entry. Is it still in use? Soon the mind beings to wonder and cannot help but notice the odd, obvious shape of the nave and alter, as clear as the Holy Water offered at the entrance, the reddish-brown brick has been laid in the symbolic cross shape inscribed by the walls. The walls frame the repetitious brick like a picture frame. Upon further thought, the color of the brick begins to remind me once again of the blood Christ shed to save all who visit or worship in this Holy place. Who knew ordinary brick could provoke such thoughts? The single candle burning at the right of the altar flickers, more red. The thought that a single man, the son of God, could bear such a heavy burden and prolonged torture is astounding.
As one begins to turn around to make an exit a previously hidden compartment jumps like a small dark cloud at a 20o angle on a sunny day. Light from the window behind it shines through the pattern railing. Could a choir really stand in that loft and sing during Sunday morning services? It is hard to imagine the silence being broken. Are their voices are as heavenly as the statues?
One swiftly passes through the first set of cross fashioned doors and out the second set of gray doors. The sunlight is warming. A passing car can be hear and the chattering of a couple strolling by. Balance and similarity between the interior and the exterior are seen with one last look at the structure. The floor in the interior is reddish-brown, while the outside is a lighter tan. The interior is permeated with white walls, while the outside is only trimmed with white. The interior has two columns in the left and right wing of the cross, while the outside has two towers on the west and east side of the structure. Both the interior and exterior have floors made of brick. This allows the visitor to transition through both places seemingly seamlessly. In addition, both the interior and exterior have arches which are both inviting and promote the immensity and importance of the structure. The day is warm and people must be on their way. An exit is made through the arch and a person passes by the adobe gated enclosure.
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Although the structure was built by Catholic Spanish settlers to worship their Lord, the San Felipe de Neri Church in the Old Town plaza forever changed the Albuquerque region with its once foreign Catholic rituals. The ancestral Native Americans learned the religion, customs, and culture of these settlers. The land was tamed and the old ways of life lived on only in the memory of those who once existed here. The Native people who live in New Mexico obtained their culture and history through their ancestors and the settlers who also came to inhabit this area. The culture and history of New Mexico is rooted in the past.
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