ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST CATHOLIC CHURCH
Iglesia de San Juan Bautista
St. John the Baptist Catholic Church was built on land donated by Jose Julian Espinosa, an original Catholic Hispano settler and its construction was accomplished through the efforts of other original settlers. Upon completion in 1879, the church was blessed by Bishop Joseph P. Machebeuf, the first bishop of Colorado. In 1924 it burned to the ground but was rebuilt through the efforts of its parishioners. When reconstruction was completed in 1926, the cost of rebuilding was paid in full through their personal donations.
The architecture of the original church is believed to have a French influence which may have been the influence of Bishop Lamy of New Mexico and Bishop Machebeuf of Colorado. The six-armed cross above the St. John the Baptist church is unique to this structure and is not found anywhere else. Because of its design, it can be clearly seen from the east, west, north and south side of the church building.
The original church was the second and lesser known Catholic parish founded in the San Luis Valley in the 1870s, the most northern part of the diocese of Santa Fe under the auspices of the Archdiocese of Saint Louis. This parish was first created to serve the religious needs of those long established Hispano Catholic settlers living in this upper valley and later for the arriving Catholic immigrants, miners and homesteaders traveling from the east to live in the San Juan Mountains mining communities.
Prior to the first permanent Jesuit missionaries arriving in southern Colorado in 1871, these long established Catholic Spanish settlements in the San Luis Valley were served infrequently by priests from Abiquiu in the New Mexico Territory beginning in 1853. During this period and through the early 1940s when priests were not available, Los Hermanos de la Fraternidad Piadosa de Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno (The Brothers of the Pious Fraternity of Our Father Jesus the Nazarene), also known as Los Penitentes and Los Hermanos, took on the role of providing spiritual guidance and responsibility for prayer and rituals in keeping with Catholic liturgy and burial traditions. These lay confraternity of Hispano Roman Catholic men, active in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, worked closely in maintaining the traditions of the Catholic faith.
Masses were held in the Saint John the Baptist Catholic Church until the late 1960's and the church remained vacant until 1973 when five Hispano women, with assistance from the Sisters of the Order of Divine Providence, began Artes del Valle. The women’s craft-cooperative shared skills in traditional Spanish and Native American weaving and embroidery techniques. Artes del Valle was instrumental in designating the church as a historic landmark from the Colorado Historical Society. They eventually closed their doors and the church was again vacant.
During the revitalization of the church and the surrounding property in 2008, work began on the restoration of the church and continues today. As a result of these efforts, masses have been celebrated on special Catholic feast days by such celebrants as Bishop Emeritus Arthur Tafoya and Bishop Emeritus Fernando Isern of the Pueblo Diocese; Fr. Pat Valdez, former Pastor of Sangre de Cristo Parish in San Luis, Colorado; as well as local priests, and priest's from distant parishes who have travelled to La Garita who have experienced and shared so they can share the historical and religious importance of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church.