St. John the Baptist Catholic Church
Iglesia de San Juan Bautista
Near the foothills of the La Garita Mountains, a sub-range of the San Juan Mountains, sits La Iglesia de San Juan Bautista, the Saint John the Baptist Catholic Church. The church was built on land donated by Jose Julian Espinosa, an early Hispano settler of La Garita, and constructed by the efforts of the many other original Catholic Hispano settlers. The construction of the church was completed and blessed by Bishop Joseph P. Machebeuf in 1879. The original church burned to the ground in 1924, and a new church was built, again through the efforts of the Catholic La Garita settlers, with construction of the new church being completed in 1926. Upon completion, the cost of rebuilding was paid in full by the contributions of the parishioners.
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. The cross presents itself clearly 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 sporadically by priests from Abiquiu from the New Mexico Territory beginning in 1853. During that period and through the early 1940s, in times of the absence of priests, Los Hermanos de la Fraternidad Piadosa de Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno (The Brothers of the Pious Fraternity of Our Father Jesus the Nazarene), a lay confraternity of Hispano Roman Catholic men active in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Also known as Los Penitentes and Los Hermanos, these men took on the role of providing spiritual guidance and responsibility for prayer and rituals in keeping with Catholic liturgy and burial traditions. Upon the arrival of the Jesuit priests, the Hermanos 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. As a result of funds received from the Colorado Historical Society, attempts were made to renovate the building, which changed some of the original features of the building such as replacing original windows and wood burning heaters with more modern replacements. Artes del Valle eventually closed their doors and the church was again vacant.
During the revitalization of the church and the surrounding property in 2009, work began on the restoration of the church and continues today. Efforts for this project includes replacement of tin panels, repair of alter decorative detail, removal of exposed heating ducts, painting decorative detail surrounding windows, addition of louvered window panels on all sides of the open bell tower, replacement of missing pews, and the return of lost religious statues.
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 eager to travel to La Garita so they can share the historical and religious importance of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church.
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Repair & Renovation of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church
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