The San Juan Bautista Catholic Spiritual Center in La Garita, with its historic church, plays a significant role in the rich history of Colorado's San Luis Valley


Expansion into the San Luis Valley


This region of the San Luis Valley encompassed the northernmost frontier for the expansion of Spanish New Mexico.  It was first

claimed by Spain in the 16th century, then by Mexico for a few short years until New Mexico was ceded to the United States,

then as part of the Colorado Territory in 1861, until statehood in1876. Centuries before these Spanish Europeans explored this

high mountain valley, it was home to the nomadic Ute Indians who roamed the land. Apache, Commanche and Navajo also traveled and hunted here.


Although descendents of the original 1598 New Spain colonizers attempted to settle in this area many times, it was not until the 1850's that permanent towns or plazas were established by Hispano Catholics who left their homes in Santa Fe, Ojo Caliente and Taos to settle in the northern segment identified as the La Garita district of the almost 2.5 million acres that comprised the Conejos Land Grant.


Prior to the first permanent Jesuit missionaries arriving in 1871, these long established Catholic Spanish settlements in the upper San Luis Valley were served sporadically by priests from far away Abiquiu and Taos in New Mexico Territory, beginning in 1853. It became the role of the Hermanos Penitentes, the Penitent Brothers of La Sociedad de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno, to fill the absence of clergy within these communities, by providing spiritual guidance for prayer, penitential processions and burials. By 1870, La Garita was the location of the northernmost morada in the San Luis Valley.



A Second Parish Formed in the San Luis Valley


According to the diaries of the Jesuit priests assigned to Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Conejos, which was the first parish in Colorado established in 1857, there were so many Catholics in the San Luis Valley, a second parish was formed to serve the spiritual needs of over 3,000 Catholics living in over twenty-five communities. This new parish would serve the spiritual needs not only of long established Hispano residents, it would serve the influx of people traveling from the east in search of gold and silver. The new parish boundaries were mining towns of Bonanza and Villa Grove to the north, as far east as Cotton Creek and Rito Alto, the agricultural town of Monte Vista to the south, and the entire San Juan Mountains mining settlements in the west.


Centrally located in this vast area was La Garita and Carnero, which became the chosen site to build this much needed parish church, rectory and cemetery. Built on land donated by Captain Julian Espinosa and his wife, Rufina Montoya, it was completed in 1879, named and dedicated to San Juan Bautista on his feast day of June 24. The Mass was celebrated by Bishop Joseph Machebeuf, the Vicar Apostolic of the Colorado Territory and best friend of Archbishop Lamy of Santa Fe. This grand celebration was attended by many people throughout the region, Catholic and Protestant. After 1850, due to the influence of the French clergy, Lamy and Machebeuf, Catholic churches in Southern Colorado and New Mexico were constructed or repaired to include pointed windows and spires. The four-armed cross mounted at the highest point above the bell tower was visible from a good distance.


In 1895, the parish designation and location was changed to the newly built Holy Name of Mary Catholic Church in nearby Del Norte and San Juan Bautista became a mission church. Priests now traveled fifteen miles from Del Norte to La Garita for Masses. The former rectory became the residence for some of the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross when they journeyed from their convent and school in Conejos to teach the children of La Garita and Carnero. The Sisters of Loretto provided religious education for the Catholic children of the San Luis Valley and were the only religious order between 1870 - 1907 after which, the Sisters of Saint Joseph arrived to build a hospital in Del Norte.

In 1924, fire spread from a wood and coal stove used for heating and the San Juan Bautista church burned to the ground. It was rebuilt in the same locations and in the same style as the original church. By the time the work was completed in 1926, this newly built church, with its thick adobe walls, beautiful tin ceiling tiles and handcrafted altars and pews, was completely paid for due to the hard work and contributions of its loyal community.

Masses, marriages, baptisms and funerals took place until 1964, when the San Juan Bautista Catholic Church was closed permanently.

Stoller, Marianne Louise. A Study of Nineteenth Century Hispanic Arts and Crafts in the American Southwest: Appearances and Processes. Dissertation in Anthropology Presented to University of Pennsylvania © 1979, p. 169, (Current & former locations of La Garita added by author).

Portrait of Captain Jose Julian Espinosa (standing). The Colorado College Studies, Diary of the Jesuit Residence of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish Conejos, Colorado, December 1871-December 1875 [ed.] Thomas J. Steele, S.J., Ph.D. Marianne L. Stoller. [trans.] Ph.D. Jose B. Fernandez, Colorado Springs: The Colorado College, 1982.Vol.19, p.87.

Photograph, Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross, Taos, ca 1880's. Digital Image., Southwest Research Center of Northern New Mexico, Taos, New Mexico, 2009.



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