San Miguel Chapel (401 Old Santa Fe Trail, (505) 983-3974) has a history spanning four centuries, ranging from a deep commitment to religiosity to outright violence. It was the first building to be attacked in the 1680 pueblo uprising, and the small adobe chapel has withstood more than almost any other building in the southwest.
As historian and curator of the chapel since 2018, Julianne Burton-Carvajal is one of many who help keep the stories from the old building alive. Burton-Carvajal names the efforts of chapel director Dave Blackman, St. Michael’s High School Board of Directors, and Cornerstones Community Partnerships, an organization that specializes in restoring historic adobe bricks, as some of the key players in preserving the chapel.
She also leads the redesigned Hour With The Curator events and has been instrumental in developing a new history center that will document the artifacts and stories of this ancient place. SFR wanted to know – if it’s that old, what’s new?
Can you tell us more about this new San Miguel history center?
We wanted to make it more informal and dynamic than our usual opening times. It’s a kind of memory book for four centuries to walk around in, with three-dimensional objects that look like they came to us from the past. These tours run on Thursdays or Friday afternoons in October. In the first part of the lesson, you can review the highlights of the last four centuries along with new discoveries [of the tour], and for the rest of the hour, explore the three new display areas.
What things can people see or learn, and how does that fit into the wider Santa Fe history?
One of the most important things is that we worked with a professional photographer, Thomas Dodge, who took all the photos we needed. These photos help see many of the hard-to-see artifacts up close in flawless detail. A photo shows the gilded baroque statue of a very young Archangel Michael, the patron saint of the chapel, which was likely chosen by the Native Americans. He [the statue] was here, as we know, around 1709.
We know about the Christian Brothers and St. Michael’s (the brothers and the high school fund and run the chapel and not the local diocese) and we know about the missionaries, but then there are the Mesoamericans. That’s the missing piece – they weren’t recognized as a key element in the creation of Santa Fe. Every time the Spaniards came from Mexico City or New Spain, they gave birth to large numbers of indigenous peoples from Central America. They built the chapel.
Items on display include a sword cross – a crucifix with a point on the bottom, likely to be planted in the ground. Native American historians say it has the color pigmentation of local indigenous works. There is also a painting of the Archangel Michael specially painted for the chapel by Bernardo Miera y Pacheco – historians only attribute it to him in the late 20th century, and many Santa Feans are descended from him. It’s really surprising how many people from different cultures and ages have influenced this small humble chapel.
What distinguishes San Miguel Chapel from other similar structures in New Mexico, and why have so many pieces of it been preserved over the centuries?
Most importantly, the untold story that this was created by indigenous peoples who were not from New Mexico. Pueblos had their own local churches built – so [building the chapel] was a double responsibility that fell on her. It is in the best location in the entire area, elevated and never flooded. Many historians think while Barrio del Analco is [the historic neighborhood that includes San Miguel Chapel and the Oldest House] was settled before Santa Fe was officially founded in 1610. You see, the Spaniards were amazed at what they found here. People lived in functional architectural city maps – something the Spaniards were about and determined to build their workforce.
But the determination of the Spaniards to conquer militarily and spiritually naturally meant that we had a two-pronged entrada. It was the soldiers and the brothers [conquering]. This resulting architecture in the San Miguel Chapel is the earliest example of this in the entire Southwest. There is nothing that can compete with it. What survives – we really have what we have. The direction of the Christian Brothers and St. Michael’s High School was critical. A few centuries later, Bishop Lamy founded the first formal school here.
We’d love to see more locals. We mediate through concerts, lectures and public events. Now with the history center, it’s an excellent place to bring visitors – and locals should check out the site.