Is San Miguel Chapel really the oldest church in the United States? It’s hard to say for sure, of course, but if you accept its 1610 building date, it’s certainly in the running.
San Miguel Chapel was, in fact, built around that time, by a group of Tlexcalan Indians who came from Mexico with the first Spanish settlement party. They settled here, on the south bank of the Santa Fe River, in what is now known as Santa Fe’s oldest neighborhood, the Barrio de Analco. When the Spanish moved their own capital to Santa Fe in 1609, they worshipped at San Miguel until their own parish church was built.
So where’s the controversy? Some say the church was completely destroyed in the 1680 Pueblo Revolt and that is was rebuilt in 1710 after the Spanish returned to New Mexico. But there is ample evidence that the church was still standing - though its roof and interior had burned - when Don Diego de Vargas reclaimed the capital city.
The “Inside” Tour of the Interior of San Miguel
Enter San Miguel Chapel through the gift shop at the side of the church. When you walk into the chapel, look up at the old wooden beam supporting the choir loft. This beam is from the 1710 reconstruction of the church and is gives the names of the governor and his ensign and is inscribed (in Spanish): “This building was erected… in 1710.”
Some people take this inscription as evidence that the church was completely rebuilt in 1710. Others say that the church was redone using the original shell of the building and that only the interior and roof of the long-abandoned structure was new.
Right in front you is a large bell: the famous bell of San Miguel. The story goes that the bell was cast in Spain in 1356 during the battles with the Moors (who would shortly be expelled from the country). It was brought to Mexico in the early seventeenth century, and was carried to New Mexico by Don Diego de Vargas’s 1692 resettlement party and later installed in San Miguel’s bell tower. It is said that the bell, cast from the gold and silver jewelry and household items of Spain’s devout Catholics, had the sweetest peal in all Christendom. Test it for yourself! There’s a mallet provided for just that purpose. But be forewarned: legend says that anyone who rings San Miguel’s bell will always return to Santa Fe.
Now check out the inscription around the bell’s lower rim. Does that date say 1356? Or 1856? Did someone chip at the metal to change the date? Another story says that the bell was not brought from Spain but was cast in Chamisal, a tiny hamlet north of Santa Fe on the High Road to Taos.
A glass case in the wall near the bell holds artifacts form the church’s early days, as well as revealing part of the old side entrance to the church. More evidence of the church’s history can be found on the floor of the altar. You can see the floor of the original 1610 church as well as part of the floor of the circa 1300 Indian pueblo (long abandoned by the time the Spanish and Tlexcalans arrived) over which the church was built.
The beautiful altar screen (reredos) was commissioned in 1798. Its top panel holds an image of St. Michael the Archangel, painted by Don Bernardo Miera y Pacheco, an early santero (artisan who creates sacred works) in the 1750s. Another panel shows St. Teresa of Avila, who was a cousin of Don Diego de Vargas’s grandmother.
Notice, too, the two animal-hide pictures on either wall of the nave. These were likely painted by Franciscan friars during Santa Fe’s early days. They are among the only sacred artwork still in existence, since most such artifacts were destroyed in the Pueblo Revolt.
History and Legends of San Miguel
The Tlexcalan Indians came to New Mexico from New Spain (Mexico) with the first Spanish settlement party, led by Don Juan Oñate in 1598. When the group reached what is now Santa Fe, the Spaniards continued north to the pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh while the Tlexcalans remained behind. They built their settlement in an abandoned pueblo in the area called the Barrio de Analco (neighborhood beyond the river). You can see one of their dwellings if you visit the Oldest House in the USA, just across De Vargas Street from San Miguel.
The Tlexcalan Indians were already building San Miguel when the Spanish moved their capital city to Santa Fe in 1610. The chapel was used by both the Spanish and the Indians until the parish church (parroquia) was built (on the site where St. Francis Cathedral now stands). After the new church was completed in the 1630s, San Miguel was only used sporadically.
In Santa Fe’s early days, many power struggles existed between the military officials and the Franciscan friars who journeyed to New Mexico with the conquistadors to Christianize the natives. One Spanish governor, one Felipe Sotelo Ossario, was brought before the Inquisition for berating his officers for not standing at attention (and interrupting the service) when the governor arrived late for Sunday Mass. Another governor, Luis de Rosas, became so angry with the Franciscans that he burned down their infirmary (located where the gift shop now stands) and threatened to burn down the church as well. (Whether he actually followed through on his threat is not known.) Rosas was later murdered by the citizens of Santa Fe after he had two Franciscans, who’d gone to the Palace of the Governors to make peace, attacked and beaten.
During the Pueblo Revolt, the parroquia was destroyed and San Miguel Chapel was set on fire. When the Spanish returned in 1692, the new governor, Don Diego De Vargas, inspected San Miguel, since a chapel would be needed for his new settlement. It was still standing, but the roof was gone and the interior likely destroyed. De Vargas ordered that a new roof be built immediately. But alas, it was bitter December, too cold for a trip to the mountains for timber. The church would remain abandoned for seventeen more years.
In 1710, San Miguel was finally rebuilt. Whether from the ground up or using the existing walls is not known. The chapel functioned as Santa Fe’s military chapel until a new one was constructed on the south side of the plaza (it has since been torn down). San Miguel again fell into disuse. In 1798, Santa Fe Mayor Don Antonio José Ortiz paid to have San Miguel renovated and commissioned its beautiful altar screen.
In 1851, Jean Baptiste Lamy, New Mexico’s first bishop, arrived in Santa Fe. He gave San Miguel to the De La Salle Christian Brothers, who had come to open a school for boys (a school for girls was started around that same time by the Sisters of Loretto).
San Miguel Chapel has seen and undergone many changes in the four hundred years it has stood on the south banks of the Santa Fe River in this, the oldest capital city in the United States. An archaeological excavation in 1955 unearthed the original floors of both the church and the ancient pueblo, as well as hundreds of graves, most belonging to the Tlexcalan Indians.