Western Trips

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Spanish Mission San Francisco de Asis / Rancho de Taos

Located four miles south of Taos New Mexico is a beautiful Spanish mission that was constructed between the years 1772 to 1816. These were the latter years of Spanish occupation of the southwest prior to Mexican rule. The scenery around the Taos New Mexico area is some of the best in the U.S. and this Spanish mission church is a perfect addition to your New Mexico vacation planner.

san francisco de asis mission
San Francisco de Asis, New Mexico
The history of New Mexico is really the history of Spanish colonization. San Francisco de Asis Mission is an excellent example of that era. So many towns today have become clones of one another. The town of Taos New Mexico and the adjacent Rancho de Taos is a showcase of natural beauty and ancient roots.

The location of the mission is in what is called Rancho de Taos. This is south of the town plaza of Taos itself. The site of the mission was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970. In addition to that, San Francisco de Asis Mission has been designated a World Heritage Church. This old Spanish Mission church is a piece of living history. Yesterday lives in this mission church.

Many contend that the San Francisco de Asis  may be the most photographed and painted church in the United States. Certainly the most photographed Taos church. The church was famously painted four times by New Mexico's Georgia O'Keeffe and photographed by Ansel Adams. For the artists, sketchers and photographers, the clean lines, the shadows created by the hulking buttresses and the glow of the adobe in the sunlight offer an excellent subject. The mission obviously has had to be maintained and especially so because of the adobe construction. Funds have been raised to replace sections of the roof and the entire structure needed to be re-mudded as is the case with all old adobe structures. Every spring, the community gathers to mud a new layer of adobe on the walls, preserving their church in the time worn ways of  New Mexico, with a mixture of mud and straw. San Francisco de Asis was built in the eighteenth century by the hands of Spanish settlers and their Pueblo Indian neighbors. The descendants of the original architects rebuilt the church with methods and materials that have varied little in over 200 years. This is just one of the reasons why the mission is so unique and a photographers flock to it.

rancho de taos mission
Beautiful entrance to courtyard
Surrounding the church are shops, galleries, trading posts, and restaurants. The north end of the scenic by-way, The High Road to Taos, comes out at Rancho de Taos. This scenic by-way is an excellent addition to your trip planner and your mission visit as it goes through many fine unique small villages, many with terrific art galleries, and the mountain scenery can't be beat. Many art galleries on the High Road to Taos put together a very popular art gallery tour annually. It's a great chance to meet the local artists and see some terrific scenery on your drive between the Santa Fe area and Taos.

I've found it interesting comparing the Spanish missions built in New Mexico to those established in California. The Spaniards had colonized New Mexico (Nuevo Mexico) long before California, which they referred to as Alta California. Santa Fe was established in 1610. Initially, churches were built during that time up until the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. As a result, the Spaniards were driven out of New Mexico and not returning for twelve years. During their absence, most of the missions built were destroyed by the Pueblo Indians. The Pueblo revolt was blamed mostly on the strict rules laid down by the early Spanish friars on the pueblo Indians. The forced building of churches, often times on the very ground that the Natives had earlier worshiped on. Also, strict punishment for those caught practicing their native spirit religion. This was during a very early time. It was in the 1600's. The California Franciscan mission system did not start until 1769, when the first mission was established in present day San Diego. The last California mission was built in Sonoma north of San Francisco Bay. The California experience was quite different than what occurred in Nuevo Mexico about one hundred years before.

adobe home
Original historic adobe structure at Rancho de Taos
Today, the missions of New Mexico, just like the ones in California, are living example of the regions earliest settlement and colonization. The photo at left is of an old adobe home that has been preserved for historical value. When you inspect this adobe home you can see the mixture of mud and straw that was used in all original adobe homes. You can see how the weather over years can deteriorate any structure built of old adobe. When the Spaniards colonized the southwest the church was, for most intents and purposes, on an equal footing with the military. The effort to convert the Native population to Christianity was a key element in securing the territory. The Franciscans friars, by converting the native population were creating new subjects for the King of Spain. This of course was quite different than the American westward expansion during the 1800's.America's expansion west involved traders, settlers and the military.

When your western vacation or road trip takes you to New Mexico, adding the various old Spanish churches and missions to your trip planner will help make your trip very rewarding. Inspecting the old adobe homes is a unique feature of touring the southwest.  If you find yourself traveling between Taos and Santa Fe New Mexico, a stop in the village of Chimayo is another one of those must stops. The Sancturario de Chimayo is a world recognized shrine that attracts thousands of people every year from around the world. The Chimayo church and Chimayo is located just off the High Road to Taos Scenic By-Way and is an excellent tourist combination stop with the San Francisco de Asis Mission further north.

 (Photos from author's private collection)

View Larger Map