People are fascinated by firsts: the first man on the moon, the first automobile, the first Pope. Most Catholics know that the first church built in the United States was in St. Augustine, Florida and erected by the Spanish explorers under the leadership of Ponce de Leon in 1545. Travelers to Santa Fe have seen the oldest church in the United States still standing, San Miguel, built in 1635. But how many Catholics know that the first and oldest parish in the United States is also in New Mexico, on an Indian Pueblo called Ohkay Owingeh?
1598-1610 San Juan: the first Spanish settlement in the Southwest. Juan de Oñate was a wealthy mine owner in Zacatecas, Mexico, but in his quest for gold, he longed to colonize and convert the land we now call the Southwest United States. After being commissioned viceroy of this area by the King of Spain, he crossed the Rio Grande into New Mexico to establish the first permanent Spanish settlement in North America. He brought with him 129 soldiers, 10 Franciscans (eight priests and two brothers), and other men, women and children totaling between 400 and 500 people. For three months, this group followed the course of the Rio Grande north from present-day El Paso, Texas. They passed through several Indian Pueblos and sites of the future cities of Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Finally, on July 11, 1598, Oñate came upon the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo (Ohkay Owingeh means home of the Strong Ones. Certainly, their strength can be seen in their generosity!) , located about 35 miles north of Santa Fe which consisted of a confederation of five separate pueblos under common leadership. The people of the Pueblo, being hospitable and charitable and seeing that the Spanish group needed a place to live, offered to move out of Yunque Yunque, one of their five pueblos, and to allow Oñate and his group to live there. Oñate accepted. It was here that the first parish was established.
This kind of welcoming, generosity and self-sacrifice has always been the nature of the Ohkay Owingeh people. Oñate renamed Yunque Yunque, giving it a Spanish name, San Gabriel, and it became the first European capital in the current United States. At the same time, Oñate called the entire Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo San Juan de los Caballeros in honor of both his own patron saint San Juan and the Native Americans whose genteel hospitality merited them to be called Caballeros or knights.
The first and second churches: On August 23, 1598, Oñate's men began building a church, and 15 days later, it was dedicated to San Miguel (St. Michael archangel). It was large enough to accommodate all the people, but because it was built in such a short period of time, it was probably built from unfinished wood and given a mud plaster, although some say it was built from the first adobes made in New Mexico. The first Mass was celebrated in this church on September 8, 1598, a truly historic event. Padre Martinez blessed the church and consecrated the altar and the chalices. Padre Salazar, Oñate's personal chaplain, preached the sermon. It was followed with a week of celebrations, including a re-enacted battle between the Spanish and the Moors and other games such as bullfights, tilting matches, and a play composed for the occasion. On September 9, Oñate announced assignments for the eight priests to several of the Indian Pueblos of New Mexico. Padre Salazar was assigned to San Miguel as its first pastor. The second church, which replaced the first church, was also built at San Gabriel and was approximately 70 feet long, 60 feet wide in the transepts, and 30 feet wide in the main aisle (its foundations were unearthed in 1959).
The third church: In 1610, Oñate's replacement, Governor Don Pedro de Peralta, moved the capital to Santa Fe. San Juan remained as a flourishing mission. The Franciscans built a new rectory here sometime between 1640-1660. The church of San Miguel was most likely still used until the next church was built in 1643 about a mile away, near the site of the present church. This church was dedicated to San Juan Bautista, and it was destroyed in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.
The fourth church. After the Pueblo Revolt, San Juan was re-established as a mission and the fourth church was then built in 1706 but this time in the present-day main pueblo, on the same site where the present church is located. It was narrow: 22 feet wide and 110 feet long. It had an outside balcony and an arched bell gable in the front with two bells. The bells were not rung but were hit with stones. Interestingly, after entering the main doors, it had a room immediately to the right that extended outside the church and served as a baptistery. In the middle of the small room was an adobe pillar with an earthen bowl that served as the baptismal font. Back inside the main church, there was a choir loft with its entry from the roof of the rectory; in front, there was an altar screen that went from floor to ceiling, paid for by the governor, painted yellow, blue and red (Spanish royal colors). In its center was a painting of John the Baptist given by the King of Spain. There were also paintings of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our Lady of the Rosary in the altar screen. The altar was adobe. Along the nave were paintings done on buffalo hides, one of St. Joseph and one of St. John the Baptist. Along the walls were adobe altars holding statues wearing clothes in the Spanish style. There was a cemetery around the church surrounded by a wall with three entrances.
Although there is much more history leading up to New Mexico becoming a U.S. Territory, not much of a record exists for that time period. The next major event in the recorded history of the parish occurred when Rev. Jean Baptiste Lamy, a parish priest serving in the state of Ohio, was made first bishop of Santa Fe in 1851. Shortly after he arrived, he returned to his native France to recruit priests for his new diocese. Among the priests he brought was a seminarian, Fr. Camilo Seux, who arrived from Lyon, France in the spring of 1865. Archbishop Lamy ordained him shortly thereafter. He first served as an associate pastor in Taos, Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Pecos before he was made pastor in San Juan in 1868 and served at San Juan for 56 years! In 1870s, he renovated the old adobe church, had it whitewashed and built a new altarpiece. Later, he acquired an organ and also started replacing the carved santos with plaster statues. In 1888, he ordered and erected in front of the church a beautiful bronze statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, 15 years after Lourdes was declared an official apparition site. The following year, he built a beautiful Gothic chapel in honor of Our Lady of Lourdes. But in 1912, unappreciative of the historical significance of the old adobe church, Fr. Seux, with the blessing of the bishop, ordered its destruction (by way of dynamite). The new church was completed in 1913 and was built in the French neo-gothic style. Visiting our parish today you will see this church, which, relative to our history, is considered a new addition to our parish. It is truly a unique site to see on an Indian Pueblo!
Catholic Education: In the early 1700s, catechism was taught to the children on Sundays one hour before Mass. After Mass, those in the class and in the choir were treated to hot chocolate and tortillas. After the treats, there was choir practice and work around the church. The children would get home around noon. For many years, catechism was taught every day! Unmarried men and women came to catechism. There were even evening classes. The bells were rung at the church to call people to class. In 1951, San Juan Catholic School opened with Dominican Sisters teaching in the converted stables. The attendance was 130 after the first year.
Today: San Juan is a thriving parish today with 1200 registered families and average Sunday attendance at Mass of over 1200. The parish ministers to seven smaller churches in the neighboring Spanish communities. Over 500 people have committed to spend an hour with our Lord each week. Among our choirs are a Tewa Womens' Choir, singing in the native language of Tewa; a Spanish Choir; a Contemporary Choir; and a mens' and womens' Gregorian chant choirs. There are over 400 youth enrolled in our CCD programs. We also minister to the growing Mexican population in the area. For all these reasons, we are proud of our parish, our churches, and our heritage as the oldest parish in the United States.