Churches helped guide every settlement

The ancient church at Richfield, just northeast of La Jara was built by Mormon settlers in the late 1800s. Photo by Sylvia Lobato

SAN LUIS VALLEY — Coming to the unsettled expanse that is the San Luis Valley in the mid-1800’s, pioneers brought along the bare necessities, some tools for subsistence — and their faith. Most of the first settlers in the San Luis Valley were Catholic, and each small community has its own patron saint, but the Presbyterians weren’t far behind, Mormons were ordered to settle here in 1879 and various Bible based churches were scattered around. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at Richfield still stands but has long been unused.

Conejos County drew many settlers, as did Costilla County, but while San Luis is the oldest incorporated settlement in Colorado, the oldest Catholic Parish is in Conejos. Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church was the first church, but it burned in 1926 and a new church was dedicated two years later. It did include some parts of the first church but had to cede the title of oldest church to La Capilla de Viejo San Acacio mission, built by Hispanic settlers between 1853 and 1856.

Legend holds that St. Acacius led troops to save the settlement from warring tribes. Parish documentsrelating to Our Lady of Guadalupe are stored at St. Augustine Catholic Church at Antonito and the San Acacio chapel is part of the oldest parish. Historic structures are visible in most small towns, but the church or churches stand tall, proud and well loved. The second oldest church in Conejos County is San Rafael Presbyterian Church at Mogote west of Antonito. The church was probably built in 1895–97 and is one of the few historically Spanish-speaking Presbyterian churches in Colorado. It was listed on the State Register of Historic Properties in 1999 and restored in the early 2000s with the help of grants from the State Historical Fund. The building represents inroads made by the Presbyterian Church into Hispanic southern Colorado, which was predominantly Catholic. 

In San Rafael at the northeastern edge of Mogote, the Catholic Church is dedicated to San Pedro and San Rafael and parishioners have graced the cross with straps and items of bondage signifying the crucifixion of Christ.

In San Francisco southeast of San Luis, a Penitente morada built around 1908 reflects the religious and governmental support in poor rural areas of predominantly Hispanic populations and the aid societies that formed as a result.  Los Hermanos Penitentes, a lay religious and fraternal organization, constructed and used the building as a chapel and meeting hall.  The organization also served as a cultural force, preserving language, lore, customs, and faith within the isolated communities.  It also is being restored with state historical funds.


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