Fourth of a series
It was built on the west side of the Old Town Albuquerque Plaza in 1706, but it collapsed some 86 years later. And so San Felipe de Neri was rebuilt with five-feet thick adobe brick walls at its current location, on the north side of the plaza, in 1793-96.
More than two centuries and numerous renovations later, it still stands today as the oldest building in this city. And it remains as it was, "much as we see it today," according to a plaque in the plaza across the street. Of course, that also makes it the oldest church in Albuquerque, continuously serving the community since 1706!
Originally, the name of the church and the patron saint of Albuquerque was San Francisco Xavier, the Apostle of the Indies, "since the general area had been known throughout the 17th century as Bosque Grande de San Francisco Xavier," according to church literature.
That was the name decreed by the Spanish governor of New Mexico, Francisco Cuervo y Valdez when he also named the villa of Alburquerque after his superior, Francisco Fernandez de la Cueva Enriquez, the 10th Duke of Alburquerque.
But while the Duke welcomed having the town named after him, he overruled Cuervo on the name of the city's patron saint and church.
Following orders from the Spanish Crown, the Duke renamed the church after San Felipe de Neri to honor his own superior who was also named Felipe, King Philip V.
In fact, San Felipe de Neri was a Florence, Italy, priest who ministered to the needs of hospital patients and poor pilgrims and was involved in "numerous miraculous affairs," according to church literature, in the mid-1500s. He is at the center of the church's high altar, flanked by San Francisco Xavier on the left and San Ignacio Loyola, founder of the Jesuit Order, on the right. (See photos).
Considered "The Mother Church of Albuquerque,"
San Felipe was founded and has been served by shifting Catholic priest orders over the past 300 years.
On a wall in the church's courtyard, and inscription explains that, "Originally founded and served by the Franciscan friars (since 1706)," this parish church has been served successively by the secular clergy of Durango, Mexico (since) 1817, the Jesuit fathers and brothers (since) 1868 and since 1966 by the secular clergy of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe."
The church also runs a small museum and gift shop. "The museum's mission is to help preserve the history of the parish, and share its patrimony with future generations," a church flier explains.
Amazingly, one of the church's biggest attractions is the easiest to miss! But when people find the Virgin Mary carved into the stump of a cottonwood tree outside the church, they are usually surprised and reverential.
She is known as both "The Cottonwood Madonna" and "The Virgin of the Tree." Carved by a parishioner in 1970, this work of art apparently went mostly unnoticed for awhile, because it was in the yard behind the church. It was moved to the southeast corner of the church's front courtyard so more people could see it. Now it makes people do double takes. Some reach for their cameras, some make the sign of the cross and move on.
"Oh my God, I had not even seen that," remarked a young man who was sitting next to the stump when I started taking photos.
"So what do you think?" I asked.
"It's beautiful," he said, as he pulled out his own phone/camera to take his own photos.
But where should I go next? Everyone tells me that I can't leave Old Town without visiting the Albuquerque Museum. They tell me it will give me a better understanding of Albuquerque's Hispanic history. So, for my next article, I think I should buy a new notepad! Stay tuned.
To read other parts of this ongoing series, click: EXPLORING NEW MEXICO