Nine mission churches in Costilla County named as most endangered places in Colorado

Photo courtesy Colorado Preservation The interior Capella de Viejo San Acacio.

DENVER and COSTILLA COUNTY — Colorado's Most Endangered Places, a program of Colorado Preservation, Inc. which works with communities across the state to save threatened or endangered historic places, announced that several sites have been added to Colorado's Most Endangered Places list.

The announcement was made on Thursday at the Most Endangered Places luncheon, during the Saving Places Conference held in Boulder. Included in this list are nine churches in Costilla County.

"This year Colorado Preservation, Inc. celebrates 40 years of saving places, and for 27 of those 40 years, Colorado's Most Endangered Places program has aided local stakeholders in rethinking, refining, and reviving historic places that continue to be indispensable resources to communities both big and small," said Endangered Places Director Katie Peterson.

"The churches, parishes, and irrigation ditches [acequias] embody communal living in the San Luis Valley. For generations, people have relied on these churches. These resources have become increasingly difficult to maintain with a dwindling population in Costilla County. The churches are owned by the Diocese of Pueblo and they are in varying conditions. The limited access to funding has increased concerns over the longevity of these important resources. We are thankful to Carlos Atencio and Frank Vigil and the other mayordomos for all of their devotion to these churches," according to Peterson.

These sites have become increasingly difficult to maintain with the dwindling population. As part of the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant, a Mexican land grant to help establish efforts to settle the northernmost regions, Costilla County is home to the oldest permanent settlements in Colorado. These pobladores, or settlers, brought their religious and social customs north, many of which are still practiced in the Valley today. Many towns established during this mid-19th century period were named after Catholic saints for protection.

The churches constructed in the few years after settlement soon formed the backbone of the mission towns and still reflect the continuity of community. The nine churches associated with this listing are all owned by the Diocese of Pueblo and are in varying degrees of condition. Mayordomos, or caretakers of the town's irrigation ditches and churches, do everything they can to protect these buildings and make repairs as they are needed. In cases like the Iglesia de San Pedro y San Pablo (Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul), minor repairs can unfortunately only go so far. Last October, the Diocese of Pueblo issued a statement that stated it has become, "increasingly difficult", to care for the churches in Costilla County and, "It must be noted that all Catholic Churches in the San Luis Valley struggle financially and from a shortage of priests, endemic throughout the Diocese."

Frank Vigil, the longtime parishioner at San Pedro y San Pablo/St. Peter and St Paul told the Valley Courier, "I've lived here all my life, and over the last ten years the stucco has started to crack and there has been water damage at the church. It has closed because it is not really safe so we have to fix it up so we can continue to use it. It has been a church in San Pedro since 1857 and we want to keep it." The church has some of its stained-glass windows that include the names of his grandparents.

Carlos Atencio, who has been the mayordomo at the church for 30 years said of the naming of the churches to the list, "I think it is great, this is absolutely great we have been put on the list. Hopefully, we can get the funding to restore the churches back to where we can use them. The church has been closed for about four years. We hope to get it stabilized to where we can use our church not only for ourselves, but for our children and our grandchildren. I also have great-grandchildren that I hope can enjoy and experience the beauty of the church."

Atencio said a GoFundMe account has been set up and he and others from the churches are working with the Costilla County Economic Development Council.

Due to a crumbling bell tower, the building has been condemned and its furnishings removed. The roof of the Iglesia de la Inmaculada Concepción (Church of Immaculate Conception) is in failing condition, and water damage has caused sections of the adobe wall to collapse. Apart from the Capilla de Viejo San Acacio (Chapel of Old Saint Acacius), the Mission Churches of Costilla County have never gone under large-scale rehabilitation.

In a statement from the Diocese of Pueblo, Joe De Young said, "Bishop Berg made a personal visit on Oct. 18, 2023, to the missions. His time was spent visiting with the priest, Rev. John Farley, and members of the parish community.”

De Young added that Berg is currently travelling and will be back in about a week. The Valley Courier will contact Berg for additional comment at that time.

Also named to the endangered list are the Kit Carson Museum Complex in Bent County, Valmont School in Boulder County and the Victor Bowling Alley in Teller County.