During the 1870s, many changes came in the Carnero area and the new La Garita. Newcomers were Gay’s store and livery and a post office, while other events were happening about a half mile to the west.
First, in the early part of the decade, Spanish-speaking occupants of the area undertook the construction of a small, adobe chapel where they brought a priest from Conejos who could celebrate Mass and conduct weddings and baptisms on the rare occasions when a priest was able to travel all the way from Conejos to this out-of-the-way corner of the Valley.
More dramatic changes were coming to the Valley, though. Mining discoveries up at Summitville caused Del Norte, down on the Rio Grande, to become a hub of activity. To the north and east, Saguache County’s agricultural and commercial activities were taking on some importance, and to the west big discoveries across the San Juan Mountains beckoned, provided that one overlooked some major geographical obstructions.
Responding to care for this far-flung area’s geographic needs, Colorado’s Bishop Joseph Machebeuf organized a new Catholic parish with the name San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist), as had the original name of the mountain range. The land was donated by Juan Julian Espinosa and his wife of the Montoya family.
Construction of the adobe church, La Capilla de San Juan Bautista (La Iglisia de San Juan Bautista, Church of St. John the Baptist), began in 1878, and this building was dedicated in 1878 with a great celebration on June 24, the Feast Day of San Juan. To meet the needs of priests tending their widely scattered flock, there were a rectory, a convent, and a cemetery.
Ironically, the plans of organizers in faraway places do not always synchronize well with actual events. While the parish church was being constructed, the Denver and Rio Grande Railway had arrived in the new town of Alamosa and within two years its rails were heading to Del Norte and south to Antonito, and from there all the way to Durango. The location of a parish administered at La Garita was appearing to be impractical even before the church was dedicated, and then mining at Creede burst upon the scene! Faced with realities, the administration of the parish moved from La Garita to Del Norte, and La Garita was demoted to one parish church among several in Saguache and Rio Grande Counties.
Fire reduced Capilla de San Juan Bautista to ashes in 1924, but it was rebuilt, dedicated in 1927, and continued to serve another generation of local parishioners. With a cross on the belfry pointing north, south, east, and west, plus the staff pointing up to the sky and down into the deep Earth, I chose to adopt it as a symbol when my book was published with the title “The San Luis Valley: Land of the Six-armed Cross.”
More changes lay ahead for La Garita, however. With automobile transportation available and with population clustered around Center and other communities, it became impossible to serve a tiny parish at La Garita, so to the sorrow of everyone Capilla de San Juan Bautista was deconsecrated in the 1960s and the furnishings were removed. The Diocese of Pueblo still owns the property, though.
Not forgotten, the San Luis Historical Society and long-time parishioners like historian Frank White of Carnero Canyon succeeded in 1980 in getting Capilla de San Juan Bautista into the National Register of Historic Places. Next, the San Juan Art Center was organized with the inspiration of nuns at Center and supporters in Denver, to promote the preservation of traditional Hispanic crafts. These craft workers took the name Artes del Valle, but once again the location proved to be too far off the beaten track for the craftspeople to commute to it or for travelers to visit it.
About 10 years ago, the San Juan Community was inspired to create a place of prayer on the neglected grounds. Like a miracle, in the next few years they were transformed into the San Juan Catholic Spiritual Center — a beautiful outdoor space with a paved rosary walk, monuments, and well-tended cemetery. The community and donors also have provided a new roof for the historic structure this year.
Travelers are welcome to pause here for a moment of peaceful recollection and spiritual restoration.