Stubborn but inspired donkey gave way for Colorado’s first church

Photo by David Krause, The Colorado Sun Our Lady of Guadalupe Church is the oldest parish in Colorado. It is on the National Register of Historic Places for its history and culture, but also for the art of the church, including its stained-glass windows, hand-crafted altar, statuary, and other works.

Historic Our Lady of Guadalupe near New Mexico border remains proud of its humble beginnings, heritage

ANTONITO– Much of Colorado was built on the backs and determination of burros, and the same holds true for the state’s oldest church. But nearly 170 years ago it was the donkey’s stubbornness that determined the home for Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in Antonito. 

Aaron Abeyta’s family has been in the San Luis Valley for nine generations — since before Colorado was a state. The educator, poet, English professor and former mayor of Antonito, which is where he was born, has for decades heard the story of his church’s humble beginnings.

As the legend goes, a group of Spanish settlers left Santa Fe in 1854, traveling north. After covering more than 100 miles, a donkey in the pack line suddenly stopped, unmotivated by threats and beatings. The men began to lighten its load, but still, the donkey was unmoved until a small statue of La Virgen de Guadalupe was found in its pack.

“Our ancestors, people of great faith, took this as a sign, which clearly it was, because once they acknowledged the sign and made a vow to build a church in Our Lady of Guadalupe’s honor upon that very site, the burro then began to cooperate and move along as before,”  Aybeta wrote in “The Burro Story”. “It was from this lowly and seemingly inconsequential incident that our long tenured and vibrant faith has taken root in the villages and communities that surround current day Guadalupe.”

Abeyta, who was born in Antonito, said he was no older than 7 when he first heard the church’s history during the Our Lady of Guadalupe feast day, which comes each Dec. 12, to commemorate the appearance of Mary, mother of Jesus, to the Mexican peasant Juan Diego in 1531.

The parish’s story is still passed down among families.

“I think it’s part of local lore, and I think it’s important to who we are as a people,” Abeyta said. “I think it’s part of our cultural preservation as well. … Almost everything I write has some sort of groundedness in where I live and where I’m from and the faith that I grew up in.”

He is the author of five collections of poetry and one novel. Seven years ago, he and his wife, Michele, opened the Justice & Heritage Academy. It started with seven students and now educates 45 local kids.

“We know where we’re from and we’ve always aspired to preserve, not unlike the history of the church, right? The preservation of culture, the preservation of language, the preservation of heritage,” Abeyta said. “And we just think that we can do that through an educational lens. So we founded our school and it’s been a labor of love.”

Part of the academy’s growth has been helped by the church, which rents the Sunday school building during the week to the school. The present-day chapel dates to reconstruction after a fire in the 1920s and additional work in the 1940s.

The original adobe church was built in 1863, but burned down in 1926 on Ash Wednesday. The church was rebuilt by 1927, using some of the original facades that survived the fire. More renovation and construction of the new front and bell towers came in 1948.

A second Ash Wednesday fire, in 2016, caused about a half-million dollars in damage but the structure was spared. After that restoration work was finished, the site was added to the National and State Register of Historic Places in December 2018.

Those designations recognized the history and culture of the church, but also its stained-glass windows, hand-crafted altar, statuary and other artworks. The windows portray saints and religious images important to Hispanic devotion. The elaborate altar was fabricated in 1934 by assistant priest Nicholas Femenia, area carpenter Benjamin Chavez and local artist Epifanio Trujillo, who also provided decoration for St. Cajetan’s Church in Denver.

Stained-glass scholar Virginia Raguin commented in support of the historical designation: “The exciting issue about your windows is the subject matter closely tied to Hispanic piety in the Southwest of this time. The Santo Niño and Jesús Nazareno are striking. … (The survival of) an intact program of glass from this time is always important.”

And while the grounds are steeped in history, there is a new element being added to honor the past. A prayer labyrinth, crafted from more than 50,000 adobe bricks, honors the mysteries of the rosary and celebrates the faith of the settlers. The El Santuario de los Pobladores is an open-air sanctuary meant as a place for travelers to stop and reflect.

Abeyta said even though he had “basically nothing to do with it,” the hand-crafted work to build the labyrinth recognizing the settlers is a point of pride in the community.

“If it isn’t obvious, I’m pretty proud of them,” he said as he gave the details of this latest addition. “I’m pretty excited about the labyrinth, and I think people should, when they do check out the church, they should also check out the labyrinth.”

Our Lady of Guadalupe is located a quarter-mile off U.S. 285 near Antonito, which is 6 miles north of the Colorado-New Mexico border (look for the “Oldest Church in Colorado” highway sign). The church and labyrinth are open to visitors and Mass is celebrated at 11 a.m. on Sundays.