Our Lady of Purification Church: Southern New Mexico’s Oldest Church
Written and photography by BUD RUSSO
Churches seem to be the only buildings infrequently repurposed for other
uses. Perhaps that’s why in many communities, they seem to be the oldest building. Such is the case for Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria (Our Lady of Candelaria), also known as Nuestra Señora de la Purificación (Our Lady of Purification)—the Catholic church whose purpose has always been to anchor not only the physical but also the spiritual aspects of the village of Doña Ana.
Begun in 1852, it was constructed in stages and completed in 1865. The adobe cruciform church with its blend of Spanish, Mexican, and New Mexican architectural elements, features a flat roof, wood vigas, and a clerestory window above the choir loft. Redbrick cornices, parapet walls, and a concrete bell tower were added in the early 1900s.
In the 1990s, the church was meticulously restored. Some 17,000 new adobe bricks shored up sagging walls. Concrete plaster, which had trapped moisture in the walls, was stripped, returned the building to its traditional lime plaster exterior.
Our Lady of Candelaria became part of Doña Ana only nine years after it was founded by the Mexican government. Persistent attacks by Apache and Comanche raiders prevented permanent settlement of the Rio Grande valley.
In 1839, residents petitioned the government for El Ancón del Doña Ana forming substantial walls of defense. Exterior walls around the perimeter formed open-air courtyards.
With slow but steady growth, Doña Ana led the long-awaited development of Southern New Mexico. It was an essential stop for travelers on El Camino Real. The 1846 Mexican-American War brought US soldiers and settlers to town and, within a few years following the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Doña Ana became home to 600 citizens. A county courthouse was built along the main street in 1852, when the village was designated as the political seat of the new Doña Ana County.
When Justice of the Peace Don Pablo Melendres perceived the county as overcrowded, he proposed establishing a new settlement at the south end of the Doña Ana grant—the town of Las Cruces. By the 1870s, La Mesilla had eclipsed Doña Ana as the valley’s leading center of trade. The county seat was relocated there.
The arrival of the railroad ended the usefulness of El Camino Real and Doña Ana’s commercial opportunities. By the 1930s, the village’s population began to decline.
Today, in ambiance and architecture, Doña Ana is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a traditional, rural 19th-century Hispano village of southern New Mexico. And, Our Lady of Candelaria, the oldest church in Southern New Mexico, having found its purpose, perhaps for all time, continues to be an architectural highlight of the region.
(Doña Ana Bend Colony Grant). The grant’s north end comprised the site of a colonial-era paraje (rest stop) on El Camino Real that, when raided by Indians in the 1690s, was reported to be the ranch of Doña Ana María de Córdoba. The woman’s history is mostly a mystery, but she is widely presumed to be the Doña Ana who inspired the village name.
In the spring of 1843, 14 petitioners mustered the courage to risk Indian attack and move to Doña Ana. They situated the village on a plateau high above the floodplain, remembering the horrific 1829 flood, and constructed the community according to traditional Spanish-Mexican village plans.
Doña Ana’s first homes were arranged as a cordillera, or linear village. One-room, flat- roofed adobe houses were built shoulder to shoulder alongside El Camino Real. Houses abutted the street with windowless facades and heavily fortified doors, their unbroken lines
Our Lady of Purification Church
5525 Cristo Rey St. in Doña Ana.