A Sacred Mission

Settled more than a millennium ago and sited atop a sandstone mesa that rises more than 100 meters above the surrounding landscape, Acoma Pueblo, 96 kilometers west of Albuquerque, NM, is North America’s oldest continually inhabited village. Its name denotes a “place that always was.” Dominating the settlement is the soaring edifice of San Esteban del Rey, a seventeenthcentury mission church commissioned by King Charles II of Spain and built at the cost of countless Native American lives. It is also one of the few colonial churches in the American Southwest to have weathered the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Built of sandstone and adobe, the church was erected under the direction of the Franciscan friar Juan Ramírez between 1629 and 1640, at which time much of “Sky City” was rebuilt, having been leveled in large part by the Spanish in their quest to subdue the region at the close of the sixteenth century.

Most of the destruction was wrought by the provincial governor Juan de Oñate and 70 of his men, who, in 1598, retaliated against the people of Acoma for killing 13 Spanish soldiers who were attempting to steal grain from the pueblo’s storehouses. San Esteban del Rey is laid out on a single-nave plan with an adjoining convento, or residential cloister, and cemetery. The walls of the church, which rise some ten meters, are more than two-meters thick and erected atop a stone foundation. Two adobe towers flank the building’s austere east-facing façade. Within the south tower a wooden spiral staircase provided access to the roof; the north tower belfry was reached by a flight of earthen stairs. Construction of the 2,000-square-meter mission complex required the importation of an estimated 20,000 tons of earth and stone from the canyon floor. It has been said that the church’s wooden roof beams, each of which is more than ten meters long and weighs in excess of a ton, were brought to the mesa from Mt. Taylor some 50 kilometers away, transported to the building site having never touched the ground, which would have been considered a sacrilege.

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