Nests of faith

 Originally published in The Taos News
Nuestra Senora de Dolores, off Kit Carson Road in Taos
Altar servent María Mondragón at
 Nuestra Señora de Dolores in Arroyo Hondo
La Capilla de Nuestra Señora del Carmen,
 on Hot Springs Road in Llano Quemado.
Fotos by Tina Larkin
Chapels have kept alive the faith of Taose-o Catholics for more than two centuries. There are three parishes in Taos County: San Francisco de Asís, Our Lady of Guadalupe and San Antonio de Padua, and a number of small chapels known as capillas under their pastoral care. These capillas are symbols of long-standing popular devotion, as well as places of worship. And 200 years ago, they were essential features in the lives of the families and communities that built them.
The historic San Francisco de Asís church was finished in 1815, but the parishioners who lived in remote settlements (or at least distant enough to prevent them from going to church in the some­times harsh Northern New Mexico winters) also built their own chapels. It was the only way to make sure they would receive the visit of a priest and attend Mass on a regular basis. In such close­knit towns, the construction of a capilla was a community effort. Because of the extreme isola­tion of the region, statues of saints and cult objects couldn’t be easily imported from Mexico or Spain so the worshippers made everything themselves, from the building, generally an adobe house, to the bultos (wood-carved representation of saints) that decorated it. Three of these capillas now belong to the San Francisco de Asís parish in Ranchos de Taos.
The Llano Quemado chapel is dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel (Nuestra Señora del Carmen), the one in Talpa to Nuestra Señora de San Juan de los Lagos (Our Lady of the Lakes) and the Los Cordovas capilla to San Isidro. Mass is cel­ebrated once a month in each of them by Father Francis Malley or, in his absence, Father William McNichols, the famous iconographer popularly known as Father Bill. The care and upkeep of the capillas is entrusted to four mayordomos who clean the building and make sure that it is ready for the services. Angela Valerio, the business manager at the San Francisco de As’s parish, served as may­ordomo for the Llano Quemado chapel in 2005 and 2006, with her two sisters and one brother-in-law.
“Nuestra Señora del Carmen is an old, old capil­la,” she says. “Each family used to build its own pew, so if you look at the older ones, you’ll notice that they are all different in size and shape. Now there are new pews, but families can still have one.
My father passed away in 2006 and we dedicated a pew to him.”
A beloved tradition is to keep a seven-day candle in the chapel, and it’s the mayordomos’ responsibility to make sure the candle is always lit. Mayordomos also participate in religious func­tions held in other chapels and in the parish. “You develop a special relationship with the chapel and those who attend mass there,” says Valerio.
Chapels can fit around eight people but nowa­days they are rarely jam-packed.
“There used to be more involvement from the community,” admits Valerio.
Still, the capillas are full of faithful in the feast day of their saint, when worshippers gather togeth­er for the vespers and the actual celebration, la función.
“We need to preserve our chapels,” she says.
“The capillas are part of Taos’ living traditions, a crossroads of history and faith.”