Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

Area historic church awaits annual service

Built in 1890, the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Guadalupe has a cemetery in the churchyard where the earliest families of the church are buried. (staff photo Darrell Todd Maurina)

Northwest of Fort Sumner, a small whitewashed church stands at the end of a one-lane dirt road.

Unlike the fallen remnants of buildings around it, the church is carefully preserved. The small sanctuary of the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Guadalupe, built in 1890, contains an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe brought from Mexico by the church’s founders, Manuel Casals and his wife Elsa, who are buried beneath the high altar of the church. Other former residents of the village of Guadalupe are buried in the courtyard outside and many of the tombstones have recently been decorated with flowers.

The church, once surrounded by the small houses of a now-vanished Hispanic village, has only grass and dirt for neighbors. Once each year, the sons, daughters and grandchildren of the former residents return for an annual service to remember the church and community their ancestors called home.

“I am one of the oldest members there in Guadalupe and I take care of the church,” said Julia Sena, a great-great-granddaughter of the Casals.

“We’re Catholics and we want to have Mass to remember our deceased relatives,” Sena said. “Every month my husband and I go over there and dust and sweep. About two summers ago we fixed the roof on the sacristy that was leaking. We usually have Mass every Memorial Day.”

Sena said the annual service usually packs the old building, and even though it can’t always be held on Memorial Day, the families work to make sure it gets held sometime during the year.

“We have quite a few people come from Fort Sumner and we usually have about 50,” Sena said. “We take chairs from the parish here (in Fort Sumner) and people stand in the sanctuary.”

While New Mexico has many ghost towns and abandoned church buildings in once-thriving communities, the Guadalupe Church’s dedicated following has attracted notice. De Baca County officials remember with pride an article in National Geographic featuring the church whose former members have shown loving dedication decades after the last regular worship services ceased. Other former members point to articles in Albuquerque papers featuring the once-per-year Memorial Day service.

“It’s a big deal in Fort Sumner and in Clovis,” said H.W. Rehorn, whose Native American art gallery in Clovis sells paintings of the church building and town painted by the wife of a former De Baca County sheriff.

Rehorn isn’t Catholic, but he said he loves to visit the old church building to see a part of the state’s history.

“The Spanish people are a very close-knit people,” Rehorn said. “People look at this as ‘This is where my grandparents went to church and once lived.’ You’re talking three or four generations since they’ve lived there, but they still come out there for that service to remember their ancestors.”

Billy Wertheim now owns the village and most of the surrounding land since his father purchased a nearby ranch in 1949, and says he’s happy to help the Guadalupe families have their services and care for their church.

“My dad was Jewish, we were the only Jewish family in Fort Sumner, but we always liked seeing the Guadalupe families take care of their church,” Wertheim said. “It’s very pretty out there. I don’t know why they haven’t made it a historical building yet.”

While Sena and her relatives still care for the church, Sena said she worries about the future of the annual Mass. This year the church can’t hold its service on Memorial Day due to several family members being ill and due to the lack of priests in the Roman Catholic Church.

“We’re holding the Mass on Labor Day this year,” Sena said. “We’re short on priests and it’s kind of hard. Maybe by the middle part of August we can see what priest we can get to come here.”