El Rito, located northwest of Ojo Caliente in Rio Arriba county, was established about 1808 when Hispanic settlers from the Abiquiu area began to move in to raise cattle and cultivate the land. It was originally named El Rito Colorado after the creek that passes through the village. It soon became evident that a church was needed in the area since the nearest church in Abiquiu was 14 miles away. Construction of San Juan Nepomuceno began in approximately 1830 and probably took two years to complete. It was built in the typical cruciform style with thick adobe walls and flat roof supported by heavy vigas.
Due to the lack of understanding of the Hispanic culture of the area, the mostly French priests recruited by Bishop Lamy to replace the Mexican clergy had a strong impact on the churches in northern New Mexico and particularly on San Juan Nepomuceno. Sometime during the mid-1800’s the flat roof was replaced by a pitched roof, a French-style alter replaced the original Spanish alter, and planks covered the hard dirt floor.
In 1979 the Archdiocese of Santa Fe determined the church needed restoration/rehabilitation and in November the contractor began work. There were numerous setbacks, high water levels and collapsing walls. In 1980 major cracks were appearing in the new walls and in September the nearly completed western nave wall collapsed. The original architect and contractor were replaced and in July of 1981 work began again. By December of 1981, the walls had been rebuilt and by Christmas the interior of the church was sufficiently completed with flooring, plastering and heating and the church was again usable.
In April 2017, Cornerstones Community Partnerships was contacted by the El Rito church mayordomo who requested a visit by Cornerstones to assess the condition of the church, in particular, the adobe mud plastering on the exterior. A technical visit by Cornerstones determined that the interior was in very good condition and the issues on the exterior were the result of normal weathering. The community provided $1,000 to help with repairs, and with additional financial and technical assistance from Cornerstones and their summer youth interns, the church was repaired and re-mudded during the summer of 2017.