San Rafael Church, La Cueva, New Mexico


Located near the Salmon Raspberry Ranch in Mora valley, San Rafael, a beautiful gothic style adobe church, was built from 1862 – 1870 by Vicente Romero on his property. The church was designed by the local French priest, Jean Guerin, who introduced Gothic-type windows, doors and high ceilings. The roof was built by a Belgian contractor using rafters. Both the gothic style and the use of rafters were unheard of in the area. The Romero family probably named the church after their oldest son, Rafael.  The church continued to serve the hacienda and surrounding community until it was abandoned in 1952 following the last mass by Father Walter Cassidy who closed and locked the door for the last time.


By 1990 the church was in a state of serious deterioration, a natural progression following lack of maintenance, vandalism and weathering.  The walls were in relatively good condition except for the north wall which was near collapse. David Salman of the Salman Ranch family generously furnished the labor and materials necessary to support the collapsing back wall and the interior of the building, and created the huge drainage ditch that diverted water from the building.  Jose Gurule, returning to his native community after a 20-year absence was appalled by the condition of the church and cemetery where his ancestors and those of many other area members were buried.  He accepted the responsibility of Mayordomo and sought the help of Father Cassidy, a native of the area who spent almost his entire career as the local priest.  Together they began to seek the help of Mora Valley members, obtaining their written promises of help with restoration of the church.  The Archdiocese approved the project and in February 1990 Jose approached the New Mexico Community Foundation (NMCF) asking for their assistance.


During the months of contacting and approaching community members and their extended families for help, it was determined that many of the church relics and statues thought to have been stolen by vandals, were found in the keeping of Mora community members who were acting as stewards of the items and promised to return them to church upon its completion.  The original bell, which disappeared in 1962, was found in a basement in Tesuque and was returned to the church.

With the assistance and guidance of the NMCF and funding received from various sources, including the National Park Service through the New Mexico State Historic Preservation Office and the World Monuments Fund, volunteers began work in earnest in the fall of 1990 and continued every summer until it was complete.  San Rafael was rededicated on June 30, 1996.


During the course of San Rafael’s restoration the roof was replaced, all old mud plaster, both inside and outside was removed, and wall and basal repairs were made.  All interior walls were re-plastered and finished with a final wash applied with sheep’s wool, windows were removed, repaired, repainted, re-glazed and reinstalled, ceiling boards were removed, with the exception of those bearing the remains of the medallion paintings, and the rafters were repaired. One of the three large ceiling medallions was entirely missing and the two remaining were very faded and missing paint in some areas. They were researched extensively by Mac Watson, project manager during the latter portion of the restoration, but he was unable to find any photos or drawings. Using the design elements of the remaining two as a guide, Robert Bowley replicated the missing medallion and repainted the missing elements of the other two.  Robert’s comment was, “I felt a bit like Michelangelo”.  Robert also sanded, refinished and repainted the altar and gold leafed the Christogram on the front.

San Rafael has been watched over by Gurule family members since its restoration and Cornerstones, employing Mora youth, has helped with its maintenance.  It is currently again in need of repair and it is planned to address these issues during the summer of 2017.