ABEYTAS, N.M. — Sometimes foundations crumble. They need to be rebuilt. Such a story happened in Abeytas in central New Mexico — both to an ancient church and to the men who fixed it.
Originally built by the Abeytas family in 1874, San Antonio de Padua Church has a rich history. It is one of five mission churches belonging to Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in La Joya — which together serve 250 families — in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.
Over the years, the beloved church served the town of Abeytas during its growth time of ranching and farming in the early 1900s and its decline after World War II to its present population of 56.
In 2011, the “mayordomos” — caretakers of the church who assist the pastor with its upkeep — noticed stress cracks running vertically from the roofline to the ground. The walls made of adobe and “terreon,” a mud mixture used long ago, were starting to deteriorate. With help from experts, they discovered that the corrugated tin roof was leaking and that moisture was being trapped inside the walls. There was danger of a collapse.
A couple years passed before a new pastor, Father Denis Kaggwa, arrived at Our Lady of Sorrows and took action. He understood the urgency of the church’s condition but faced financial struggles.
The total annual budget for the parish and its five missions was $120,000, and the cost to repair San Antonio Church alone was estimated to be $72,000.
Catholic Extension offered a $38,000 matching grant, and suddenly the project looked possible. Parishioners began holding raffles and fundraisers. The money trickled in.
Chicago-based Catholic Extension is a national fundraising organization founded in 1905 to support the work and ministries of U.S. mission dioceses.
The community in Abeytas also received another gift — a commitment from New Mexico Men’s Recovery Academy, located 25 miles north of town, to supply a good portion of the labor for free.
This arrangement was orchestrated by parishioner Al Sandoval, who with his wife held the rotating position of mayordomos at San Antonio at the time.
He requested 10 men from the academy for each Saturday, starting in February 2015. He agreed to transport and feed them.
Men go to the academy voluntarily or by court order to recover from alcohol and substance abuse and to learn how to reintegrate into society and to reconnect with families. As part of their six-month stay, they are required to do 450 hours of community service.
“It was a great partnership,” Sandoval, who is an engineer, told Extension magazine. “We got men who were hard workers. Saving the church gave them a sense of purpose.”
Fellow engineer and parishioner Esmerlindo Barela remembered one of the workers who said, “This church is falling down, just like us. This church needs help, just like us. When you believe in us and let us build the church, you build us up, too.”
Sandoval said there was great competition among the academy men to be chosen to work on the church, and not just because of the home-cooked food that the women prepared for them. From February to August, the academy men devoted their Saturdays to the church. Many other volunteers joined them. They replaced the roof, repaired the adobe and stucco, added a heating and cooling system, replaced wood flooring and repainted inside and out.
There are endless stories of other contributions. Sandoval’s wife, Lorrie, a seventh-generation Abeytas resident, designed and donated a new altar. Her father, who died at age 98 in the midst of the project, requested no flowers at his funeral and that money be donated for new lights for the church — $600 was raised.
A parishioner took wood from the beams of the old roof that was dismantled and used it to make crucifixes to hang in the newly remodeled church. Another donated two brass chandeliers that belonged to his grandmother, who years ago had walked three miles each way to the church with her children and grandchildren.
On Aug. 22 last year, San Antonio de Padua Church was rededicated before a crowd of 300.
In addition to Archbishop John C. Wester of Santa Fe and his predecessor, retired Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan, men from the academy attended, even those who had graduated.
The church now has Sunday Mass at 8:30 a.m. with 50 people, who no longer have to look up to see if the ceiling is going to cave in and who are overjoyed with their beautiful, structurally sound church.
“San Antonio is the heart of this town,” said Barela, whose parents and grandparents had also dedicated themselves to maintaining the church.
“This renovation has breathed new life into our community. And thanks to Catholic Extension, this was all possible,” said Sandoval. “Without that grant, we’d still be fundraising today.”
In Abeytas, the old church was repaired. And the young men recovered.
They needed each other.