Alfalfa blooms in the fields next to the shell of the San Isidro Catholic Church, which burned in 1975. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)
LAS MESITAS, Colo. — The husk of a church rises up, seemingly scraping the low, heavy clouds. The hollowed-out sanctuary is open to the whipping wind and a smattering of raindrops.
Gutted by fire in 1975, the bones of the mission-style San Isidro Catholic Church remain, purple cowslip and grasses sprouting in the aisles. Empty sockets display gray clouds — it’s been nearly 50 years since the stained glass windows melted in the blaze.
Built nearly a century and a half ago in 1878, the church is named for the patron saint of farming — a practice that isn’t so easy as the water dries up, drought after drought.
Crisis on the Rio Grande is a multi-part series that travels along the river from Colorado through New Mexico and into Texas.
Chris and Lucilla Cisneros, married for 55 years, live just up the road from the church in Cañon Bonito RV Park, and they’ve cared for the little graveyard for decades.
They tell the history of the church, raising their voices to be heard over the scrape of the shovel on gravel, stacking rocks over a grave and ripping tumbleweeds from enclosures around plots.
“This is something we do out of love,” Lucilla said, fixing a silk and plastic bunch of cornflower-blue hyacinths on a grave. “We’ve been here 35 years, putting on little flowers, cleaning up a bit.”
Chris is a painter and carver, making creations for the area churches. One was a 4-by-5-foot depiction of San Isidro, garden tool in hand. Another was a carving into a downed aspen near their home of Christ on the cross. He was inspired by the shape of the felled tree. “Its arms were already outspread,” he said.
But they’re starting to think of retirement, noting that the work is harder, and the land has changed around them. The Conejos River, a tributary of the Rio Grande, doesn’t run as strong, Lucilla said, and the snow is blown away each year, leaving thirsty earth behind.
“Before, we could plant a garden, and you’d hardly have to irrigate it because the rain would take care of it,” Chris said. “Now you can’t grow nothing hardly, because it didn’t rain this last year.”
On months with fifth Sundays, donated chairs and hay bales are brought out, and services are held under the sky in the open-air cathedral. There was no outdoor Mass last spring, though, Chris said.
“There was a forest fire up there,” he said, pointing to mountains in the West. “You just can’t do it with all the smoke.”
This project was funded by a grant from the Water Desk and by States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit news organizations and home to Source NM.
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