By Sr. Ellen Corcoran, SCSJA and Elizabeth Kelley
Our Lady of Sorrows, Seboyeta (Cebolleta), NM
The following history is by Elizabeth Kelley:
The community of Seboyeta was formed by an old Spanish land grant and most of the people still living there are direct descendants of the original Spanish community. The first known records date from 1746, when the Spanish authorities in Santa Fe established the community in order to encourage the Navajos and Apaches to settle in the valley and become more sedentary.
The mission was established at that time, and built by Laguna and Acoma laborers who were very reluctant to construct the mission because it was to be used for the Navajos and Apaches, who, at that time, were causing them much trouble with raiding and marauding. Furthermore, the Navajos and Apaches did not want to live in villages.
From 1770 to 1850, there is little recorded history. Settlers were continuing to arrive, but still were suffering much harassment at the hands of the raiding Indians.
For many years, particularly in the last half of the 19th century, Seboyeta was the mission headquarters for a large portion of northern Arizona and New Mexico. From here, priests traveled as far west as Flagstaff to hold services for the Catholic people spread across the area. In 1879, the parish center was moved to San Rafael.
There are many different dates for the founding of the church at Seboyeta, and one date was mentioned as early as 1778. The present church, built of adobe and dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows, was built in 1820. It has undergone much rebuilding and repairing over the years. For many years, the remodeled building had a flat roof with an arch for the bell, but because of water damage to the walls, in 1985 it was again remodeled and a pitched roof put back on over the flat roof.
Collapsing rooms at the back of the church removed and this area was rebuilt to serve as a sacristy and CCD classroom. An old adobe house across the street served as a rectory. There is a shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes situated north of the town. It is built into a natural grotto with a statue of Our Lady, an altar and wooden pews. Natural springs are located in the same cave. The road extending to the shrine is unpaved and in wet weather, travel is impossible.
Closed missions of Seboyeta are located at Moquino – dedicated to Santa Rosalia – and Bibo, dedicated to Our Lady of Loretto. Seboyeta first became a parish in 1864, and was re-dedicated as a parish in 1973.
The following history is by Sr. Ellen Corcoran, SCSJA:
Located in Cibola County some 50 miles west of Albuquerque, Seboyeta is in the eastern end of the Diocese of Gallup. It is 27 miles from the local Catholic elementary school, 50 miles from the closest Catholic high school, and 107 miles to the Diocesan Pastoral Center and Sacred Heart Cathedral in Gallup. The parish census taken in 2003 shows 95% of the 300 people living in Seboyeta to be Catholic but most demonstrate apathy toward their religion.
Seboyeta was the first village settled by the Spanish west of the Rio Grande River in 1800. There were 30 adult settlers and their families who trekked from Atrisco/ Albuquerque to the Cebolleta land grant. Many of today’s parishioners are direct descendants of these original settlers. El canyon de Ceboyeta is on the southeast flanks of La Sierra de San Mateo (Mt. Taylor). The canyon had good fertile soil and a good stream of spring water. It also offered good protection from the elements and from the Navajos. The trip took them five days in the early spring of 1800. Their biggest problem was crossing arroyos. The women did a lot of praying. They also talked about building a church when they got there. Someone suggested they call it: “Nuestra Senora de Los Dolores”: Our Lady of Sorrows. Upon arriving they all went down on their knees to thank the Lord and Our Lady of Sorrows for bringing them safely to their new home.
The parish fiesta is celebrated on January 7th, the anniversary of its dedication. Parishioners gather the evening before to celebrate with Vespers and then outside processing the hand-carved wooden statue of Our Lady of Sorrows around the church. The path for the procession is lighted by small bonfires shaped as crosses.
From this mission base, priests traveled as far west as Flagstaff, Arizona to celebrate sacraments with Catholics spread across the area. In 1879, the central parish was moved west to San Rafael, NM. History shows the church’s role was the center of the community and the lives of the people for many decades. With decreasing attendance at Mass and a shortage of priests in the diocese, the pastor was replaced by a deacon serving as parish administrator in 1999. Sister Ellen Corcoran, SCSJA, was appointed administrator in July, 2005.
The Spring 1974 edition of Extension magazine, the official publication of the Catholic Extension Society, carried this story about the parish and its then-pastor, Fr. Robert Perez.
In Rocky Terrainby George Lundy, Extension Magazine
Highway 66 was disappearing in our rear view mirror as we headed north on a two-lane macadam road. The sky was overcast but not threatening. Each mile took us into higher, rockier terrain that seemed less able to support life. The air was cold and moved by 20-mile-an-hour winds and there was still evidence of wind-blown snow in all of the earth’s recesses.
After traveling 13 miles from the highway, we caught our first glimpse of Seboyeta. It was a randomly arranged group of buildings on rolling ground that seemed to surround and protect the old Spanish church in its center. The town’s backyard went almost straight up in a varied pattern of rock formations.
At first glance, Seboyeta seemed to be overpowered by the size and strength of the rugged rock and mountain backdrop that leaned over it. But the closer one looked, the more the mountain and the town seemed suited to one another. Rocks from the mountain were incorporated into Seboyeta’s retaining walls, fences and foundations. And the mountains themselves rose to protect the town from the worst of the prevailing winds.
As we moved into town the pavement disappeared and our tires were following tracks that local cars had worn into the earth. There were no street signs or house numbers to guide us so we drove in the general direction of the church. We passed a store, a restaurant and a number of pickup trucks before the church came into full view.
Our Lady of Sorrows Church had roadways in front and on both sides to suggest that its claim on the town was historical. We drove up to the church and parked.
As churches go, this one was small. Its front yard was held in place by a rock retaining wall. The church itself was adobe and the walls were five feet thick at the bottom and tapered up to three feet thick at the top. A small double door and a circular leaded glass window were the only apertures in the front wall.
Inside, huge wooden rafters that are cradled in the side walls struggle to hold up the ceiling and roof. The floors are made of wood and they support the homemade pews that provide a seating capacity for about 100 people.
Not too many years back, there was an addition on the right rear section of the church that served as a living quarters for a priest and a stable for his horse. But time and weather caused part of the addition to crumble so the rest of it had to be torn down.
In 1975 the pastor appealed to EXTENSION for funds to rebuild the addition. This time, however, he wanted to include one large and one small CCD classroom, a sacristy, two rest rooms, storage rooms and one larger room to be used as a winter chapel. The winter chapel, he had explained, was necessary because the church was heated with butane and the cost of winter heat was prohibitive.
We shut off the car’s ignition, buttoned up a heavy parka, put on leather mittens and stepped out into a cold wind. The church’s exterior had been refinished recently so it had a clean-cut appearance. We walked past the entrance and around to the right side to take a look at the new addition.
It has been constructed of concrete block and rock lath but was finished on the outside to match the church’s adobe walls. It was a good match.
We looked around for what might be the rectory but there were no clues so we got into the car, turned on the engine and heater and headed back to the store we passed on the way in. There, a parishioner directed us to the rectory of Fr. Rafael Perez, the resident pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows in Seboyeta.
Fr. Perez, a native of Mexico, is a young, affable and capable priest. He is bilingual as are many of his parishioners.
“Our parish is old,” said Fr. Perez, “and has its roots in early American history. Seboyeta is an old Spanish land grant and most of our people are direct descendants of the original Spanish community.
“Until very recent years, the Franciscans took care of our mission but a shortage of personnel forced them to give its care to the Diocese of Gallup. Seboyeta is now a parish which has missions in nearby Bibo and Moquino and a station in Marquez.
“Our local population is probably 95% Catholic with most non-Catholics being the transients who came here for temporary work in the mines. At one time the Mormon’s were actively proselytizing here but their efforts were in vain. They built a church but it stands unused today.”
Fr. Perez went on to explain that the economy of Seboyeta and its surrounding communities was based on uranium mining. Many of the mine workers lived in the local towns but some commuted from as far away as Albequerque – some 50 miles distant.
Those who live locally are exposed to hardships – especially in winter. The rough, rocky terrain does not provide fuel for heating so bottled gas is one of the few options. Its cost is extremely high so unused rooms are sealed off and not used in wintertime.
Water, too, is a problem. It is not abundant and is furnished in two ways – one is relatively pure for drinking and the other is for watering crops. The latter is used only by those few people who still try to raise crops in this rugged country.
“Our parish,” noted Fr. Perez, “is a large one. Our nearest neigh- boring parish is at least 14 miles away. So our four churches serve Catholics over a wide area.
“The church buildings themselves are very old. Our Lady of Sorrows here in Seboyeta was built in 1820 and has been rebuilt and repaired many times since then. We have no historical data on the churches in Bibo and Moquino but they too are adobe structures and are quite old.
“The latest construction at Our Lady of Sorrows has been a tremendous benefit to our parishioners. It provides the CCD classrooms, the sacristy space and the winter chapel room that were so sorely needed. We will be forever indebted to the Extension donors who made that addition to our church possible.”
When we asked Fr. Perez about his parish needs, he told us that his priorities were now centered on fixing his mission churches at Bibo and Moquino. Both of them were of adobe construction and showing severe signs of deterioration. We accompanied Fr. Perez to both chapels and photographed the obvious erosion to the walls.
The cold winters, the summer sun and prevailing winds make survival in this rugged part of west central New Mexico very difficult. The people stay because it is part of their heritage. They feel a part of the terrain and take their strength from it.
Fr. Perez is here for a different reason. He is not native to the state or the nation. He has come from a great distance for the sole purpose of serving the local Catholics. Before he leaves he too will identify with the rocky mountainous terrain, the weather extremes and the strength of the people.
But his contribution will have been much greater than the land, the sky and the weather. His contribution will have been the Good News – the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
View the gallery of photos taken to accompany the 1979 story below:
Seboyeta remains a small, somewhat isolated community, located at the dead end of highway 279, 13 miles north of Historic Route 66 and I-40, surrounded by mesas, with a population of about 300. It presents intriguing contrasts with an unusual blend of old, deteriorating, metal-roofed adobe structures as well as a handful of substantial new residences. Since the closing of the uranium mines, people have moved elsewhere or travel to other larger towns or local casinos to find work. Many of those who did work in the mines are now on disability.
Traveling north from the church along a winding road (if it hasn’t been washed out by heavy rains), you come to a high rocky area with a spring and a cave. This spot, known as Portales, where the cave houses a shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes, has been the scene for Mass and all-night vigils with prayers and songs.
A reporter, writing for the newspaper El Caballero in 1986, published this story about the parish:
Seboyeta – Little Onion
Seboyeta it is called. Cebolla in Spanish is onion and some say the name comes from a corruption of cebolleta meaning a little onion. This village is one of the oldest settlements in the region. Remains of walls once ten feet high tell of some of its turbulent past going back to 1746. Franciscans established a mission here for Indians, who chose to go back to their nomadic life and thus abandoned the village. Colonists followed, some say from Spain, some say from Mexico and another opinion says they were thirteen colonies from the Rio Grande. It is now, and was, a Spanish land-grant.
Seboyeta is built against a hill overlooking the eastern expanse of rough mesas and a vast blue sky. The little village is dominated by its church, Our Lady of Sorrows. The name “Mission Dolores” fits it well, for now there is little employment since the uranium mines have all shut down. At one time the town was seen to grow with the mining industry going well. Since then, it is a quiet little village where mornings see the men driving off to Albuquerque, Grants or elsewhere that provide employment and sustenance for their families.
North of the town, nineteenth-century colonists built a shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes. It is a natural grotto in a rock-formed space made by the mesas around it. The road to the shrine, Los Portales, is unpaved and impassible in rainy or wet-snowy weather, for the mud is just as impossible as ice.
Our Lady of Light, Cubero NM
The following history is by Elizabeth Kelley:
In 1833, the government of the Republic of Mexico granted a tract of land to a group to form a colony. The early Catholic residents of the colony, named Cubero, had to go to Seboyeta or Laguna for baptisms, marriages and religious services until a church could be constructed for them.
In 1866, a mission was established at Cubero, and an adobe church constructed. The building provided a refuge against Apache raids until 1881, when the raids ceased. In time, flash floods weakened the walls.
From 1972 to 1975, a new church and hall were constructed. The new church was dedicated by Bishop Hastrich to Our Lady of Light, as was the old church, on May 4, 1975.
The following history is by Sr. Ellen Corcoran, SCSJA:
In 1833, the Republic of Mexico, through the Governor of the Territory of New Mexico, Francisco Sarracino, granted to 62 settlers a large tract of land, about 16,490 acres in what is today Cibola County. There had previously been an Indian village in this area. The area around here served as farming and hunting lands for them. This is high desert territory at an elevation of 6,000 – 7,000 feet at the base of 11,300 foot Mt. Taylor.
In the early days, the Penitente (Los Hermanos) influence was very strong and had many members, including Hermanos de Luz (Brothers of Light) and Hermanos de Sangre (Brothers of Blood). The Penitente’s purpose was to maintain a Christian Brotherhood in order to better imitate the life and death of Jesus. Their meeting place, the Morada, served as a unit that kept the Catholic religion alive in the area by gathering people for services and prayers. Some of the religious statues and crucifixes have been preserved, but only the shell of the Morada remains.
Cubero is located on Historic Route 66, 18 miles east of Grants. In 1940, it was home to one of the most famous eating places between Chicago and Los Angeles. Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance had a summer home nearby. Hemingway resided in Cubero while writing The Old Man and the Sea.
Our Lady of Light Catholic Church was established in 1866, in Cubero, New Mexico. The parish fiesta is celebrated on January 1st. In past years, the Fiesta celebration was very extensive, with Matechines dancing and a dinner at the home of the mayordomos, or in later years at the parish hall. the Fiesta is now celebrated with Vespers on New Year’s Eve followed by an outdoor procession around nine luminaries. The Fiesta Mass is celebrated on New Year’s Day.
The initial building was constructed of 40-inch thick adobe walls and provided a refuge for local residents against Apache and Navajo raids until 1881, when the raids ceased. An abandoned cannon remained on the church grounds for many years after. In time, the walls of the church were weakened by flash floods.
In 1921, San Fidel (four miles west) became a parish because of its central location. Cubero as well as Seboyeta, Moquino, Bibo, San Mateo, San Rafael, Grants and the Native American villages of Laguna and Acoma fell under its care. Later, parishes were established in Seboyeta, Laguna, and Acoma. Cubero remained as a mission of San Fidel. Franciscan Friars were assigned to Our Lady of Light until 1985, when diocesan priests were assigned.
Under the direction of Fr. Adam Whethington, OFM, and with the help of many benefactors, a new church and hall were constructed between 1972 and 1975. The new church was dedicated by Bishop Jerome Hastrich to Our Lady of Light on May 4, 1975. In 2011 the sanctuary in the church was renovated to brighten the worship space and include some features from the original adobe church.
St. Joseph the Worker Mission – San Fidel, NM
The following history is by Elizabeth Kelley:
The people in the village of San Fidel, established in 1868, received visits from priests from Seboyeta and San Rafael in its early years. A church was there in 1892. After the Franciscans returned to the southwest, priests from Sacred Heart Church in Gallup visited the area on their rounds.
In 1921, because of the need to reduce the workload of the visiting priests, San Fidel became a parish. It was chosen because of its central location in relation to the Indian and Spanish villages, and because it was near the railroad. Assigned to its care were all the Laguna and Acoma villages, as well as Cubero, Moquino, Seboyeta, Cebolletita, San Mateo, San Rafael and Grants.
Laguna, Acoma and Seboyeta eventually became parishes again and now San Fidel only has one mission, Cubero.
The church, dedicated to St. Joseph the Worker, was built in 1920, as was a rectory. In 1924, a school was built and served first as a public school. Later, it became a parochial school and is still serving children from Laguna, Acoma, and surrounding Spanish villages.
The large rectory which for a while housed all of the priests serving the many missions, was later converted to a convent and a small building which had been used as a guest house became the rectory.
The following history is by Sr. Ellen Corcoran, SCSJA:
A church was built for the people of the village of San Fidel (four miles west of Cubero) in 1892. In 1921, it became a parish because of its central location in relation to the Native American (Acoma & Laguna) villages. A large friary housed several Franciscan priests and a school was built in 1922. The friary chapel was the setting for many weddings. In 1985 the friary became the convent for the sisters staffing the school. Initially the school Masses were celebrated in St. Joseph Church, but in recent years, the Friday morning school Mass has been celebrated in the school chapel. St. Joseph Mission School (pre-K to 8th grade) still serves 50 children from the Native American pueblos of Laguna and Acoma as well as the Spanish villages of Cubero and Seboyeta.
An article from the summer 1974 edition of Anawim magazine describes a visitor’s perspective of both the church and school in San Fidel:
Christian Community: by George Lundy.The visitor to New Mexico could turn off at Highway 40 some fifty-five miles west of Albuquerque and in to the few buildings that identify the town of San Fidel. There the frame building that is St. Joseph’s mission church stands as a memorial to the past. And down a dirt road and a few hundred yards north is St. Joseph’s Franciscan Mission that serves the vast areas around San Fidel.
The mission buildings are impressive in that they make a bold statement of man’s presence and his determination that the message of Christ will be heard and will endure. The buildings consist of a friary or rectory, school accommodations, school lunch room, sisters quarters and guest house. The friary and older school building are adobe structures that date back to the early 1920’s.
“The locale in which we live,” says Fr. Adam Wethington, OFM, pastor of St. Joseph’s, “is surrounded by our Spanish missions that date back to the early 1800’s. We have Indian missions too – at Acoma and Laguna.
“Our friary or rectory here at St. Joseph’s was built to house the personnel for all of those missions. It has nine rooms on the first floor, nine on the second and three in the basement. Now it houses just three of us – 2 priests and a brother.
“Brother Scott Obrecht, OFM and myself are assigned to St. Joseph’s here in San Fidel and to Our Lady of Light in Cubero. We share the rectory with a priest who serves a mission in Acoma.”
St. Joseph’s mission is very important to the entire community because it operates an elementary school with grades one through six. Five teachers take care of the six grades – four Ursuline sisters and one lay teacher. The 120 students that attend St. Joseph’s come from the Indian, Spanish and white communities.
With just a few Catholics residing in San Fidel today, Mass is only celebrated in the mission church on May 1st for its Fiesta celebration of St. Joseph the Worker. There have been some baptisms and funerals, Stations of the Cross on Good Friday, and people who gather to pray.
In 1999, it was determined that there were not enough priests to cover all the missions. Cubero and Seboyeta were entrusted to the care of a pastoral administrator. Since July 2005, Sr. Ellen Corcoran, SCSJA has filled this role. She also fills the roles of parish secretary, some of the bookkeeping, DRE, catechist, liturgy & environment coordinator.