From several accounts, the village of San Mateo, New Mexico was founded in 1862. In the push of the Spaniards westward from the Rio Grande in 1800 the locale of San Mateo was the most westward point the settlers were able to penetrate. Indians, chiefly the Navajo, barred them from permanent settlement at San Mateo for many years. After the Civil War and the incarceration of the Tribe at Fort Sumner, homesteading began in earnest. Sheep ranchers would graze their sheep all the way from Seboyeta to the present site of San Mateo. Some people settled in this area in 1860 and planted crops. In 1862 the first home was erected in San Mateo. Ramon Baca and Manuel Chavez were among the first to erect homes, lay out gardens and orchards, raise sheep and cattle in great numbers.
In about 1880, Colonel Manuel Chavez started a ranch at San Mateo located where the Floyd Lee Ranch is today. He built a chapel there and some of the early Franciscans must have travelled from Seboyeta to celebrate Mass. At about the same time, his half brother, Don Roman Baca built a ranch at El Rito. Both brothers had large ranches and were severe task masters, but were known and revered as outstanding Catholics. Baca also built a chapel.
Although many tales are told about these men factual history is very meager. Still more scanty is the history of the church in this mission of San Mateo. The settlers came over the mountain from Cebolleta and established in straggling manner the brown adobe homes at the very foot of the mesa foundation of Mount Taylor. The same Padres whose names are mentioned in the history of San Rafael some thirty miles to the south reappear as caring for the souls in this mission. San Mateo has always been classified as a mission from its earliest days, beginning around 1865, down to the present time. It was attached to the respective parish centers of Cebolleta, San Rafael, Gallup, San Fidel and Grants.
Manuel Chavez built a family chapel about 25 feet from his home behind two great oaks. The location is the present ranch home of the Floyd Lee Family. The little chapel was the fulfillment of a vow made by Chavez when he rested in hiding from an attack by Indians some fifty years previous. It was constructed of adobe with the traditional dirt floor which upon the death of the builder received his remains as his first burial place.
Ramon Baca, who is generally considered to have been the largest sheep rancher in New Mexico, set aside a portion of his tremendous land holdings for the use of the Catholic settlers. Upon the plot which was in the locale of the village he built a small adobe chapel which was called the Ramon A. Baca Chapel. To attest that his land was for the exclusive use of the settlers for Catholic worship he wrote a statement to the effect. The paper exists today.
In the course of time Ramon Baca was forced to sell his land holdings. Purchaser was the Fernandez Company. The Company in turn sold a plot of land to Abelicio Pena which enclosed the chapel and property. In the deed handed over to Pena however the little chapel was excepted:
“Excepting from said conveyance a building known as the Ramon A. Baca Chapel situated on suerte seven together with a strip of land three feet wide around said building and a strip of land the width of said building extending out to the public road heretofore conveyed to Romana L. de Baca on the 6th of April, 1917.”
The chapel and its property (as above described) were in legal possession of the wife of Ramon A. Baca who, in 1917, was living in Albuquerque. On April l4 of the same year she deeded the property with the chapel to Archbishop Pitaval of Sante Fe. This property with the chapel was deeded to the Archbishop eight days after the Fernandez Company closed the deal with Abelicio Peña.
The Morada was built about the same time as the Church itself to help fill the religious needs of the people, given that priests were few and seldom seen because of the remote location of the village of San Mateo. In the absence of priests, especially during the Lenten season, lay services were conducted at the Marada. It is said that Catholic Masses started on a regular basis at San Mateo about 1930. The population of San Mateo in its early days was about 250 people, the same as it is today.
By way of comment, there is a belief by some that San Mateo is much older than we believe it to be. The reason for that is that Colonel Manuel Chavez (only age 15 at the time) was in an Indian raiding party into the Navajo country and was wounded. He rested under some oak trees (San Mateo Village) where he promised to build a chapel if he lived. This would have occurred about 1830. He went on to become a hero at the battle of Glorieta in the civil war in 1862. Colonel Chavez returned to the San Mateo area in 1880 as mentioned in the above paragraphs.
Father Robert Kalt, ofm, in 1915 considered putting up a new church building in the mission. During a mission given at the time a Missionary broached the subject to the people. A fund was begun. Collections were taken up among the people and the Extension Society gave $200.00 toward its realization. After two years not enough was gathered to finance the project. The decision was made in l9l7 to be satisfied with an addition to the chapel that existed. Twenty feet were added to the existing building extending toward the public road. At the time the flat roof was removed and a gabled roof covered with galvanized iron was erected over the entire structure. The small bell tower on the roof above the entrance door was part of the addition. This is the present mission church of San Mateo.
In more recent times and with the arrival of automobile transportation, the Mission of San Mateo Church was serviced by the Franciscan Fathers from various parishes in this area. The old Sacramental records are found at San Fidel Parish, San Fidel, N.M.
The small vestibule or porch was built after 1936 by Father Fidelis Albrecht, ofm, who cared for the mission from San Fidel. The latest improvement to the building proper was in 1950 when, under the direction of Father Godfrey Blank, ofm, the walls of the sacristy to the left of the sanctuary were torn down excepting the north wall and a new sacristy built with the addition of six feet. The extra footage was used for a built-in confessional with entrance for penitent and priest from church and sacristy respectively. Labor was done by the men of the mission led by Aurelio Salazar, Serafin Mirabal and Blas Trujillo. The neat plastering job of the interior of the sacristy is the only cement plastering on the building. The rest is adobe.
At this time the sacristy was wired and the body of the church was provided with electric light including spots for the sanctuary. Velveteen drapes were hung to the rear of the altar from wrought-iron rods. The recessed alcove in which the altar sets was also circled with drapes four feet from the floor in panel style. Small stands like altars in the sanctuary upon which were kept many small devotionals of various kinds and sizes were moved to the rear of the church and wooden wall brackets now hold the only two statues in the sanctuary, those of San Mateo end the Ecce Homo. An old authentic Santo is preserved in a special shrine in a corner as one enters the church. It is carried in procession and venerated with special ceremony at all Fiesta celebrations. A large picture shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, donated by Charles butler of St. Louis, Missouri was blessed during the Marian Year.
The closing of the uranium mine and other local mines was devastating to the local economy, and soon the community was drastically reduced in size as many people moved away to where there were jobs available. The rectory was sold and the parish reverted to the status of being a mission of St.Vivian’s in Milan whose priest would say Mass at San Mateo once a week.
In 2004, a faulty heater caused a disastrous fire that severely damaged the walls and roof of the church. Although the local community is much reduced from its size during the boom years, there were enough pledges of support which coupled with adequate reimbursement from insurance enabled the buiding of a new church. This church resembled the previous structure as much as possible while still conforming to modern fire and construction codes. Bishop Donald E. Pelotte dedicated this new church building in 2005. Mass continues to be said there once a week, and the pastor is the pastor of the Four Parishes Community of St. Teresa’s, St. Vivian’s, San Rafael, and San Mateo.
In 1889 there were 400 souls. Today San Mateo parish is made up of about 50 families. The people of San Mateo have a great devotion to their patron Saint. Each year Solemn Vespers are celebrated on the eve of the Feast of St. Matthew (San Mateo – Sept. 21) and a very old statue of San Mateo (believed to have belonged to Colonel Chavez) is carried in a candlelight procession through the village of San Mateo.