The tiny village of Cuba is situated at the foothills of the Nacimiento Mountains in northwestern New Mexico. It can be considered an oasis for travelers commuting between Albuquerque and Farmington, or vice versa. As the Highway goes, Cuba is 85 miles to the northwest of Albuquerque and 100 miles to the southeast of Farmington, NM.
This area of New Mexico was first settled in the 1760s by Spanish settlers traveling up along the Rio Puerco valley. Due to the stark remoteness of the area, most of the settlers maintained little contact with the outside world. The villagers of Cuba did not truly start to open up until around the end of World War II, and then with the official founding of a US Post Office.
Until that time, the village was referred to as ‘Nacimiento’, as the Catholic Church then established was dedicated to the Nativity of our Blessed Mother – ‘Naciemiento de la Virgin Santisima’. The foothills of some nearby mountains are also called by this name. When the United States Government established the Post Office in this territory the Post Office was called Cuba, and eventually the town name evolved.
The spiritual administration for the early settlers were taken care of by priests coming from what is now Jemez Pueblo, about 50 miles to the south of Cuba.
In 1901 the Franciscan Friars of the Province of St. John the Baptist, Cincinnati, Ohio came to Jemez Pueblo. From that time the Franciscan Padres administered to the spiritual welfare of the inhabitants of Cuba and the surrounding territory.
The present church at Cuba was built in 1912 by the Rev. Camillus Fangmann, OFM, who in 1914 took up permanent residence in Cuba.
In 1912 the building of the present Catholic school was begun and the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration came in 1916 to provide the teaching facilities of the school and the education of the inhabitants.
Fr. Fangmann, in an essay for The Franciscan Missions of the Southwest, writes of this early time in Cuba:
“The parish of Nacimiento comprises four missions: 1. Cuba, which is the residence of the pastor; patroness: The Immaculate Conception; it numbers 250 families; 2. La Jara, seven miles to the north; patron: El Nino de Atocha; 66 families; 3. Gallina, 24 miles to the northeast; patroness: Our Lady of Guadalupe; 69 families; 4. Costilla; patron: San Isidro Labrador; 12 families.
“Cuba and La Jara were part of the Jemez parish and were attended from there until 1916, when Nacimiento was made an independent parish. Gallina was added in 1914 and Costilla a year later. Soon after the Franciscan Fathers had taken charge of the parish, in February, 1902, it became apparent that Nacimiento or Cuba, as the United States post office is called, needed a new church and better attention to keep alive the faith of the people. The pastor, the Rev. Barnabas Meyer, therefore, began at an early date to prepare for the erection of a new church, and eventually of a school. It was apparent that this part of Jemez parish would develop into a new parish. It was 50 miles from the residence of the pastor.
“Preparations were made, logs were cut, stones and rocks were hauled to the site of the new building, but adverse circumstances made it impossible to start the foundation until the year 1908. Three years of hard work amid many disappointments, and the church was ready at last for the dedication. This took place on Nov. 23, 1911. The church was blessed by Rev. Barnabas Meyer; His Grace, the Archbishop of Santa Fe, having delegated him for the occasion to take his place. Rev. Arbogast Reissler, since deceased, preached the sermon. The attendance was large in spite of the inclement weather. A beautiful high altar, a statue of the patroness, and a new organ were installed at the same time. Pews and confessionals were added in the following year, and at present, though not pretentious, the church is filling a long felt need for the people of Cuba.
“The church finished and paid for, the next thing was to build a school for the education of a host of little ones. Since the parishioners are scattered over an area of 4,000 to 5,000 square miles, it was deemed necessary to build a large boarding school; plans to that effect were made and approved by the Superiors. Then began a struggle with time and money, with disappointments and discouragements. Beat the iron while it is still hot, thought the pastor. The people had worked hard for their church, had hauled the stone, and made the adobe bricks to the number of 45,000, and had contributed according to their means in money and labor. They were proud of their church, and justly so. Would they do the same for the school? With hope and confidence the work was begun. December, 1912, saw a multitude of teams and scrapers making a large excavation of 90 x 70 ft for the basement.
“More than 1,000 loads of rock were hauled in the course of the winter and following spring; the foundation was begun and everything seemed to be progressing nicely. The world war was fought and is a thing of the past; but we are still toiling away at the building. For some unaccountable reasons the courage of many of the parishioners failed, and though there were several revivals of their spirit at times, the building has become the arduous task of a few devoted souls who kept at it. Slowly the walls rose from the ground, higher and higher, until at present we are looking to the completion of the building this year.
“In September, 1916, the Poor Sisters of St. Francis of the Perpetual Adoration took charge of the district school of Cuba, and it is encouraging to see how eagerly the little ones have flocked to school since the Sisters arrived. The school has an attendance of more than 100 pupils, who, one and all, are anxious to get into the new school or convento, as they call it. They do not share the apathy of many of their elders, who could and should have helped more. Yet the majority of the parishioners are poor, who at times have hardly enough to keep body and soul together, especially during these hard times.
“Granting that our native people are naturally of a lazy and indifferent disposition, not all are as bad as they are painted. Most of them have large families, and as self comes first, it is often hard to do much for other purposes.
“Calling the attention of charitable souls to the needs of the Southwest, we pray the Lord to give us patience, courage and endurance.”
In December, 1947, a fire in the temporary classrooms required a great deal of repair work and a new school was not built in the area until 1968.
In 1966, a new church was constructed under the direction of Father Crispin Butz, OFM, and in 1969, a new convent was dedicated.
The parishioners from the small villages, many with low incomes, were able to pay off the accumulated debts for all the structures by 1978, a tribute to their devotion.
At that time a new parish hall was built and an addition to the school was constructed in 1986.
Another account of early life in this valley comes from Fr. Fridolin Schuster, OFM. He writes of a trip in 1918 taken with Archbishop J.B. Pitaval of Santa Fe and Fr. Albert Daeger, OFM (who would later go on to become the Archbishop of Santa Fe himself). The three were visiting the various villages of and around Jemez, in order for the Archbishop to make confirmations. Fr. Schuster recalls that after leaving Jemez Pueblo, the three clerics moved on to Cuba and its nearby mission villages.
“On the morning of October 3, we started for Cuba, N.M., in an automobile driven by our Bro. Julian, who is an expert mechanic and a very careful and easy driver. His mechanical knowledge, however, was not required, for although the roads were rough and mountainous, we made the 60 odd miles without a mishap. Nine miles from Cuba we were met by two autos, the occupants having come that distance to greet His Grace. A few miles further on, several boys on horseback awaited us and increased our escort. Two miles from town a beautiful arch had been erected over a bridge we were obliged to cross, and as we reached the town itself, all the people had gathered to greet the Archbishop. Two rows of trees had been placed in the ground for a distance of several hundred yards from the church. At the end of the arborage formed by these trees, the pastor of Cuba, the Rev. Camillus Fangman, O.F.M., surrounded by altar boys in cassock and surplice, awaited us. Behind these were the Sisters with the school children and the adult population. Dust and travel-stained as he was, the Archbishop was conducted to the church, which was tastily decorated with arches and other trimmings. October 4, the feast of our Holy Father St. Francis, was spent at Cuba, where the number of confirmations was 220. The impaired health of the good Archbishop did not permit him to visit all the missions as in former years. He visited only the larger places and the people of the other missions were obliged to come to one of these. Cuba is a Mexican settlement with a beautiful location in the heart of the Nacimiento mountain range. Under the direction of the zealous and hard-working Fr. Camillus the town has made wonderful progress, both spiritually and materially. He it was who erected the spacious, beautiful church; he brought the Sisters to Cuba where they are teaching in the public school until the large parochial school building shall be completed. Leaving Cuba on the morning of the 5th, after several hours of driving, we reached San Luis, which belongs to the parish of Jemez. The usual hearty reception awaited us. The Archbishop was conducted to the new chapel, a neat, simple but handsome structure, although not quite completed. Here 34 children were confirmed. After partaking of a slight lunch we pushed on to Cabezon. In the evening and early next morning the people began to arrive from the villages of Guadalupe and Salazar. There were 60 confirmations next day, October 6th.
We left Cabezon about noon in the same auto with Bro. Julian still at the wheel, and after a drive of seven hours we arrived at the orphanage in the city of Albuquerque, conducted by the Franciscan Sisters. Here we received our first news of the raging of the terrible epidemic of the Spanish influenza. In Albuquerque all public places, including the churches, had been closed by order of the health authorities. It had been the plan of the Archbishop to proceed from Albuquerque to the parish of Gallup. His Grace requested me to leave for Gallup the same night to inquire about the influenza conditions there. The dread specter had already invaded the Gallup parish and for that reason the Archbishop called off the intended visit. Thus did our trip end suddenly and unexpectedly. It was the last confirmation trip of the Most Rev. J.B. Pitaval, D.D. through the Jemez country.”
La Jara is the closest mission just six miles from Cuba, and the only one still in use today. It may have been founded as a stop along the Spanish Trail, an old trade route which ran from Santa Fe to Los Angeles. The patron and namesake of the church is Santo Niño de Atocha.
San Luis (Dominguez) is 30 miles from Cuba, to the south. This was a town also settled in the Rio Puerco Valley, as a farming town and a stop for the old mail buggy. Records indicate that even when it was still a village of Jemez, it was very small, with a single main street.
Guadalupe, (Ojo del Padre) is 45 miles to the south of Cuba. It was originally settled by a group of Spanish families along the Rio Puerco river, and was noted for being extremely sheltered and closed-off. Even in the early days, the inhabitants spoke only Spanish, necessitating the use of a translator or Spanish speaker when a priest visited for religious reasons or to say Mass. It is now a ghost town, with its last inhabited building – the post office – having closed in the late 1950s.
Cabezon may have gotten its name from the large black butte looming over the town. To the Navajo people, this butte was known as the head of Yei Tso, a giant slain by the mythical Hero twins. The town was founded in 1879, and the Catholic Church there was established in 1894. Eventually the town evolved into a true example of what many think of as the “Old West”, complete with a saloon and trading post. Many of the buildings were used for a 1971 Western starring Peter Fonda called The Hired Hand. It was also at one point used as a stagecoach stop on the way from Santa Fe to the military outpost at Ft. Wingate. Cabezon is now all but a ghost town, with Mass said once a year on the parish’s feast day. A beautiful photo gallery of the ghost town can be viewed here.
May, Esther V. Cordova: Antes: Stories from the Past: Rural Cuba, New Mexico, 1769-1949
Other Diocesan archival records by Elizabeth Kelley and Rev. Ronnin G. Einhaus, OFM