San Esteban del Rey Church and Convento, Pueblo of Acoma

Begun in 1630, only 32 years after Juan de OƱate took possession of New Mexico in the name of King Philip II of Spain, San Esteban del Rey Church was one of the few Spanish missions to survive the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. When one considers the labor that the Acoma people expended to build this massive structure, it’s no wonder they chose not to destroy it. To build the church, convent, and cemetery, they moved approximately 20,000 tons of earth and stone from the canyon floor up the precipitous sides of the mesa. The quantity of water hauled by burros and carried on the heads of Acoma women during the 14 years of construction is difficult to estimate; the amount of labor required to transport the numerous 40-foot vigas the necessary 20 mountainous miles is hard to imagine.

Today, the church houses the largest inventory of early 17th century building material of any structure in New Mexico. Its collection of Spanish colonial ecclesiastic art is unique and includes an original hand-hewn circular staircase, hand-carved rails, paintings, a reredo, and more. Since 1999, Cornerstones Community Partnerships has worked in partnership with Acoma Pueblo to restore their important historic structures and to help build capacity among community members to effectively manage their own cultural and historic resources

Thus far, the priest’s quarters, convento, and schoolroom have been completely restored.

The project has now progressed to the main nave of the church with the primary task being replacement of the roof and re-establishment of the clerestory window that sheds light on the altar area. The roof poses the largest threat to the entire structure. It provides inadequate protection for the walls and interior of the church. Restoration of the earthen roof to its original state has never been attempted before in the Southwest. The roof will be restored in five 20-foot segments. Actual replacement will occur by hand; no modern construction machinery will be used. Preparation for this phase requires comprehensive team training. With no existing model of earthen architecture on this scale in the U.S., the San Esteban del Rey restoration (SEDRR) crew, all Acoma tribal members, has been trained in the use of traditional building techniques and materials when working on the smaller convento structure. Traditional earthen-building workshops, youth training programs, and the convento roof restoration provided the SEDRR crew with the technical expertise and team dynamics necessary to move on to re-establishment of the earthen roof and clerestory window.

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