Located in La Garita in the northwestern San Luis Valley, Capilla de San Juan Bautista was built in 1924–26 as a Catholic mission church. It replaced an earlier church on the same site, which served as the area’s parish church from 1879 to 1895 but burned down in 1924. After the church was abandoned in the 1960s, it was taken over by a local women’s craft cooperative called Artes del Valle before being restored in the 2000s as part of the San Juan Catholic Spiritual Center.
A Parish Church in La Garita
In 1851, Hispanos pushing north from the New Mexican towns of Abiquiu and El Rito established the first permanent settlements in the western San Luis Valley at Guadalupe along the Conejos River. From there, settlements gradually extended farther north, and in 1858 settlers established La Garita. By 1870 the town was home to the most northerly morada (unconsecrated worship space) in the San Luis Valley.
A growing number of Catholic settlers streamed into the northern San Luis Valley in the 1870s, after a series of treaties removed the Southern Ute Indians from the valley and opened the San Juan Mountains to mining and settlement. Church leaders decided a new parish was needed to serve the communities far north of Conejos, where the existing parish was headquartered. La Garita was selected as the site of the new parish church, rectory, and cemetery, which were built on land donated by Jose Julian Espinosa and his wife, Rufina Montoya.
Named for San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist), the Territorial Adobe parish church in La Garita was dedicated on June 24, 1879, the Feast of St. John the Baptist. It served as the parish church until 1895, when the parish headquarters moved to Holy Name of Mary Catholic Church in Del Norte. San Juan Bautista became a mission church served by traveling priests from Del Norte. The Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross started to use the former rectory as a residence when they came to teach in the area.
Building a New Church
In 1924 the church burned to the ground. Construction on a replacement started later that year. Completed in 1926, the new Capilla de San Juan Bautista was a Territorial Adobe structure that resembled the previous church. It had twenty-inch-thick adobe walls with a white stucco coating and was topped by a gabled roof with a central two-story bell tower and distinctive six-armed cross. The building’s arched windows showed Gothic Revival influences. Inside, the church had stucco walls, wood floors, and a stamped-metal ceiling.
Capilla de San Juan Bautista was used regularly until the 1960s, when it was abandoned. It stood vacant for several years and fell into disrepair. In 1973 it was taken over by Artes del Valle, a local women’s craft cooperative, which used the building to display and sell their products. By that time, the adjacent adobe rectory had largely collapsed and had only a few walls still standing. The cooperative worked to get the church listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 and secured State Historical Fund grants in the 1990s for restoration work on the building. After Artes del Valle closed in the early 2000s, Capilla de San Juan Bautista was vacant again.
In 2007 Father Joseph Vigil of the San Juan Catholic Community led an effort to revitalize the historic Capilla de San Juan Bautista. As a result of his leadership and significant donations from the Archuleta and Kulp families, in 2009 the church started to be restored as part of the San Juan Catholic Spiritual Center. In addition to the church, the spiritual center includes the San Juan Bautista Monument, built in 2009 using a surviving wall from the property’s old adobe rectory; the St. John Paul II Rosary Walk, completed in 2012; and the historic Carnero Creek Cemetery. The monument, Rosary Walk, and cemetery are open every day, and the church is used to celebrate Mass on the Feast of St. John the Baptist in June and the Feast of the Archangels in September.