Founded in the 1850s or 1860s by Hispano settlers near the Culebra River, the Catholic Capilla de Viejo San Acacio in the San Luis Valley is the oldest non–Native American religious space in Colorado. Over the years the church has had many repairs and renovations to stabilize the structure, as well as a few alterations to its roof and windows. The community has used the church for more than 150 years and continues to celebrate Mass and the annual feast day of Santo Acacio there.
Settling the San Luis Valley
Essentially a high-elevation desert guarded on most sides by mountain ranges, the San Luis Valley was inhabited primarily by Ute tribes before the 1600s, with Apache living just over the mountains to the east. Starting in the seventeenth century and accelerating in the eighteenth century, the Spanish began to encroach on the valley’s southern fringes as they moved up the Rio Grande through what is now New Mexico.
The San Luis Valley stood at the very northern edge of the Spanish Empire in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In 1706 Spanish settlers established Taos in northern New Mexico. From there they began to stretch north, often establishing placitas (villages organized around small plazas) and capillas (small churches) as they went, though conflicts with Native Americans prevented any permanent settlements in the San Luis Valley. In 1821 the valley passed to Mexico after that country won its independence from Spain. The policy of pushing settlement northward continued, but conflicts with Native Americans continued to prevent settlement of the San Luis Valley throughout the 1830s and 1840s.
The San Luis Valley became part of the United States as a result of the annexation of Texas in 1845 and the Mexican-American War of 1846–48. The establishment of a US military presence in the valley began to make permanent settlements possible. In the early 1850s Charles Beaubien, who had acquired the land grant that encompassed much of the valley, began to encourage Hispano families from the Taos Valley in New Mexico to move north and establish colonies in the valley along Rio Culebra. By 1852 placitas had been established in San Luis de Culebra, San Pedro, and Los Fuertes, with more towns following over the next few years. In 1861 these towns became part of the newly created Colorado Territory. By 1867 the San Luis Valley had more than twenty-five placitas and about 6,000 residents.
The Miracle of San Acacio
A local tradition holds that one of the earliest San Luis Valley settlements, originally called Culebra Abajo (Lower Culebra), was attacked by a band of Ute in 1853. All the men in town were in the mountains tending their sheep. The women, children, and elderly in the village saw the attackers approaching and prayed to Saint Agathius (Santo Acacio), a saint popular among New Mexicans. The Ute attackers suddenly halted and fled before they reached the defenseless town, supposedly because they saw a vision of well-armed warriors defending it. In gratitude for this salvation, the village was renamed San Acacio, and the villagers decided to build a mission church in honor of the saint.
The first religious structure in San Acacio was a small oratorio (chapel), which still stood just east of the mission church in 1955 but was destroyed in the 1960s. Similar rustic log chapels, made of upright logs and plastered with coats of clay, were built in towns throughout the San Luis Valley. These chapels fulfilled religious functions until permanent adobe churches could be constructed, which often took years because the men of the villages had little time to spare after working hard simply to survive.
The mission church built in honor of Santo Acacio cannot be precisely dated, but it is generally considered the oldest non–Native American religious space in Colorado that is still in use today. The single-story adobe church and adjacent sacred spaces were all arranged on an east-west axis, with the church and the oratorio facing east. Initially, villagers probably built the church’s thirty-inch-thick adobe walls just high enough for a temporary roof to be constructed.
The church was probably completed sometime after 1868, when the Utes gave up their claims to the San Luis Valley, allowing villagers to safely harvest wood from the uplands. Using logs harvested that year, San Acacio villagers built higher walls and installed supportive vigas (wooden beams) near the church’s present roofline. The San Acacio church followed plans typical for mission churches in northern New Mexico and originally had a flat earth-and-log roof.
Renovations and Restorations
The San Luis Valley was connected to the outside world when the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad arrived in 1878, bringing an influx of new towns and settlers. In 1910, for example, German farmers from Iowa settled in the railroad town of New Hamburg (renamed New San Acacio during World War I) about four miles northwest of what came to be known as Viejo San Acacio (Old San Acacio). Older Hispano villages like San Acacio benefited from the valley’s developing infrastructure but remained culturally separate from the new towns, even when they were physically close.
By 1896 the Capilla de Viejo San Acacio was showing signs of deterioration. Father Samuel García oversaw major alterations to the building between 1904 and 1912. Influenced by the design of the 1880s Iglesia de la Sangre de Cristo in San Luis, he added a pitched roof of tin and wood as well as a new cupola and bell to the San Acacio mission church. He also replaced the original earth floor with wooden planks and put in a new choir loft.
Further alterations came in 1939, when Father Onofre Martorell stabilized the church’s walls and added a layer of concrete stucco to the exterior. The adobe walls received even more support in the middle of the century, when concrete buttresses were added on both sides of the entrance.
In 1989 Father Patrick Valdez initiated a major restoration of the church under the supervision of the local architectural consulting firm Valdez & Associates. The church was next to the community irrigation ditch and had no foundation, so moisture always seeped into the walls. After cement stucco was added to the exterior in the early twentieth century, that moisture could no longer evaporate naturally and was starting to destroy the original adobe walls, which were overburdened with the weight of the roof, bell, and chimney. The extensive restoration project graded the site to allow water to drain properly, underpinned the church with a concrete foundation, added a new support structure of beams and buttresses to reduce the load on the adobe walls, and replaced the cement stucco with mud plaster to allow for better evaporation from the walls.
The Capilla de Viejo San Acacio has seen continuous community use for more than 150 years. Every summer a priest from Sangre de Cristo Parish conducts Mass at each local mission church in the valley, including San Acacio. Mass is still conducted in Spanish. The community gathers at the church during Holy Week before traveling to the parish church in San Luis for religious observances. Each year on May 8, the town celebrates the feast day of Santo Acacio by forming a procession, carrying an image of the saint, and gathering for Mass at the church before holding a fundraising dinner at the community hall.