Located in Chama in the San Luis Valley, Iglesia de la Inmaculada Concepción (Church of the Immaculate Conception) is a Catholic church built in 1938 under the supervision of Father Onofre Martorell. It continues to serve as an important community center, with Mass celebrated in Spanish during the summer. In 2012 the church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Early Worship in Chama
Settled around 1864 by Hispanos moving north from New Mexico, Chama was originally known as Culebra because of its location along Culebra Creek. Like other early Hispano towns in the San Luis Valley, the first place of worship was a small chapel on the town plaza. These rustic chapels, usually made of upright logs plastered with clay, fulfilled religious functions until permanent adobe churches could be constructed. Soon the town was renamed after the chapel’s patron saint, Nuestra Señora del Rosario (Our Lady of the Rosary). The town and its church went by that name until the early twentieth century.
The first church in Chama, or Nuestra Señora del Rosario, was probably built in the 1880s, not long after Sangre de Cristo Parish was established. By the 1910s, that church was in need of repair or reconstruction. The parishioners in Chama (renamed in 1907 in honor of the New Mexico town from which many of its residents had migrated) turned to the Catholic Extension magazine to raise money for a new church. They received a donation that came with the condition that the new church be named Immaculate Conception. The town accepted the donation and in 1915 local farmers built a new church called Iglesia de la Inmaculada Concepción. The adobe church was built adjacent to an irrigation ditch a few hundred feet north of the town center, on land donated by the Cruz Sanchez family.
Iglesia de la Inmaculada Concepción
Chama’s church burned down in 1935. To fund a new building, the community started a baseball team called the Chama Kitos and sold game tickets to raise money. The pastor of Sangre de Cristo Parish, Father Onofre Martorell, guided the rebuilding effort. Completed in 1938, the reconstructed Iglesia had a single-story cruciform plan with an eastern nave entrance. The design was similar to that of Iglesia de San Pedro y San Pablo, the construction of which Martorell had overseen in 1934. Some of the exterior adobe walls incorporated the remains of the previous church. Inside, the church had plaster walls, a vaulted ceiling, and a full balcony over the eastern entrance. The tripartite reredos, decorative screens behind the altar, featured statues of the Virgin Mary, St. James, and Jesus. Around the same time the church was rebuilt, the community also added an outhouse, storage shed, and trees to the property, possibly with the help of New Deal funding.
The church saw several small changes over the twentieth century. Originally the exterior adobe walls had an earthen plaster finish, but by the mid-twentieth century they had been covered with cement stucco, a common treatment to protect the walls from moisture. Around the same time, single-story additions were built at the northwest and southwest corners of the cross-shaped building in order to provide more space for storage and a sacristy.
Iglesia de la Inmaculada Concepción still plays a central role in the Chama community. During the summer a priest from Sangre de Cristo Parish conducts Mass at each local mission church in the area, including Inmaculada Concepción. Mass is still conducted in Spanish. In addition, the community gathers at the church during Holy Week before carrying a model of the church to San Luis for religious observances. The community also gathers at the church in July for the Feast of St. James, in December for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and throughout the year for a variety of local events.