Located in San Francisco in the southeastern San Luis Valley, Iglesia de San Francisco de Assisi is a Catholic church featuring Gothic and Mission Revival elements. Constructed in the 1950s using concrete blocks and casement windows, the building shows how the local parish adapted modern building techniques to traditional ecclesiastical architecture after World War II. In 2012 the church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1853–54, the town of San Francisco was established as one of the earliest settlements in the San Luis Valley. Located about nine miles southeast of San Luis, it was started by Hispano settlers along San Francisco Creek and named after the town’s patron saint, St. Francis. Like other early Hispano villages in the area, San Francisco organized quickly to provide for two of the community’s most pressing needs: water and worship. By 1860 the settlers had dug San Francisco Ditch for irrigation and established a rustic oratorio (chapel) or other simple space for worship.
The first formal church in San Francisco was built around the time Sangre de Cristo Parish was established in the 1880s. By 1889, an adobe chapel with twenty-four-inch walls and a flat roof was in use just west of the present church. After Father Samuel García became pastor of Sangre de Cristo Parish in 1894, he probably added a gabled roof and tower to the chapel, giving it an appearance similar to that of Capilla de San Isidro in Los Fuertes, a single-nave adobe church constructed around the same time.
By the mid-twentieth century, the adobe chapel had structural problems so severe that the community decided to replace the building rather than repair it. In 1950 they started to build a new church using funding from Catholic Extension, a crucial source of assistance for small villages in Costilla County that could not finance a church on their own. Construction was overseen by Father Onofre Martorell, the longtime pastor of Sangre de Cristo Parish and a noted church builder whose influence can be seen in towns throughout the area.
Iglesia de San Francisco de Assisi was among the last churches Martorell built during his tenure and reflected a shift to modern construction materials while still retaining the basic forms and feel of a traditional adobe mission church. Underneath a white cement stucco coating, the church in San Francisco was made of concrete blocks rather than adobe and had casement windows with clear glass. Designed by assistant pastor Father Pedro Verd, the building combined Gothic and Mission Revival elements, with two crenellated towers framing a central bay topped by a cross. The interior had white stucco walls, wooden flooring and pews, and a carved wooden altar with statues of St. Francis, Mary, and Jesus.
Although construction started in 1950, the new church was not consecrated until November 6, 1960. In the meantime, the village continued to use the old adobe chapel for religious services and community events. Photographs show that the old chapel still stood as late as 1962, but no evidence of it remains today.
Iglesia de San Francisco de Assisi continues to play an important role in the local community. During the summer, a priest from Sangre de Cristo Parish conducts Mass at each local mission church in the area, including San Francisco. 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.