Built in 1881, St. Francis of Assisi Mission Church is a Catholic church in Los Valdeses, a town along the Rio Grande about halfway between Del Norte and Monte Vista. One of the few Hispano churches in the San Luis Valley with a cruciform plan, St. Francis of Assisi held regular Masses until the 1990s and continues to be maintained by the community. In 2002 the building was listed on the State Register of Historic Properties.
Early Settlers Along the Rio Grande
Hispanos first settled the land around what is now Los Valdeses or Sevenmile Plaza in the 1860s and 1870s. In 1866 early settlers built the first irrigation ditches in the area. Soon more migrants from New Mexico and the nearby town of La Loma de San Jose (near Del Norte) were moving to what was known as Loma de Abaja, which lay along the Rio Grande on the road between Del Norte and Monte Vista. In the early 1870s priests from Conejos traveled to the growing settlement to celebrate Mass, but at the end of the decade the area started to be served by a new parish established at La Garita.
By the early 1880s, about seventy-five families lived in Loma de Abaja. The dispersed town on the south side of the Rio Grande was starting to be called Valdez or Valdeses after Juan Valdez, who had moved there in the early 1870s from Rio Arriba County, New Mexico. The area continued to grow after the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad was constructed through Valdez’s land in 1881. A daily train stopped at nearby Freeman Switch, allowing residents to commute to Del Norte and Monte Vista. Businesses sprang up on the north side of the Rio Grande in an area that started to be known as Sevenmile Plaza.
St. Francis of Assisi Mission Church
In 1881, the year that the railroad arrived, local residents paid for and built St. Francis of Assisi Mission Church on land donated by the Valdez family. The church was a rectangular single-nave building like many other mission churches in the San Luis Valley. It had thirty-inch-thick adobe walls atop a rubble stone foundation. Inside, the dirt floor followed the natural slope of the land from the eastern entrance up to the western altar. There were benches instead of pews, and parishioners brought a chunk of firewood to Mass for the church’s wood stove. Both Juan Valdez and his wife, Maria Nestoria Salazar, were supposedly buried in the floor of the church near the altar after they died in the late 1880s.
The community expanded and renovated the church several times in the twentieth century. The most significant expansion occurred in 1925, when transepts were added on both sides to create a cruciform plan. Around the same time, a wood floor was installed over the original dirt floor, the interior adobe walls were redone, and two small rooms for a sacristy and storage were added in the northwest and southwest corners where the transepts met the central building.
In the 1930s the church was often so crowded that some parishioners had to stand. The community held special celebrations for the Feasts of San Isidro and Corpus Christi in the spring and the Feast of St. Francis in the fall.
During World War II, German prisoners of war installed electricity in the church and other buildings in the area. Also in the 1940s, the community installed a new main altar from Spain, which was so tall that the roof above it had to be raised. At some point the wood floor was replaced with concrete and tile. After World War II, the town’s population dropped significantly, but until the 1990s Mass was celebrated weekly or monthly at the church.
Today, local residents still think of St. Francis of Assisi as their home church, but many travel to Del Norte or Monte Vista for regular services. They continue to maintain the church and gather there on October 4 to celebrate the Feast of St. Francis.