Linda Ortega chose to buy a house next door to a centuries-old South Valley church that she once considered her spiritual home.
San Jose Church sprang to life during the Christmas season, on certain feast days, and especially during Lent, when as many as 100 people crowded into the tiny church, Ortega recalled.
But the church at 2100 La Vega SW has remained silent since early 2013 when it was closed by the nonprofit that owns the property.
“They locked the gates and removed everything, including the bell of the church,” she said. “It was quite abrupt. It was shocking.”
Before the church was closed, a group of Penitente brothers say they opened the church regularly for religious services and welcomed the community to attend.
Today, the nonprofit that owns the property bars the Penitentes and plans eventually to reopen the church as a venue for public events other than religious services.
The church’s contents – including pews, life-sized santos carved from cottonwood, and even a wood-burning stove – were removed, people familiar with the church said.
Fences that surround the three-acre property do little to stop trespassers, Ortega said.
“Sadly, the property has been vandalized with graffiti, trash – lots of unsavory things going on behind the church,” she said.
The property recently showed evidence of visits by drug users, who left used syringes and other paraphernalia near a rear wall of the church.
The property today is fenced and locked while the legal dispute simmers between a group of Penitente brothers, who claim the church as their heritage, and the Atrisco Heritage Foundation, which has owned the property since 2006.
The Sociedad de Nuestro Padre Jesus, a group of Penitente brothers, filed a lawsuit last year in state District Court against the foundation, challenging the nonprofit’s legal right to bar Penitente brothers from the church.
The Penitente Brotherhood is a lay fraternity of Catholics that provided spiritual leadership for centuries in New Mexico and southern Colorado.
Even San Jose’s name is the subject of dispute. Court records refer to it as San Jose Church, but Penitentes call it the Morada de San Jose – the Spanish word for a Penitente church.
A spokesman for the Atrisco Heritage Foundation called it a Catholic church that for centuries was owned in common by heirs of the Atrisco Land Grant, who settled in the area more than 300 years ago.
Archbishop of Santa Fe Michael Sheehan called it a “chapel,” long used by Catholics as a place of worship. But the Roman Catholic Church does not own the property and has no stake in the outcome of the legal dispute, he said.
Eager to renovate
Peter Sanchez, executive director of the Atrisco Heritage Foundation, said the nonprofit is eager to renovate the church and open it to “the entire community” rather than a small group of Penitente brothers.
“Their argument is that five or six people should be able to use this church exclusively,” Sanchez said of the Penitentes, whom he called “tenants” of the church in recent decades.
“Our argument is that the community should be able to use this church. When we say the community, we mean the whole community.”
Sanchez contends that the Penitentes controlled access to the church and largely closed it to the broader community. Sanchez also contends the church is in good condition and that the foundation is maintaining the property.
Ortega and others reject the contention that the church was closed.
“It was open to the community as it was,” she said. “Anybody could come and participate, or just observe, if they didn’t want to participate in the prayers.”
The Atrisco Heritage Foundation was formed in 2006 by the now-defunct Westland Development Corp. to preserve cultural properties, including San Jose Church and three cemeteries. Westland was the successor to the Atrisco Land Grant.
A key issue in the lawsuit is the validity of a 50-year lease that Westland granted to the Penitente brotherhood in 2006, giving it use of the church, according to the lawsuit. The Atrisco Heritage Foundation in its response denied that the Penitentes have a legal lease with Westland.
Sanchez said the nonprofit intends to restore the church and develop the property into an asset the community can use for a wide variety of events.
The foundation is working with a group of University of New Mexico graduate business students “to develop a strategic plan and feasibility study to develop the property in a way that is more beneficial to the community,” Sanchez said.
He said the project is modeled on the Old San Ysidro Church, which is owned by the village of Corrales and leased for events ranging from weddings to performances, but not as a church.
The foundation also wants to register San Jose Church on the National Register of Historic Places, he said. The designation makes owners eligible for investment tax credits to pay for rehabilitation of historic structures.
Religious artifacts removed from the church “are stored safely under our control,” Sanchez said. The foundation would not oppose handing the artifacts over to the Penitentes if a judge determines the rightful owners.
“We simply want the courts to decide,” he said.
Tension between the Penitentes and the Atrisco Heritage Foundation led to a confrontation Oct. 4 when foundation board members opened the gate to allow UNM students to view the church and a Penitente leader tried to enter the property, according to a Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office report.
The conflict began when Jose Maria Perea, a spiritual leader of the Penitente group, drove his motorized wheelchair through the open gate when board members ordered him to leave, according to the report. Perea told a deputy that board members grabbed him and his wheelchair in an attempt to force him off the property.
Sanchez said of the incident that Perea was “trespassing onto our property, trying to disrupt a meeting between our organization and UNM. We had to call the police and have him escorted off.”
Neither Perea nor the board members sought criminal charges.
Perea, Ortega and other South Valley residents say they oppose the foundation’s plans to use the church for nonreligious purposes, such as community events.
San Jose is among the oldest churches in the region and should be used exclusively as a church, said Jerome Padilla, president of the board of directors of the town of Atrisco grant, a political jurisdiction composed of Atrisco heirs.
“We want to protect the traditional practices on that land,” he said.
Perea called the church a “cultural sanctuary” that for decades served both the Penitente brothers and the larger community.
Generations of Penitente brothers are buried there, both on the grounds of the church and under the church’s floor boards, Perea said during a recent visit to the church. Many of the graves are unmarked, he said.
“Every inch that you dig under this, there are bones of our ancestors,” he said.