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A bell tower made of human bones

Plus six other things you probably didn’t know about San Felipe de Neri 

Since it is the marquee historic building in a beautiful, destination neighborhood tailor-made for out-of-town guests, you have no doubt walked by or set foot inside Old Town’s San Felipe de Neri church dozens of times. (New arrivals to town, fear not: this is your future.)

But as you might imagine, given 300 years of history and the fact that it’s still a working building that can’t have random people wandering the back halls all the time, there’s a lot of interesting stuff that the tourists and their local guides never get to see. So when Father Andrew Pavlak, who has been posted to the church for four years now, offered DAN a behind-the scenes tour, we jumped at the chance. Here’s what we learned: 

The marble pulpit and facade at the front of the sanctuary is actually painted wood
Marble is expensive today, but was especially difficult for a tiny church in New Mexico to come by back in the 1800s. So Bishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy (1814-1888) oversaw this architectural sleight of hand. He didn’t much care for the original style of the church and saw to it that pitched roofs and gothic decorations augmented a building that, in its original form, looked a lot more like the mission church on Acoma Pueblo. The paint job for the “marble,” meanwhile, needs very occasional touching up. 

Painted wood, skillfully made to resemble marble.

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The church owns a treasure trove of old books and manuscripts
The literary legacy of a group of Jesuits who called the place home until the 1960s, the 3,000-or-so books are currently sitting in boxes. The collection consists of works on theology and history – some dating back to 1625 – as well as original journals of some of the people who lived at the church. Pavlak hopes to bring in experts to help organize and display the works, which he says could well become the subject of future academic research.

The tabernacle is bolted down because someone once stole it
Back in 2016 at the start of the Easter season, someone with access to a critical door code for a chapel on the north side of the building made off with the tabernacle, the highly revered place where consecrated communion hosts (literally the physical presence of Jesus, according to church teaching) are kept. Pavlak put the word out that the church would very much like to have it back, and soon got a call from a woman in the South Valley who was apparently acting as intermediary for the thief. Pavlak and a deacon trekked down to her residence to retrieve it, and it is now bolted in place. For the record, the door code has also been changed. 

This tabernacle is very securely fastened, following a 2016 bit of thievery.

The bell tower on the west side of the church is made of human bones 
The original church was constructed across Romero Street in 1706, on the site where Aceves Old Town Basket & Rug Shop now sits. In 1793, massive flooding from the Rio Grande – then much less constrained by modern agriculture and dams – destroyed the church and washed away many of the bones in the adjacent cemetery, which would have been located on what is now Romero and/or the central park area where the gazebo is located. When it came time to build the new church – which was dedicated in 1796 – workers exhumed those remains that hadn’t been washed away, placed them in the hollow interior of the bell tower, then sealed it all up. Crazy contractors gone awry? Not really. Customs were very different at the time, and taking the bones of the dearly departed and incorporating them into a sacred building would have been seen as an honorable or at least practical way to deal with a cemetery in an untenable location. And on a historical scale, this is pretty small potatoes: there are several famous churches in Europe that use bones as a decorating scheme. 

The left-side tower is full of bones. It’s not as crazy as you think.

Adobe is not the only ancient construction method used for the walls.
Builders also used pieces of cut sod called terrones for construction. The terrones, which were dried out in the sun before use, would ideally have been shot through with plant roots for strength. Builders also added river rocks to the walls, which made the installation of HVAC equipment much more challenging for present-day contractors.

Terrones, the cousins of adobe, seen here in a partially exposed section of wall on the second floor above the gift shop.

The nun who founded the on-site school is on the road to sainthood.
The process of making a saint is very complex and time-consuming, but the cause of Sister Blandina Segale (1850-1941) seems to be proceeding well. In 2015, her official advocate – CHI St. Joseph’s Children president and Archdiocese of Santa Fe lobbyist Allen Sanchez – hand delivered a 4,000-page document to the Vatican detailing Segale’s case. Ever since, a sort of grand jury for canon law has been reviewing the matter and will issue a recommendation on how to proceed to the Pope within a year or so. But that’s not even close to the end of the process, Sanchez says: There will then be further investigations before she is beatified, the last step before canonization. Though impossible to say for sure, in part because the final step requires a new miracle to be officially attributed to her, Sanchez guesses that the whole process will be done within five years.

Besides founding the first public school in Albuquerque, Segale also spearheaded construction of other schools and hospitals in New Mexico, raising money and supervising the construction, Sanchez says. In one particularly famous episode of freelance diplomacy, she even convinced Billy the Kid not to murder four doctors

Sister Blandina Segale, the public education pioneer and probable future saint who also knew Billy the Kid.

There are big plans for the unfinished second floor above the gift shop 
Right now it’s just a collection of empty rooms and storage boxes, and turning on the lights involves plugging in those cage-enclosed hanging lamps used by construction workers. But one day – perhaps when a steady stream of tourists are looking to learn about Saint Blandina – Pavlak hopes the space will be a kind of small museum, with a replica of the nun’s simple living quarters, a space where people can look at all the old books, and other displays. It could be a long way off though: The project would likely be priced in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, a heavy lift for an archdiocese that recently filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. But the potential is there nonetheless: One day, you may have much more of San Felipe de Neri to show your out-of-town guests. 

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