RANCHOS DE TAOS, N.M. — In the center of this northern New Mexico village stands a sun-baked adobe church made famous by the paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe and the photographs of Ansel Adams and Paul Strand.
But if it weren't for an annual ritual that has been kept alive for nearly two centuries by the close-knit community of Ranchos de Taos, it's likely the iconic church wouldn't be standing at all.
Hundreds of parishioners gathered over two weeks under the summer sun to plaster the thick walls of the San Francisco de Asis Church with a fresh coat of mud, from the massive buttresses at the back of the fortress-like church to the courtyard walls and the tops of the bell towers.
It's a lot of work, but resident Guadalupe Tafoya says the payoff is knowing that the community's symbol of faith will be able to weather another year.
"If we don't come together, we end up losing," said Tafoya, who has helped with the plastering ritual — or enjarre as the parishioners call it — since she was a young girl.
"This is an organic structure. It's adobe, it's alive, it expands, it contracts so we work with it," she said. "It holds everything, it holds joy, it holds grief, it holds sorrow, it holds hope and prayer. Most of all, it holds the traditions of the people of Ranchos."
A recipe perfected over the decades
Parishioners of San Francisco de Asis have been caring for the Catholic church ever since its construction was completed in the early 1800s by the families who lived in what was then a remote settlement a few miles from the Rio Grande and north of the crossroads of El Camino Real and the Santa Fe Trail.
Like generations before them, the modern parishioners waste no time mixing the mud and doling it out to those who are armed with trowels.
Two teenagers take turns shoveling piles of dirt that were trucked in from a special area just south of the village. There, the dirt is perfect — just the right color with just the right amount of clay and sand. Each shovelful passes through a screen to separate out any pebbles.
Then experience comes into play, as only the right amount of water and straw make mud worthy of the project.
Joe Mondragon, 77, knows the recipe. He sprinkles in a handful of straw before telling the younger men to mix the mud with their hoes.
"It always seems to work," he said.
The old-timers say the job is much easier now with trucks, wheelbarrows, cranes and garden hoses. As the story goes, horses and buggies used to haul in the dirt and everybody from the village's children to its goats and dogs would stomp around in the mud to mix it up. Parishioners would then ferry the mud to the plasterers in rope-handled wooden buckets.
"The old people from way back, they already had it perfected," said Leroy Mondragon, as he mixed a trough full of the mud used for the final coat — no straw, just fine dirt and enough water to turn it into something like chocolate milk.
The work is serious but the parishioners find spare moments to share stories, laugh and whistle tunes.
"It's a time of great joy and a lot of hard work," said the Rev. Francis Malley, who has presided over the church for nearly six years. "You don't often get the chance to actually put your hand in mud and put it on and then in the space of two weeks see the final result. I think it gives the people a great deal of satisfaction and love for the church."
And by the time the final coat goes on, the church begins to glow, he said.
"Had somebody told me before I came here that a building could glow, I would not have believed them. But it's true," Malley said.
A landmark, and a symbol of faith
That glow is what has drawn thousands of artists over the years to the challenge of recording the church, a National Historic Landmark and a World Heritage site, for perpetuity.
Malley said he can walk around the church at different times of the day and see something new as the sun plays tricks on its massive walls, some of which are more than 10 feet thick.
Gabe Romero, the project supervisor, checks on the men mudding the buttresses. He squints to get a better look at where one of the supports meets the wall and suggests it be smoothed out some more.
Romero and the parishioners aim for perfection because San Francisco de Asis is the heart of Ranchos — where babies are baptized, young couples are married and fixtures of the community who have passed on are memorialized. Just last month, the church hosted the funeral service for actor Dennis Hopper, who once lived in the village.
More than a tourist attraction, San Francisco de Asis is a symbol of the community's faith, said Carmen Romero Velarde, an 82-year-old parishioner and artist who has been helping with the annual ritual for decades.
"It's a like a prayer. It's like offering a prayer to God everyday and thanking him for all that he's done for us through the years," said Velarde, who starts every morning during the enjarre by asking God for the strength to help out at least until noon.
As Velarde takes a break in the shade, the volunteers continue to plaster the walls. Their hands are encrusted with mud and their trowels scraping back and forth make for a sort of symphony.
The parish tried in 1960s to go without tending to the church by putting concrete stucco over the adobe walls. Moisture got trapped behind the stucco and the walls began to disintegrate, so it was back to tradition.
"I think God wants it this way," Romero said. "I really feel it's God's intention that this is a good way to keep his parish family together."
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