A breath of life for Ruidosa’s crumbling adobe church

The Nunez Wedding at The Sacred Heart of the Church of Jesus in Ruidosa, Texas, on December 31, 1939. (photo courtesy of Mike Green)

RUIDOSA, PRESIDIO COUNTY – Before the cotton crops withered in Ruidosa, The Sacred Heart of the Church of Jesus was a proud, adobe sanctuary where townspeople gathered to observe the milestones of life. Baptisms, weddings, funerals and weekly mass measured the heartbeat of a bustling little border town, 37 miles northwest of Presidio.

The church sprang up around 1914 under the guidance of a Dutch-born Catholic priest, Father Nicholas Brocardus Eekin, and was constructed by local hands. At least one participant knew their way around the earthen architecture, helping construct two pyramidal-roofed towers that flank the entrance and four soaring archways believed to be the largest traditional adobe arches in Texas.

The population slowly bubbled up to 300 residents, and through the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the town at the foot of the Chinati Mountains became home to a flour mill, cotton gin, post office and general store.

The Sacred Heart of the Church of Jesus in Ruidosa, Texas

But then the Rio Grande’s flows ebbed to a modest trickle, and Ruidosa’s economy dried up too. The town’s population sank, sitting at 43 citizens in the last census. The Catholic Diocese of El Paso told Presidio County that they had no plans to ever station a priest in the town again, and the 105 year old church has suffered during its decades of disuse. The corners of each exposed adobe brick rounded as decades of wind and rain pulled the sun dried mud mixture back into the earth. An archway abruptly collapsed one day. At some point the building was gutted, and there’s little known about the original church’s interior layout. The sacristy, a room where priests traditionally prepare for a service, disappeared completely, and a faulty survey of the property gave away the land where it once stood.

Piecemeal repairs to the church came and went. Various efforts have propped up a wall, replaced the roof and rebuilt one of the towers, but the path to restoration has thus far been a story of false starts. Insufficient funding and poor adobe practices have left the building still in need of stabilization, preservation and restoration.

“We’re looking for historic information: photographs, especially interior photographs,” said architect Mike Green, who is spearheading the establishment of a nonprofit, Friends of the Ruidosa Church, along with archaeologist David Keller and a few other supporters dedicated to restoring the church to its former glory.

Green convinced Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara and Historic Commission member Mona Garcia in May of 2016 to go on a road trip to El Paso. He assumed churches rarely ceded property, but the three set up a meeting with the diocese anyway, hoping to present a plan to save the building.

To their shock, the bishop was open to deeding the property to Presidio County. In the three and a half years since, it has taken research, surveys, neighboring land cession and many hands to get the church deed to Presidio County. Commissioners formally accepted ownership of the Sacred Heart of the Church of Jesus in Ruidosa on Monday during a commissioners meeting.

However, the church won’t stay in the county’s hands for long. The complete stabilization, preservation and restoration project has been estimated to cost more than two million dollars, as adobe expertise dwindles and the remote location makes it difficult to source labor and materials. The county isn’t interested in finding the expertise and oversight required, nor is it able to collect grants and private donors as easily as a nonprofit. The government instead plans to hand over the property to the Friends of the Ruidosa Church once the organization formally gains its nonprofit status, which it has held off on filing until it was clear the plan was going forward.

“There’s a lot of people ready to donate money toward the effort and weren’t willing to donate until it was a dedicated 501(c)(3),” Keller explained to the Presidio court. “People are really ready to get behind it. We need reassurance that the county is going to deed it over to the nonprofit, and that the county is a supportive partner.” The county was eager to oblige, with Commissioner Eloy Aranda emphasizing his enthusiasm for the project.

As it waits for nonprofit status, the group will be collecting local stories, artifacts and evidence as they piece together a historic structural report. They hope to restore the interior closely to its original state, but for that, they will have to rely on stories and photographs from locals.

Green is urging all who stepped foot in the church during its operation to reach out by phone at 432-244-6727 to share stories and photos – the eager architect even prefers to visit in person to learn more about the building he hopes to save.

“We found the bell,” he enthused. The central bell tower has collapsed from existence, but rumors of the historic bell’s whereabouts loomed. “My friend Betty Gattis in Alpine set out to find it,” and Green said it took her only two days. The bell had been relocated to a nearby school, which used it to beckon students in the mornings, who would run across the border to learn from a local educator.

As for oral histories, the group only has one so far. Local rancher Chon Prieto called up childhood memories of his time as an altar boy at the Ruidosa Church. “He confirmed there was a wood floor and raised wood altar, and also confirmed there were religious statuettes that were placed along the perimeter of the sanctuary.” Though they’re only faded memories for Prieto, for the restoration group, these are vital tidbits that will inform the work going forward. There is a rumor that the statuettes were relocated and still live in a church in Presidio. “We need to find more people like that that we can talk to. It’s important to complete our vision, to restore it to its original condition,” Green said.

The nonprofit hopes to hold academic opportunities with University of Texas San Antonio and New Mexico State University in Las Cruces to continue training younger generations into the heritage of adobe structures. But they’ll also host workshops on earthen plasters and adobe, hoping to share adobe vernacular with curious locals along the way. “We envision a community effort and contribution. It’s an important coming together of the people that are interested, and it is an opportunity for people to learn,” Green said.

Keller is the senior project archaeologist at the Center for Big Bend Studies at Sul Ross State University and also happens to be Green’s neighbor in Alpine. When news of the deeding from the church to the county was confirmed, Keller saw the scope of the project and his role in digging up another part of Big Bend history. He has conducted archaeological and historical research in the Big Bend for over two decades and published a book on Pinto Canyon history earlier this year.

Green is a retired architect and project manager of multimillion dollar projects, with experience in historic restoration and preservation. When assembling a team to kickstart what he estimates will be a six year undertaking, he brought in architectural conservator Frank “Chip” Briscoe, whose family has owned land in Ruidosa for nearly 50 years, and John “Jeff” Fort III, who owns Chinati Hot Springs and is a major supporter of various local institutions. Charles Angell, who works and lives in the area, rounds out the team and happens to own the adjacent property, the former site of the sacristy, which he’s already deeded back to the church.

During the county’s brief period of owning the property, commissioners plan to secure the structure by fencing off its entrances and the unstable right tower. They allocated funds Monday to begin the installation of fencing, along with signage about the project.

“It look us years to get here, and these types of projects take constant vigilance or they start to languish,” Green told commissioners on Monday. “We want to restore and preserve the church for community use. A building that’s active is healthier.”

“Right now it’s so dejected, abandoned, forlorn. It’s a lonely little structure that has great potential,” Green said. “All it takes is a spark, someone that is prepared to really do the right thing to create this wonderful, living experience.” The organization’s mission reads, “Friends of the Ruidosa Church seek to protect, restore, and maintain the Catholic church in Ruidosa.” Once up and running, Green hopes it will become a community gathering place once again, making space for weddings, funerals, quinceñeras and liveliness once again.