Ruidosa church open house event brings food, fun and family back to town

Friends of the Ruidosa Church welcomed visitors for a Community Day celebration on Saturday. Inside the town’s adobe church, Presidio band Mariachi Santa Cruz performed and guests danced. Streamers by artist duo The Color Condition blew in the breeze under the building’s roof and filled out the outline of the crumbling left bell tower that will be reconstructed in the future with funds raised by the Friends group. Photo by Hannah Gentiles.

RUIDOSA — The last people to be married in the church were the Nuñezes. That was in 1959. Then no one got married or held Mass in the church anymore. The roof caved in and the floorboards went missing. The glass from the windows disappeared, then the bell. 

Alfredo Salgado knows who took the bell, but won’t say who, even after all these years. 

Salgado was one of more than 150 people who made the trek out to Ruidosa last weekend for the Friends of the Ruidosa Church open house. He was born a few miles away on the other side of the river in a place called Chivarrias, but was so young when his family crossed he doesn’t remember it. He worked hard jobs all his life, running cattle and doing seasonal labor in the rough country between Ruidosa and Shafter. “It was a hard life, but I loved it,” he said. 

The Salgados made the trip out from Pecos, where they have lived since 2000. Other Salgados came too, and Fuenteses and Prietos. According to Friends of the Ruidosa Church Boardmember Clara Bensen, roughly half of those in attendance were from Ruidosa or connected to Ruidosa by ancestry. 

For the first time in over 60 years, the smell of tamales and the sound of music filled the air of El Corazón Sagrado de la Iglesia de Jesus (Sacred Heart Church of Jesus). “The best thing is seeing people you haven’t seen in years,” said Maria Salgado, Alfredo’s wife. 

Most of the festivities took place outside the church. Boardmember Mike Green led tours inside, inviting guests to imagine the possibilities for the future of the structure. What about musical performances, community celebrations, fancy fundraising dinners?

“We’re trying to get this structure activated with community as soon as possible, but we have to make this site safe,” Green said. “We’re very remote here and we can’t afford injuries.”

The group’s vision was illustrated in part with help from the Color Condition, an art duo based in Dallas. The artists hung strips of textiles from the ceiling inside the church and from the outside of the fallen bell tower, outlining — in vibrant, fluttering relief — which parts of the church will be restored. 

Green has a background in architecture, and for him, the arches that hold up the middle of the church are its most impressive aspect. “Man, I don’t know who built that, but I’d like to know who,” he said. The arches are the largest made of adobe in Texas that the group is aware of.

The church is essentially a scaled-down, frontier model of a traditional Catholic church. Its intricacy — and the pieces that have stood for so long without consistent maintenance — are a testament to the skill and care that went into its construction over 100 years ago. “This was a labor of love,” Green said. “The church gave them very little money to do it.”

Historian David Keller, who is leading the adobe restoration effort, estimates that it took four to seven months just to make the adobes, all by people who worked tough day jobs like cattle ranching and onion farming.

After the church shuttered in the late 1950s, Salgado explained that different members of the community took turns caring for the church. They’d watch over the place for a year or two, then pass it on. Nobody had the money to fully restore it; it was a tough time for the town. By 1964, there were no businesses reported in Ruidosa. 

Even in a state of disrepair, the church— an imposing structure 60 miles from Marfa and 40 from Presidio — makes an impression on those who pass by. Eventually the diocese of El Paso granted permission to restore the church to the Chinati Foundation, helmed by Pinto Canyon local Donald Judd. 

In a statement accompanying a 1989 architecture exhibition in Münster, Germany, Judd wrote of the church: ​​“My intention was to have the adobe made in Ruidosa and of course the work done by the people there — work and money for a dying town which needs these. And work for an institution which is theirs. This didn’t happen, but could still happen.”

It’s happening now — or at least, that’s what the Friends of the Ruidosa Church hope. “It won’t come cheap,” Green said. “It could come close to $1.4 million. This is meticulous, careful work, and it has to be done by the qualified people.”

Why restore something that — by its guardians’ own admission — is dangerous, expensive and in the middle of nowhere? 

“Precisely part of the richness of the experience is this remoteness and its beauty. Part of the experience is the journey,” Green said. “Everytime I drive here, I see something new. You don’t know what will be blooming, what will be flowing, what animal you’re gonna see.”

Green and his fellow board members hope that the church will soon be a site for community-based workshops on adobe-making and the history of the area, drawing in both outsiders and people with ties to Ruidosa. 

For Salgado, who was pushed out of his property in 2000 by rising property taxes, it’s an opportunity to return to a place that over the course of his life has all but disappeared. “It was a different time, but I still got the memories,” he said. “I really love it. I wish I could come back.”