Ruidosa Church undergoes bell tower restoration in 1st nonprofit-led effort 

While the Ruidosa Church, a historic adobe structure located in a near-deserted border town in Presidio County, has generated buzz over the past couple of years for public community days and a nonprofit-led restoration campaign, this month marks the first time the building has seen any real repairs in 10 years. Staff photo by Mary Cantrell.

RUIDOSA — Long-drawn-out efforts to restore a historic adobe church in the remote, near-abandoned border town of Ruidosa saw progress this month with the partial repair of one of the church’s bell towers. 

El Corazon Sagrado de la Iglesia de Jesus, the Sacred Heart Church of Jesus, was established by the Catholic Diocese of El Paso over a century ago, and most recently taken over by the Friends of the Ruidosa Church, a nonprofit which intends to properly restore, preserve and share the site with the broader West Texas community. 

Save for the demo saw, which crews used to custom cut each new adobe brick, it was an uncommonly quiet construction site on the final work day last week. 

Three adobe masons, Rosalio Sanchez, Enrique Garcia and Mauricio Elizaraz ducked beneath custom scaffolding –– designed for safety –– while adeptly applying keying and dry-packing techniques to the adobe walls.

The intent is to form a monolithic earthen wall, seamlessly connecting new to old — the old being a severely eroded bell tower corner, which saw up to 11 of its 20-foot height rebuilt by the end of the three-week intensive.

While only the beginning of a costly, years-long endeavor, David Keller, a local archeologist and historian involved with the project, said the bell tower stabilization was “epic,” the result of conversations dating back 13 years. “Now, we own the church, the scaffolding is being used, and we got that corner built up to 11 feet,” said Keller. “That is monumental.” 

The bell tower reconstruction marks the first work done to the building since 2010, and is the first renovation campaign under its new caretakers. Earlier attempts to revitalize the structure led by the Presidio County Historic Commission and Texas Historic Commission failed due to issues with hired contractors. The church then sat empty, subject to further erosion and vandalism.

Mauricio Elizaraz applies thick mud to an adobe of the Ruidosa Church wall with a metal trowel. Staff photo by Mary Cantrell.

Because the church has not been properly maintained and its adobe bricks were never plastered over, the structure experienced detrimental exposure to the elements, causing the  walls to erode anywhere from 6 to 18 inches. 

The newly-rehabbed bell tower is the most well preserved piece of the church, and therefore the most challenging to repair. As opposed to the other bell tower, which collapsed in the nineties and will involve a more simple rebuild, the more intact tower posed a greater risk of injury. 

“How do you work on something that’s a 20-foot tall wall that’s missing 75% of its structure, that could collapse at any time and not kill anybody?” asked Joey Benton, whose Marfa-based company Silla is performing bell tower repairs. 

The solution? A structural shoring system that supports the tower’s roof and holds up the walls inside of the bell tower, aided by additional exterior paneling.

There’s also the matter of time. While new adobe construction involves laying 200 to 250 bricks a day, restoration work moves at a significantly slower pace, at around 20 to 25 bricks a day, Benton said. In order to connect new horizontal and vertical layers to existing ones, masons remove parts of the existing wall every three to five bricks and fill them in with new bricks via dry packing — which prevents shrinkage, then cracking, caused by gravity. 

The adobe bricks used for the bell tower repair were made last fall on site. Keller, who took 20 samples of clay from various locales around the church and sent them off for testing, is still tweaking the brick recipe, made up of locally-sourced clay and aggregate, attempting to mimic the recipe used for the old bricks. 

The varied, slow, deliberate aspects of the work harken back to the church’s beginnings in 1915, where local Catholic men, under the leadership of the town’s priest, Father Mariano, were required to make adobe bricks for the building. For Keller, the still-manual process is part of what makes working with adobe so rewarding. 

“Now that everything is mass produced and machine made, when you see something that’s a little faulty because it was made by human hand, you learn to appreciate that,” said Keller. “That is adobe to me. So much of it has to be hand done, especially with the repair work, they will never be able to automate repairs.” 

The families that helped build the church, who originally settled in the area to farm, have long departed after the erection of the Elephant Butte dam upstream in New Mexico caused the Rio Grande to significantly decline, according to Keller. The town dwindled from around 200 residents in the 1920s to few remaining by the mid-20th century. 

Now, the church remains one of the only relics of Ruidosa not lost to history, its symmetrical design a simplistic, rudimentary version of a Catholic Church. 

“The fact that it is just raw adobe, it’s so earthy, it’s so rustic, it feels like such an icon of the frontier, and a bygone era,” said Keller. “It’s very representative of a certain type of architecture. It’s also representative of a certain type of community that existed in the Big Bend region.” 

Back in the nineties when the diocese announced plans to demolish the crumbling house of worship, local citizens, including Donald Judd who wanted to see the site preserved, protested, causing the entity to reverse their decision. “I think that was kind of the beginning of a recognition of its significance,” said Keller. 

Rosalio Sanchez lays new adobe brick using keying and dry-packing techniques. Staff photo by Mary Cantrell.

While the exposed adobe bricks give the church its signature, raw look, in order to protect the new work being done it is likely the friends group will choose to mud plaster the walls once finished. The sacristy, an area used by the priest, doors and windows will also need to be rebuilt. As the friends group possesses no photographs of the interior of the church, there are few details to go off of, said Keller, other than tid-bits from oral histories which revealed that the church had a wood floor. 

The restoration of the Ruidosa Church is part of a larger movement happening across far West Texas to protect the region’s vernacular architecture. Adobe restoration projects and workshops, some of which have been led by Benton and Keller, are happening across the region from Fort Davis to Fort Leaton to Big Bend National Park, as well as in people’s backyards. 

While the legacy of adobe has been complicated by the real estate market of Marfa, where out-of-town buyers have driven up demand, and subsequently taxes, on the modestly-built buildings, a collective recognition that the architecture needs to be preserved is forming, said Keller, and excitement is being generated around Indigenous materials and methods. 

“I think we’ve got a moment in time where we have enough people that understand the concepts and have the skills where we can really go to town for the first time in a lot of ways to protect some of these structures that I think everybody agrees are worth saving,” said Keller. 

The friends group paid $30,000 to Silla, who also donated some metal work, time and labor, to finish the partial reconstruction of the right bell tower. Now, an additional $150,000 is needed to complete the work to the front of the church, according to Board Member Mike Green. 

“We just really need money. It is expensive. It just costs a lot. A lot of that is because it’s so far out here,” said Keller. “It’s very detailed work, you can’t just put anybody on it. It takes specialized skill.” 

In addition to donations, Keller urged those with memories, photographs or stories about the church to reach out. “This would be a terrible time to drop the ball,” said Keller. “If we can keep this momentum, we have the knowledge, we have the energy. I don’t want to lose that.” 

Friends of the Ruidosa Church can be visited online at their website on Instagram @ruidosachurch and on Facebook @Friends of the Ruidosa Church.