RANCHOS DE TAOS, NM — Of all the celebrated structures in the United States, the San Francisco de Asis Mission Church in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico, is arguably the humblest.
Built over a period of 44 years, from 1772 to 1816, the simple, organic geometry of its beehive buttresses and off-kilter, hand-troweled walls have inspired such early American modernists as Georgia O’Keeffe, Ansel Adams, and Paul Strand to capture the stark interplay of shadow and light across the building’s Cubist forms. But the imposing exterior is made of nothing but clay and straw — hundreds of thousands of adobe bricks plastered over with mud.
San Francisco may be an internationally recognized icon, but it is also a working parish, and every day for the past two weeks, teams of churchgoers and dedicated non-parishioners have come together to contribute their skills and labor to the church’s annual enjarre — the reapplication of the adobe structure’s mud coat.
This year the clay was dug out of a parishioner’s yard, sifted through a large sieve to remove stones and debris, and trucked to a work area just outside the church’s courtyard, where it was shoveled into wheelbarrows and mixed with straw and water.
Loose and damaged areas of the surface were scraped off, and a rough “scratch coat” was applied, followed by the smooth topcoat. Two enormous cranes stood on either side of the church to hoist workers to the roof and across the upper levels of the walls.
The process was carried out in almost perfect silence: only a few words were passed among the workers as their hands, legs, and backs moved ceaselessly in a harmony of effort, a communal act of devotion played out in the baking sun.
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The church is beautiful, inside and out, and it’s only about 100 yards off the road between Taos and Santa Fe, in the middle of a village square that looks like a 19th C mini-mall.
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