THE OLD ISLETA CHURCH Kate’s Journal


Episode 25 New Mexico, 1966

I Am Home (2) “I Am Home” watercolor painting by kayti sweetland rasmussen

The New Mexican July heat is invasive to the body but not to the adobe churches that hold onto the coolness of winter, releasing a gray coolness slowly throughout the summer. I have a feeling, walking into this one, that I am walking into palpable silence. A lid, or a large gentle hand, seems to descend on our voices. I never tire of going into these old Indian churches. Each one has its characteristic dust smell, the smell of time. I do not expect to emerge as a Catholic, or even as a believer, I am a pagan by birth. But surrounded by the simple whitewashed walls and dark beams, my imagination is awakened, and I am joined by countless generations of ancestors of my friend, Georgia Abeita.

I seem to hear the shuffling of moccasins filing in for the Mass, and to hear the voices of the children raised in song. There would always be more women and children than men, as in many other cultures. The little girls are dressed in their colorful best, with black shining hair, made clean for Sunday service by washing in rainwater and yucca. Little boys, bored like most other little boys, shuffle their feet and long to be outside as soon as the priest finishes his prayers. The absence of pews makes the hope of a short sermon a significant consideration.

church at Isleta

The people in Isleta are involved in a bitter religious struggle,. The priest who was here for 9 years was not a man who understood the Indians. He wanted to make them give up their Indian ways and just be Catholics. The people wanted to be both. He spent most of his time down-grading them, instead of teaching them, and even had a part of the plaza where the people danced covered in cement. This might not sound so bad, but these people believe they cannot dance on anything but the soil, or God won’t hear them. So this was really a serious matter with them, and did not endear the priest. Finally, after asking the archbishop for 8 years for a new priest with no success, Georgia’s cousin Andy Abeita, who is the governor this year, ordered the priest out of the village. Monseignor Stadtmueller, or “Father Fred” as they called him, refused to go, and instead of handling the situation more diplomatically, Andy handcuffed him and they led “Father Fred” out of the village.

Naturally, the priest had some followers, and this divided the village, and led to a great deal of bitterness. Even whole families were split by this action. The summer we were there, in 1966, an attorney had been called in, but the council members refused to listen or work with him. In the meantime, the priest had taken all the valuable Navajo rugs, the hand carved stations of the cross, paintings, etc. from Isleta to his new church which is a few miles away.

Amusingly enough, this was not the first time an Abeita governor had ousted a priest, as Georgia’s great-great grandfather threw the priest out of the village in his day as well. That time he was followed by several villagers, set upon and killed. They packed the body in a cottonwood coffin, and brought it back into town. He is buried someplace in the village, and due to a freak water table in the area, the coffin rises on occasion. (Or so it is said.)

Author: kaytisweetlandrasmussen83

I am a retired fine arts teacher, sculptor/painter, writer, and a native Californian. I love my family,dogs, horses, movies, reading and music, probably in that order. I have been married forever to a very nice man who is nice to old ladies, dogs and children.

14 thoughts on “THE OLD ISLETA CHURCH Kate’s Journal”

  1. A great story and painting. I wished there would not have been church pews in my younger years. Midnight Mass went on forever. That and other somewhat dodgy religious credos made me the pagan I am now.
    “The absence of pews makes the hope of a short sermon a significant consideration.”
    That is so wonderful a sentence.

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  2. What a lovely thing to say Narelle. I thought that painting was a good way to emphasize Georgia’s homecoming, even though the houses and land don’t look much like the real Isleta. She had not returned for a long time, so it was good to connect with her family again.

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  3. First, I love the art, Kayti. Second, the story is ever so familiar, and sad. I saw it as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia. Certainly there were good missionaries who had the interest of the people at heart. And then there were the others… I always recall the story of the first bishop on Fiji who tried to impose his will. They divided him up and sent him around to all of the villages on the island so everyone could partake in the feast. –Curt

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    1. I’m reminded of the two young missionaries who came to Mission Soledad in California. They planted a vineyard, made wine, and had a good time drinking it. It worked OK for awhile until the Church realized there weren’t too many converts, and the the two priests were recalled to Spain. No word on who took their place.

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  4. The painting is extraordinary. I have a sense that even though some might think the title, “I Am Home” applies to the figure in the painting, it probably applied equally to you, as you moved into that culture.

    Beyond that, I don’t believe for a minute your comment that you “can’t believe anything [you] can’t see, touch or eat.” If that were true, you wouldn’t be the artist you are, not to mention the wonderful human being. That’s my suspicion, anyhow.

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    1. I think you may be right about feeling at home, though I never though about it before. I struggled with that gorge or gully in the front of the painting because it wasn’t really there. I wanted to show that the world might be a dangerous place, but she was safe again now that she was home. Silly because no one else knew that. I seem to pick out spots in a painting which I either like a lot or hate, it’s usually just because the paint ran into a nice puddle. I did a small painting once with a piece of cut red onion. It turned a nice blue.
      I’m happy to have a friend like you.

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  5. I am the fortunate recipient of one of Kayti’s watercolors, a melange of adobe and Indian, horse and burro, which is similar to this painting but more expansive. When I look at my Kayti gift with its subtle pinks, oranges, lavenders, and blues, I am reminded of the great injustice the native Indians were subjected to in the name of Catholicism.

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    1. I’m happy you enjoy the painting Cheri. I know it has a good home. My head is nodding in agreement as I read your comment about man’s injustice to man, wherever we see it in the world. Life can be so simple if only people didn’t mess it up. In the case of the Indians, the priests didn’t take the time to understand the people. They dug wells for water and the Indians blew them up. You don’t drill holes in Mother Earth. Simple. They poured cement to keep the church clean and give them better dancing, but they needed to touch the earth. All they had to do is listen.

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