SANTA FE, New Mexico — Shrinking populations in rural New Mexico villages are putting aging churches at risk since the buildings aren’t receiving the same upkeep as previous generations.

The Santa Teresita Church in Mora County is one of several participating in a fundraising project to benefit some of the state’s “endangered” historic churches in an effort to save the structures, the Albuquerque Journal reports.

Through cultural events starting this month, organizers of the Nuevo Mexico Profundo project hope to raise money to preserve the churches that sit in villages across the state.

Nuevo Mexico Profundo is the brainchild of Frank Graziano, an author and former professor of Hispanic Studies who lives in Chamisal.

His inspiration came from research and trips he made for his recently published book, Historic Churches of New Mexico.

When he started working on the book, using a guide to churches in northern New Mexico created in the 1990s for reference, Graziano discovered that many of the listed adobe churches had come down. Churches in places like El Valle and Picuris Pueblo were among the casualties.

Among those still standing, he said, “some are very well preserved, and others are in states of gradual disintegration.”

Graziano explained that the responsibility of fundraising for maintenance, as well as for insurance payments, falls on local groups.

“What you’re seeing is that the (groups) are being more and more burdened with obligations, which eventually causes some of them to give up, and the responsibility for the church doesn’t go to the parish or the Archdiocese,” he said. “It just gets kind of closed up, abandoned and begins the process of disintegration.”

Rebecca Montoya, a 66-year-old retiree from Las Vegas, New Mexico, is working to preserve Santa Teresita in the village of El Turquillo. She has family ties to the unincorporated village off N.M. 434 that is home to the old Catholic church, built in the 1920s.

For about a decade, Montoya says, the church – one of 16 mission churches that are part of Mora’s St. Gertrude’s Parish – went in and out of various phases of abandonment before she took over as caretaker in 2008.

Since that time, she has raised thousands for church maintenance through donations from family members, running raffles and bake sales, and sending letters to people across the West who have relatives buried in the church cemetery to ask for assistance.

The money has gone toward major repairs, such as replastering the interior and exterior, redoing the ceiling and adding a new porch where an old one was deteriorating.

“It’s a beautiful, beautiful mission church today,” Montoya said.

Graziano explained that the initial funding for the project would likely pay for routine maintenance projects, such as roof leaks. Preservation projects, on the other hand, are more expensive and complex.

Though Montoya has already completed several maintenance projects, additional money could help her get started on upgrading Santa Teresita’s landscaping, fix the steeple where its bell’s rope has broken off, and add more pews. At other nearby churches, she said, she has heard of the need to redo deteriorating woodwork in doors and windows, and repair or replace old window glass.

“The church is like the home; the work is never done,” said Montoya.

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