The church in 2013, following its stabilization and partial restoration.
A thin rivulet still flowed across the road. Thunderstorms had brought the land to life again. Seven year-old Chon Prieto bent down to pick a wild sunflower from the edge of the arroyo. He arranged the flower with the others he had gathered and continued on. Because it was Sunday, Chon’s mother had given him permission to walk to his grandmother’s house just across the dirt road from the adobe Catholic Church that had served as a spiritual anchor for the town of Ruidosa for some thirty years.
El Corazon Sagrado de la Iglesia de Jesus was a modest structure, built of the same floodplain clay dirt as the other scattered flat-roofed adobes and jacales that made up the community. Visually, there was the sense it belonged. But with its gabled roofline and lofty towers, it was far grander than anything else in the small border town. Even so, the church was beginning to show signs of wear. Its exterior had never been plastered, and wind and rain had rounded off the building’s corners and coved whole sections of the wall revealing the softer mix of some of the bricks. Panels of the recessed door had begun to pull away from their stiles. But, inside, with its bright whitewashed walls and high ceiling, the church seemed majestic to the young boy.
Parish Church in Ruidosa, Texas 1918
As the priest readied the sacraments, Chon carefully placed his bouquet beside others that had already been arranged beside the altar. As he stood, his eyes lifted to meet the gazes of several large plaster saints looking down solemnly from behind the candelabras. Later, with his feet dangling idly from one of the wooden pews, Chon watched as the priest lifted his hands and led the congregation in prayer.
The year was 1945, and already the church’s days were numbered. For a generation, the Ruidosa church had been arguably the most monumental religious structure in the lower Big Bend—a scaled-down frontier version of a traditional Catholic church that featured twin bell towers flanking a central arched entryway. Using sun-dried adobe bricks made by the townsmen under the guidance of the local priest, the structure was completed in 1915. Today, the four arches that grace its interior are believed to be the largest traditional adobe arches in the state.
Over the next decade, many of the town’s citizens would leave as the river’s flow declined, tamarisk and mesquite took over the fields, and the once abundant chino grama on the hillsides around town withered and died from drought and grazing by Spanish goats and burros. Chon’s family was one of many in the grand exodus. And as the people left, services ceased. When the Diocese finally abandoned it to the elements, bats found shelter in the towers and people scavenged windows and pried up the wood planks from the floors. By the time the sacristy roof began to fail, the saints and church bell had long since disappeared. The structure that once symbolized the community’s soul now embodied its downfall.
Ruidosa had never been prosperous. But once the Rio Grande’s flows declined due to upstream diversions and impoundment behind the Elephant Butte dam, the town’s fate was sealed. Distance to markets, the river’s increasing salinity, infestations of boll weevils, and years of drought only hastened its decline.
The Church in deteriorated condition (top) in 1989 and (bottom) in 1963 after is was abandoned.
By the early 1990s, the church had reached an advanced state of deterioration. Parts of the roof had blown off and one rear sacristy had collapsed entirely. Deemed a public hazard, the El Paso Diocese announced plans to demolish it. Locals fought back, arguing for its historical and architectural significance, ultimately causing the Diocese to relent. But the church continued to deteriorate. During a thunderstorm in 2003, the left tower collapsed, leaving a huge hole in the upper left nave. The base of the remaining tower wall was so coved it appeared cantilevered. The entire structure seemed to hang in the balance.
Its plight caught the eye of the Presidio County Historical Commission which brought it to the attention of the Texas Historical Commission. In 2004, funding to stabilize the church was secured through matching grants from local in-kind donations, the Texas Preservation Trust Fund, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Over the course of the following six years the building was stabilized and partially restored. Eroded adobes were replaced, a corrugated metal roof was added, arches were reconstructed, the lower portion of exterior walls were mud plastered, and the left tower was partially rebuilt. But as a result of concerns about the workmanship of the tower and funding constraints, the project was suspended in 2010. The church’s deterioration resumed.
But the vision for its restoration refused to die. Members of the Presidio County Historical Commission and County officials petitioned the Catholic Diocese in El Paso to gift the church to a dedicated nonprofit to allow for its full restoration. After years of negotiation, in August of 2019, the Diocese agreed. The Friends of the Ruidosa Church was formed to assume ownership of the property, fundraise, oversee the church’s restoration, and to manage the property as a community center for both religious and secular events.
Father Brocardus Eekin , one of the early Catholic priests stationed in the Big Bend.
That work has begun, but fundamental challenges remain. With so few historic photographs of the structure to guide its restoration (none at all of the church’s interior), the memories of those who knew the church in its heyday are critical. That is why recollections like those of Chon are so priceless. Since it was abandoned more than half a century ago, most of those who called Ruidosa home, who worked its fields and attended services at the church have died, their lost stories further casualties of their passing.
Today, as Chon drives past the Ruidosa church en route to his family ranch to tend his cattle, he is reminded of those services he attended as a young boy and of his indulgent grandmother, who let him choose among the candy from the shelves of the store that occupied the front of her house. But it is a bittersweet memory, a past that seems so far removed from what the town is today.
Ruidosa may never again be the close knit community it once was, largely self-sufficient and bolstered by bonds of kinship and shared experience. But the place that served as its centerpiece, the symbol of its ephemeral vitality, is poised to regain its former glory. If we do our work well and gather more stories such as Chon’s, the restoration will retain a fidelity to its true past and not simply the fancy of its restorers. In doing so, it can be preserved as a monument to a fleeting but significant part of the Big Bend’s history.
If you, or someone you know, has memories or photographs of the Ruidosa Church, please contact us at email@example.com. For more information, go to Ruidosachurch.org or find us on facebook.
– by David Keller