Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Church at Laguna

Our 13-year old houseguest, Joshua, from Portland, Oregon, wanted us to take him and his Dad to the Hopi Reservation, but even before we got there we had a very Native American experience.  On the way Penelope requested that we go off the highway at the Laguna Pueblo so that we could visit the mission church there that we had never seen before.

When we arrived at the church we were lucky in that there were no tour buses or visitors about.  The bad news was that the priest was not there, and the Custodian came out of her office at 11:15 AM announcing that she was off to lunch and if we wanted to wait around for an hour she would be happy to show us the church.

We thanked her and proceeded to walk around the beautiful undulating stone and white stucco church.  In the graveyard behind the church we came across the grave of a World War II veteran freshly decorated with flags and on the church wall a shrine in honor of the Laguna Indians who had lost their lives in that war.  It reminded us of the Indians’ patriotism even though they didn’t have the right to vote at that time.

From the terrace at the back of the church, we were staring out at the breath-taking landscape below when an Indian carrying a flute appeared and asked if we had seen the church.  We told him that it was locked and so we would not be able to see it on this visit.  He replied that he would take us in.

Clearly delighted at the opportunity to educate the tourists, he snuck into a back entrance and opened the main church doors for us.  He then proceeded, for the next hour, to tell us not only the history of the church but also his life story. 

In 1680 the Southwest Pueblos, in a rare gesture of solidarity, joined forces and threw out the Spanish.  Twelve years later, however, the Spanish returned and reclaimed the territory.  By the end of the century the Laguna pueblo had built a mission church and requested their own priest who clearly was there to convert all from their, supposedly, heathen ways. 

We were in this very church dedicated to San Jose or St. Joseph, patron saint of the Spanish New World.   Though original, it had gone through frequent renovation and re-decoration.

The Indian designs on the side walls were all of recent vintage but the altarpiece with St. Joseph was painted in 1808-1809 by the Laguna Master.
Our guide’s name was Alfred Pinot and his card said "Laguna Artist, ornaments, pottery, murals, eggs".   He had been introduced to the church as an altar boy over 30 plus years ago.  His mother had not been religious but he brought her to the church and over time she became devoted to Kateri Tekakwitha or Catherine Tekakwitha, a 17th Century Mohawk-Alogonquin Indian who converted early to Catholicism and has been beatified. Our guide’s mother believed her prayers before the figure of the Blessed Kateri, that stands beside the altar rail, made possible their move to a wonderful new home.

Like many Native Americans our guide had some problem thinking in a linear fashion and his story twisted and turned until he got to his goal of playing on his flute a song that he had written.  To our relief the Native American composition was melodious and it sounded wonderful in the church.

We came away feeling that we had experienced a rare blend of cultures, and young Joshua received an introduction to the Southwest that he could not have found in a book.

*Disclaimer:  We strictly adhered to the rules of the Pueblo and did not take photos.  The ones shown here were found on Google Images and Wikimedia.


  1. We visited the church this month (May 2012). Alfred was also our guide, and told the same stories (and played the flute for us.) He also told us about his daughter, and raising her as a single parent. He further told us he was a Washington Redskins fan and showed us his wallet which had a Redskins logo on it. He said he had had a Redskins cap, but it had been stolen.
    When we got back home, I picked up a cap and a couple Redskins jerseys and mailed them to him. I hope he enjoys them.

    Tom & Margaret Reidy

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this story. That the cap was stolen and not lost added sad verisimilitude to a pueblo story.