Villanueva is located along the Pecos River and NM-3. The town itself is just a wide spot in the road and has a population of 224. This little church is a hidden jewel. It is a simple country church with a rock front and white, stuccoed walls. On the day we photographed, we came upon workmen replacing a generator. One of the workmen was born in and spent his entire life in Villanueva and gave us a history of and small tour of the property. He was clearly proud of the church, the town and of his and its heritage.
The tapestries on the walls immediately draw your eyes in. In the early 1970's, when interest in the US Bicentennial was high, the parish priest suggested that the community have a Bicentennial project. After discussion, the women decided to embroider a colcha tapestry that celebrated their faith and their community. Colcha is a traditional folk art of wool thread on wool (sabanilla) cloth. The stiches tend to be larger and less "fine" than traditional silk thread embroidery. 31 women from Villanueva and the mission churches it serves created 41 embroidered panels edged in dried chollo cactus. The panels run all the way around the church and up into the choir loft, a total of 265 feet.
The panels were individually designed and embroidered by the women whose names are woven into each panel. The "Mother Earth" or "Creation" is a riot of trees, rivers, streams and the animals that inhabit them. Other panels celebrate the arrival (and the departure) of nuns who once had a small convent there. Real people are shown and named. Community events are recognized, such as Saints days and "sacar el gallo" which in the past involved burying a poor rooster up to its head and villagers riding by on their horses trying to snatch it out of the ground. The church Saints' days are Santiago (James), when men make a special long horse ride, and Santa Ana, when the women do the horse ride. Several panels have traditional New Mexican "dichos" or sayings stitched into the panel. Panels depicting "penitentes" are hidden in the loft offering them the privacy that they prefer for their devotions. The borders around and between each panel are lovely as well. An extraordinary display of faith and community using a very traditional folk art!
The remainder of the church is decorated with statues of Spanish saints, candles in tin holders and retablos, many over 150 years old and brought here by settlers.
In total, we spent about two hours photographing this church and talking with the workman. It is discoveries like this that make our journeying truly rewarding.