Church in a ghost town

Old red stone church in Cuervo, NM, USA. Route 66. Copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved.

Standing beside Old Route 66 in New Mexico is this simple but pleasant-looking old Catholic church, built in 1915. It is one of two churches in the fascinating little ghost town of Cuervo, one that grew up with the railroads and all but died when I-40 literally split the town in half during the mid-50s.

Little seems to be known about Cuervo’s history. It likely sprang up as a cattle center for operations like the Bond & Weist ranch thanks to the arrival of the Southern Pacific railroad in 1901; by 1902, Cuervo had a Post Office which was destroyed by a fire last March. When Route 66 joined the railroad in bringing traffic to town, Cuervo saw its population jump to a peak of about 300 (though in a moment you’ll see why I find this a bit hard to believe), and was able to support this Catholic church as well as a Baptist one. Even so, Cuervo wasn’t like its sister Route 66 towns of Tucumcari or Santa Rosa; Jack Rittenhouse noted in his A Guide Book to Highway 66, Cuervo offered but “few gas stations; groceries; no café, garage, or other tourist accommodations.” He noted that there were only about a dozen homes in Cuervo—perhaps area ranchers, in addition to travellers, helped fill the pews of the town’s two houses of worship while adding to that triple-digit population count.

Today, there are roughly a dozen residents of Cuervo; when I visited (and managed to get a sunburn in 15 minutes, a record even for my fair skin; this resulted in a very abbreviated shoot, alas) to photograph the town, a couple of them were sitting on their porch in the “living” side of town. You see, though the railroad and 66 brought people and resulting productivity, I-40 did not just pave over some of the residential parts of Cuervo; by going right through the middle of town, it killed Cuervo. Instead of stopping for fuel or sandwich fixings from the grocery, people zipped right on by. Those whose homes were buried by the super-slab obviously had to find somewhere else to live—and no doubt the postwar boom was more impressive in other towns. The railroad left in (I believe) 1955, taking more jobs with it; thus Cuervo is one of several sad but fascinating examples of “creative destruction” we see brought about on 66 by the interstate.

It is difficult to discern in my photograph (click to see a larger view), but above the arched entry is an inscription which of course lifted my curiosity to a level Abandoned Catholic church, doorway inscription, Cuervo, NM, USA, Route 66. Copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved. higher than it had already been boosted by this ghost town. It tells us that the red stone church was built in April of 1915 by Max Salas, and also bears the following:

“Camicion. (This word angles downward toward the earth, from the upper left-hand corner; may also be “Comicion”.)

“P. Martinez.

Vic. Segura.

Max.Salas.”

Who were these men? Did they remain in Cuervo, or go to Europe when the United States entered World War I just two years after this church was built? Were they church fathers, or men who’d given money to the cause of building the church?

I can’t help but think that “Camicion” was intended to be “Comision”, or “commission”—considering Christ’s Great Commission to the apostles (and all believers, really), it’s appropriate.

Also, I did learn through an obituary that this church was actually called the Santo Nino Catholic Church, but there’s not much more on that topic to be found, at least from here.

So far as the names…well, I spent the entire afternoon trying to track these folks down. As you can imagine, without a subscription to Ancestry.com (can’t say I haven’t been tempted, considering how often I photograph cemeteries), this is rather difficult to do living several states away, even with the internet. But my curiosity was so piqued, and I do love a brain puzzle, so I did my best. The following, mind you, is just guessing—but if you know anything about any of these men, I’d really love the scoop!

Max Selas

My guess is that the builder of the church is Maximiliano Salas. Born in 1870 or 1871 in Anton Chico, New Mexico, the US Census picked him up in Cuervo in both 1910 and Santa Rosa in 1930. By 1910, he was married to a woman named Ursula or Ursulita and already had seven children! Sadly, it looks like several of those children died rather young; they’re buried at the Catholic Cemetery in Cuervo. Unfortunately, that’s all I was able to piece together, and again—this is just conjecture.

P. Martinez

P. Martinez was much, much harder to look up—understandably so, since Martinez is a pretty common name. I restricted my search to Guadalupe County, but that didn’t bring much up that I found useful. There was a P. F. Martinez who lived from 1895-1993, which definitely puts us in the right era so far as the church being built; last known residence was Santa Fe, New Mexico (and what a ripe old age he lived to!). Yes, I am presuming a ‘he’, though ‘she’ is possible. As I said—awfully hard to track down.

Vic. Segura

A Victorio Segura, resident of Cuervo, did appear in the 1910 US Census; at the time he was 38, married to Eliza, and the couple had three daughters and a son (oh, that poor little boy…).

I am left feeling a bit sad; this is all I could learn about the people whose names were hand-carved into the stone above the church door, and it’s far from a positive identification of any of them. To have their names actually added to the church in as permanent a form as possible, they must have been important and special. Was one of them the priest? Or a missionary who settled in the area? Did one of them bankroll the building of the church so the town would have one? Did their wives create lovely things for the church, or perhaps in exasperation call on the priest for help when the children were out of hand and their husband at work (I’m from an Irish family and have heard a few stories, though I’m not sure priests like being used as threats)?

What of the building of the church itself, far out in what was still almost frontier country? We can’t call the unadorned building austere, but though it hasn’t the grandeur of eastern churches, it must certainly have been quite an undertaking at the time.

We may never know more about those whose names were inscribed into the stone or their families, since Cuervo itself is very nearly lost—despite its handful of residents, it’s difficult to call it anything but a ghost town (however picturesque it is). Wild things do happen, and pieces of lost history are restored to us all the time, but it seems a little unlikely in the case of Cuervo. It would not surprise me to learn that any of these men fought in the Great War; their sons may have gone to the front during World War II; their daughters may have worked as nurses. The bearers of these names lived, loved, raised families, worked, maybe even physically built the red walls of this church—but what intrigues me most of all is that each was in some way or another thought worthy to have their name put above the door of this little stone church in a state that had just been admitted to the Union three years before.

We may never know—but God does, to be sure. Seems to me that is the most important thing; and we? We are left with a mystery to spark our imaginations, one that draws us into the past.

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4 thoughts on “Church in a ghost town

    • It is funny you say that—I’ve actually had others look at my work and mention Alberta right off the bat. It must be incredibly common to see them there for it to come to their minds so very quickly.

      • I know the town my dad grew up near is almost a ghost town. Not as many families farming in Alberta. You’ll get giant tracks of land owned and operated by one family. You have to be big to make a living at it. Forget the towns that are within an hour to any major center, people want Walmart pricing…sad and short sited.

  1. Pingback: Monday Escape: A taste of Route 66 in northeastern New Mexico | Victory Rolls and V8s

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