Taos Sacred Places: Holy Trinity Church in Arroyo Seco

In the heart of Seco, behind the Firenza and Rottenstone Galleries, lies what was once the plaza of the village of Arroyo Seco, and its charming historic church - La Santisima Trinidad - sited on a slight rise just to the northwest of the old plaza.

The land the church is located on was granted by Joaquin Codallos y Rabal in 1745. Though it was not until some 60 years later that the village of Arroyo Seco would come to be, however in a location much nearer the mountains than where it is today. As legend tells, one day, when some of the original Arroyo Seco families went to work in the fields, they told their children not to leave the area of the towers so that they could take refuge in case of a raid. The children paid little mind to their parent’s words and lost themselves in play. Just then, a pair of shadows fells across their path. They looked up to discover an old man and a young man who told them they lived further down the valley. The children asked the men why they were not afraid of the Indians, and the men noted that a white dove that was perched up in the tree above them warned them when bad people were nearby… and then the men left. That night, when the parents returned, the children told them the story of their interaction with the men. This concerned their parents, and the next day the whole lot of them began following the stream that led down the valley to see if they could find the men and see if they really were safe. Just ahead, one of the children spied the white dove in the treetops. The bird flew out of the tree and lit on a sharp stone. The stone seemed iridescent, as if light were coming from it. The group turned over the stone to locate the source of the light, and beneath it discovered a carved bulto of… an old man and a young man with a white dove above them. The family decided that this was the place they would build their church, and dedicated the place to the Holy Trinity… the father, the son, and the holy spirit… whom it seemed they had just met! This is where La Santisima Trinidad - The Church of the Most Holy Trinity - sits now. 

The construction of The Church of the Most Holy Trinity was completed in 1834 by the famous La Fraternidad de Los Hermanos Penitentes de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno and their families and community members, who had settled the old village of Arroyo Seco just 10 years prior. Eventually the village would be relocated to the area just south of the church, after the lands that had once supported the agricultural community were confiscated as payment for back taxes and turned over to Taos Pueblo.

The 2,900 square foot church is of a distinct New Mexican design type, with a single nave, or sanctuary, a square apse at the far end, a choir loft over the front entrance, and a square sacristy to the east of the sanctuary. At one time it is said that there was a mirror image room of the sacristy on the west side, though the room was removed over a hundred years ago. It is said that the missing room was to have been for the exclusive use of the penitents, the main builders of the structure. The church is surrounded by a Campo Santo on all but the north side, where a dirt road separates it from a residence.

The massive adobe walls of the church are 5 feet thick at their base and 3 feet thick at the top. The first floor of the church was earthen, though several wood floors were added later. The ceiling, and original roof, is constructed of a rough-sawn flat wood boards that are supported by pine vigas resting on hand-hewn wooden corbels, each of which was carved by a different parishioner. Sometime around 1910, a pitched roof was added, along with a cupola, and the wood floor we see today was installed. Double wooden doors at the church entrance face south and are elevated - presumably to accommodate the raising of the floors over the years - on a set of half-moon shaped flagstone steps. Two large windows on the East side of the nave were added later - likely in the late 19th century after Indian raids were quelled and large spans of window glass was available from the railroads. The high windows capture the morning light as it crests the mountains to the East, with another smaller window just below the cupola in the choir above the entrance providing light to the choir. The interior walls are tierra blanca, a natural pigment paint with mica flakes that make the walls glisten in certain lighting.

Many historians have designated the architectural characteristics of the church as “Mission” style. However, Mission style is not an architectural style recognized in New Mexico. A true Mission church would be located on a Pueblo and have been built in the earliest days of settlement, during the 17th century. Though there is no official Mission style, there is a Mission Revival style, which emulates our most ancient church forms. Interestingly, the area around Taos had its own style of architecture called the Northern New Mexico style, which is distinct from its neighboring architectural styles through the use of a pitched roof and simple details over doors and windows. Since this church was built during the 19th century - well after settlement - but using both the old style and eventually a pitched roof too, the structure could accurately be designated as Northern New Mexico + Mission Revival style!

The charming church was lovingly restored in the 1990s. It was at this time that the many old floors inside were removed and the parishioners buried within moved to the Campo Santo outside in the fenced courtyard on the south side of the structure. The existing sacristy, which was falling down, was razed and replaced by another of the same dimensions, only with a kiva fireplace for additional heating and conical rather than rectangular buttressing on the exterior. The exterior walls were completely reworked - traditional mud stucco replaced cement-based stucco which was undermining the adobe structure as it had (nearly catastrophically) at San Franscisco de Asis at Ranchos. When the heart of the nave’s adobe walls was exposed after the cement stucco was removed, many distinct styles of adobe bricks were discovered - implying that the original construction was created by the people and of the earth - with parishioners contributing a quota of home-made earthen bricks for the construction. Also during the restorations during the 1990’s, two hand-carved Solomonic pillars replaced two dry-rotted (and culturally inappropriate) square ionic supports at the arch dividing line between sanctuary and apse. The original bell, which had been moved to the new church building adjacent during the 1960’s was also returned.

During the same period of renovations, the reredos, or altar screen, was examined by art historians prior to its full restoration. The study included tests designed to see through, or behind, the current work to see what was beneath, without damaging the existing painting. This revealed that the Trinity-themed screen we see today is in fact a replacement of a previous painting that appeared to be the work of the unnamed Arroyo Hondo Santero, known regionally for a distinctive dot-dash style of lunettes and borders, and who has been compared to the famed santero José Aragón. According to Seco Morada historian Larry Torres. the overpainting was completed in 1861 by the famed santero, José de Gracia Gonzales, who may have used his own wife as a model for several of the faces on the painting. The restored overpainting by de Gracia is considered one of New Mexico’s artistic treasures.

The stone upon which the white dove landed in the church’s own genesis story sits just to the right of the altar.

The church is owned and operated by the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, and is open for services as well as upon request from the community. Until 1949. the church and its moradas were associated with the Parish of Taos. At that time, the communities of the outlying towns and villages had different needs than those of Taos and thus a new Parish was formed, called Holy Trinity Parish, and a rectory was set up for the parish priest in Seco. La Santisima Trinidad thus became the parish seat of the churches, missions, and moradas of Nuestra Señora de Dolores in Arroyo Hondo; San Antonio de Padua in Valdez; Santo Niño de Atocha in Las Colonias; and the chapel at San Cristobal. 

(from our original article in the Taos Horsefly)