The Crestone Eagle • October, 2020
A hidden jewel in the San Luis Valley:
The La Garita Church, Rosary Walk & Carnero Creek Cemetery
by Anoushka Perkert
La Garita, nestled at the foot of the San Juans on the western part of the San Luis Valley and only 20 minutes southwest of Saguache, is a small, mostly uninhabited old Hispanic town. It serves as the gateway to Penitente Canyon, a well-known gem for hikers, bikers and rock climbers. La Garita (“The Lookout”) was named so by early Hispanic settlers who came here in 1858. Even though people started settling here in the mid 1800s, the Ute Indians had used the area for a long time on their way to the Uncompahgre Valley. The Utes had a strong presence in the area, until they were forced to give up their rights to the land in 1868.
La Garita was mainly used for farming and livestock. In 1865 gold was discovered in the area and the Crystal mining camp was established north of La Garita. The mines were active until 1928. The Esperanza Mine was reworked in the 1980s. A 9.5-mile long dirt road leads to the historic site of the Crystal Mine.
At one point there were two schools, a trading post, a post office and a sawmill. The school closed in 1955 and the church held its last service in 1968. Many Hispanic people were driven out of the area because they were never told they had to establish their water rights, which were instead granted to the Anglo settlers.
Even though mostly a ghost town today, La Garita nonetheless harbors a strong Catholic heritage and interesting history. Since 2009 the church and nearby grounds have been undergoing continuous restoration and revitalization efforts. The quiet, calm and stunning beauty of this place will undoubtedly enchant any visitor. Raised on a gentle hill, with the backdrop of the Sangre de Cristos, it is most probably one of the most beautiful places in the San Luis Valley.
The church is named Iglesia de San Juan Bautista—dedicated to John the Baptist. The construction of the original church was completed in 1879. Unfortunately the old church burnt to the ground in 1924. It was rebuilt and completed in the same location and in the same style in 1929.
The local Catholic parish of Spanish settlers used the original church in the 1870s. Jesuit missionaries started arriving in southern Colorado around 1871. However, during the absence of real priests, Los Hermanos—also known as Los Penitentes—took it upon themselves to provide spiritual guidance for the local community. They worked hard to maintain the traditional prayers and rituals, such as Catholic liturgies and burials.
In 1895 the parish designation and location was changed to Del Norte and San Juan Bautista became a mission church. The nearby rectory became the residence for The Sisters of Loretto (1870-1907) who provided religious education for the children in the San Luis Valley.
After the last service in 1968, the church remained vacant until a new restoration project was started in 1973. The Artes del Valle Project eventually came to a halt, but was able to restore much of the building. In 2009 yet another restoration project started, which included the nearby Rosary Walk and Carnero Creek Cemetery.
The church is only open for special events and otherwise closed. However, the outside is uniquely picturesque and worth a visit.
The Rosary Walk at La Garita is the world’s largest outdoor buon fresco rosary walk. It’s construction began in October 2011 and was completed in October 2012. It is dedicated to Pope John Paul II. The artfully designed paintings are as magnificent and powerful as the prayers accompanying them. Together they form an unforgettable experience.
All paintings were done by local artist A.T. Archuleto. They were created in buon fresco style, in which ground pigments in water are applied to still-wet plaster, giving the painting a much longer durability. High durability is an important factor considering the harsh elements in the San Luis Valley.
The 800-ft.-long Rosary Walk starts with a painting of Jesus on the Cross. Along the path, five large four-sided pillars display the four mysteries, which play an essential part in praying the rosary. The Rosary is prayed by reflecting on the sorrowful, joyful, glorious and luminous mysteries. Each mystery represents a special event in the life of Jesus and his mother, Mary.
Grave at Carnero Creek Cemetery.
While the first three mysteries have been prayed for many centuries, Pope John Paul II added the luminous mysteries in 2002 with Mother Mary as the intercessor. The luminous mysteries focus on the public life of Jesus and are called the Mysteries of Light, because Jesus is the Light of the World. Praying and reflecting deeply on the four mysteries is supposed to bear spiritual fruits such as humility, courage, purity and faith—only to name a few.
To the side of the path, on the remaining walls of the old rectory, is a monument for St. John the Baptist. It is dedicated to the Hispanic people who settled in La Garita, and to the priests, sisters and “Los Penitentes,” who supported them in their faith. Faith was essential in building up strength, perseverance and endurance to survive the many challenges the new settlers faced.
The Rosary Walk is not only an invitation for prayer, but also an invitation to reflect on the deep history of this place: on the people who lived here before us, who came, settled and lived to fulfill their hopes and dreams. Keeping this close to the heart, the Rosary Walk reminds us of the hardship of life, the tests we need to endure and the faith it takes to find joy in the midst of all challenges. On the spiritual level it is an invitation to deeply join into the mysteries of life itself.
Carnero Creek Cemetery
El Camposanto del Carnero
Adjacent to the church and Rosary Walk is the small and primitive Carnero Creek Cemetery. The cemetery has been in use since the church was built and is scattered with crosses, small gravestones and statues of Jesus and Mother Mary. Many silk plastic flowers adorn the many graves. Old graves from centuries ago mingle with newer ones from just a few years ago. Some of the oldest graves don’t even have names—only a simple white cross.
As with the church and Rosary walk, a unique beauty can be felt here, only occasionally disturbed by a draft of wind, a bird’s rushing wings or the cry of crows. Standing on this hill, taking in the beauty and vast expanse of the valley, it seems as if the earth itself is greeting you with a prayer of love, forgiveness and strength.
Having visited this place, no matter what one’s faith, you will leave with a feeling of peace and gratefulness for the quiet beauty surrounding you.