The Stations of the Cross in the San Luis Valley
The Crestone Eagle • April, 2020
by Anoushka Perkert
The Stations of the Cross are located in San Luis, in the southern part of the San Luis Valley. I had seen pictures of the impressive life-size sculptures, and I had always wanted to visit. On a cold, calm and very sunny December day in 2019 I finally did.
San Luis is the oldest town in Colorado, founded in 1851 by Hispanic settlers who had migrated north from New Mexico. It was once a part of four Spanish land grants, decreed by the King of Spain. It retains the texture of historical and cultural influences, which shaped the early communities in southern Colorado. San Luis remained part of the Territory of New Mexico until 1861, when the Territory of Colorado was established.
To this day, Hispanic descendants mostly make up the town of San Luis. Roughly 800 people live here and—like many small towns in the San Luis Valley—it feels like a ghost town. Perhaps especially so on a cold winter day.
The Stations of the Cross starts at a plaza in the center of town. A well-maintained dirt path winds up the side of a hill. It ends on the top of the mesa at the Shrine of the Stations of the Cross.
The Stations of the Cross are made up of 15 three-quarter life-size bronze statues that were created by the sculptor and San Luis native Huberto Maestas. They dramatically display the last hours of Jesus’ life, beginning with his trial and ending with his crucifixion. Traditionally there are 14 stations, with the crucifixion being the last one. Maestas added one more: The resurrection, in which Jesus rises into heaven.
As I slowly climbed the path and stopped at each of the stations to take in the meticulous artwork, it felt as if each scene had a haunting life of its own. The statues seemed alive, their expression reflecting the pain, terror and agony of those last hours, and they also depicted a rare and tender humility written into each of the faces. With each station, the weight of the cross seems to be getting heavier, the struggle harder and the pain more excruciating. The surrender to the unavoidable moment of death is written into every scene. The exhaustion is palpable.
It is not only the scenes themselves that make this experience so powerful. It is also the backdrop against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the Rio Culebra landscape below. The statues are carefully placed in such a way as to mold with the natural background behind them, giving them even more intensity. When finally reaching the top of the mesa, it is as if one had climbed the mount of Golgotha itself.
The top of the mesa is named “La Mesa de la Piedad y de la Misericordia”—the hill of pity and mercy. It is the location of “La Capilla de Todos Los Santos”—the Chapel of All Saints. The chapel was built in the late 1980s in a Spanish-Moorish style with thick adobe, whitewashed walls and a two-steeple entrance. It reminded me of churches I had seen in Jerusalem and in Spain. As a matter of fact, it felt as if I was standing right in the middle of the Holy Land.
Behind the chapel I found another little Memorial Walk, dedicated to 25 Catholic priests who were executed by the Mexican Army during the Cristero War in Mexico between 1926 and 1929. Pope John Paul II canonized those priests in May of 2000. It is their names that line up the path to the top of the hill. Looking back down, I realized that those had only been a few of the many thousands that had been killed during this war. It made a shiver run down my spine.
The Cristero War (1926-1929)
Not much is known about the Cristero War. As a matter of fact, it is largely wiped out of history books. Even Mexicans don’t know much about their ancestors’ struggle to practice their Catholic faith. The fact is that between 1926 and 1929, the largely socialist Mexican government had suspended and outlawed all religious activities: churches were closed, priests sent into exile and military forces brutally killed anybody disobeying president Calle’s new law, destined to liquidate the church.
With more than 95% of Mexico’s population being devout Catholics, the effects were devastating. Forced into hiding and forced to hold their services in secret, people constantly feared for their life. The crisis eventually led to an armed uprising. The rebels called themselves Cristeros and were determined to fight for their religious rights. In 1927 the rebellion, even though not supported by the church itself, became official.
Strong federal military forces often outnumbered the Cristeros. Many were captured, tortured and executed. In the end the war had cost almost 250,000 lives, a lot of them civilians. Another 250,000 fled to the US for refuge.
In June of 1929, an agreement was made with the government to re-establish some of the religious rights that had been lost and the fighting got suspended. Church bells rang in Mexico for the first time in three years. Religious services were restored and exiled priests were able to return to their country.
In reality, however, many of those agreements were broken in the following years and some of the fighting continued with further loss of life. In the years following the truce the Mexican government executed about 500 Cristero leaders and about 5000 Cristeros. It took many more years for the church to re-establish its rights and it wasn’t until 1992 that the church was restored as a legal entity in Mexico.
Leaving the Memorial Walk for the Martyrs, I felt even more solemn than I had felt before. Within the silence of this beautiful day it was as if I could still hear the cries of pain and the cries for justice echoing in the air.
I walked up the road a little bit, leaving the chapel and the grounds behind. It felt quiet and still and the views of the mountains and the valley below were once again breathtaking. But something else had taken my breath away: perhaps it was the heavy weight of history and the suffering of so many people that had found its way into my heart.
Mt. Blanca to the north was coated in a blanket of snow. The Sangres stretched themselves south towards Taos and Glorietta Pass. Below me the steeple of the church was glowing in the blinding sunlight. The Chapel of all Saints sat proudly on its little hill, determined to keep serving as a place for reflection, remembrance and peace.