Little Chapel, Big Dreams
By Donna Clayton Lawder
It seems that anyone who has anything to do with La Capilla, the "Little Chapel on the Hill" in Silver City, is excited these days. Very excited. A recent afternoon drive took me through the sometimes steep, sometimes winding roads up through the Chihuahua Hill neighborhood. Gazing, as I often do, at the chapel's silhouette in the blaze of sunset, I wondered what is new with the project.
What I know is piecemeal knowledge from newspaper stories, a Desert Exposure piece of two years ago, conversations around town. The chapel seems almost as much a mystery as the Manquero sisters, Beatriz and Hipolita, whose names are linked with the building of the original chapel. I recall the third-hand allegations that the sisters were "common Mexican prostitutes," as noted in a 1914 Santa Fe Trails article. Perhaps because of the shadow of prostitution hanging over the sisters, the chapel they are credited with building was never consecrated, and never accepted as a gift by the local Roman Catholic parish of St. Vincent.
What I know as fact about the chapel comes from the present day, particularly from the bubbly Senovia Ray, who met up with me recently and asked if I would post one of her flyers for La Capilla. The chapel project co-sponsored a Cinco de Mayo Fiesta with the Senior Citizens Center, and Ray was excited that this event would give exposure to her pet project on the hill and introduce even more people to the Little Chapel and the progress being made there.
"You must come see it!" she insisted. "So much is happening!" She touched my hand, smiling broadly, eyes dancing.
The flyer posted to her satisfaction, Ray whirled out the door, to spread the word, more posters, and her infectious enthusiasm.
Senovia Ray and her husband, Joe, live near the Senior Center, in the proverbial shadow of the chapel, and serve as officers on La Capilla Project's board of directors. They also are credited with providing much of the push for the chapel's progress these days, and certainly for handing down what is known of its marvelous history.
I think of all this as I stop along the roadside on my drive this afternoon. I look at the padlocked gate and wonder what it would take for a Jane Citizen like me to get inside and see the chapel up close and personal. And then I notice The Sign, a white wooden billboard of sorts, identifying the project and—never noticed that before—two phone numbers!
I call the numbers and at the first, get no answer but leave a message with my name, cell-phone number and interest noted. The second number connects me with Larry Godfrey, a former member of the project's board of directors, who is excited that I've called and is willing to introduce me to all kinds of people instrumental to the project. And while he has me on the line, he would be happy to tell me as much history as he could.
"This is a very exciting time for La Capilla," he says. "There are huge construction projects that will happen this summer, as a matter of fact. Oh, we just got a grant, and there's going to be major progress in 2005."
Eager to satisfy my desire to see the project from inside the construction chain-link fence, Godfrey suggests I call any one of several people connected to the project, or simply go and get the key from Alex Brown's office at City Hall and go on a self-guided walking tour. City Hall! As simple as that!
An insomniac who has made peace with sleeplessness by convincing myself that being awake at odd hours brings me a special gift of solitude, I brew my coffee early and head out to the Little Chapel. All is quiet as I navigate the empty, dark streets of Chihuahua Hill. Minutes later, I am unlocking the heavy padlock and pass through the security gate. A duo of heavy construction vehicles sits parked in the dirt at the bottom of the hill, surrounded by rocks and small groupings of native plants.
Ahead of me, a beautiful brick walkway, glowing a faint rose-brown under the barely lightening sky, arches up the hill. The graceful path follows the contour of the land, and the softly rounded top of the stone wall echoes the mountains barely visible in the distance, making the whole property seem a natural part of the landscape, beckoning me ever upward, to the chapel.
I park and begin walking.
At the top, I find the small rectangular brick-and-stone building whose silhouette I have so enjoyed for the two years I have lived in Silver City. Stately and unobtrusive metal grates cover the chapel's tall, rectangular windows, and are adorned with metal sculptures of birds and flowers. The doors to the chapel are heavy and wooden, decorated with black metal that looks like it might have been smithed over a hundred years ago.
But before I open the chapel itself, I decide to explore the grounds, see what else is here, and experience the view. Silver City sleeps below me in the half-dark morning, mountains become more discernible in the distance, and the orange of the university's roof stands out in the dawn light. I take an appreciative sip of coffee and begin to meander around the rest of the property.
A two-foot-high adobe wall, just behind the newly constructed chapel, encloses and protects the site of the original chapel, destroyed down to a scattering of foundation stones in 1914, and a bronze plaque gives its history. From there, a walled, paved path heads south, leading me away from the chapel, to the summit of the property where a lone tree stands. The view of the neighborhood below instills a sense of spaciousness and peace.
With the sun coming over the horizon now, I decide to enter the chapel. I respectfully leave my travel mug with its remaining sips of coffee outside the heavy wooden doors, and step into a small plain room with straight wooden pews. The simplicity reminds me of a Quaker meeting hall. I sit in the unearthly quiet and reflect on the intentions of those whose vision created this building, wondering what and whom they hope to serve. I wonder about those who have labored to build it, where the support for the project has come from.
So much here to see, so much more than I had imagined, but it is obviously still a work in progress. What is next? What are the plans, the purposes for these structures, I wonder.
"Have you seen it?" one asks, the other almost simultaneously asking, "Have you been up there?" I assure them I have been to the chapel, to knowing nods and replies of, "Oh, good. Good."
It is obvious that these friendly people are active in their faith, as a devotional candle burns on a side table in the living room, illuminating a framed religious picture.
Martin sits with me on the couch, repeatedly referencing the booklet of information he has given me about the project. Clo, as she likes to be called, brings me one flyer, then another, then a copy of a press release.
I learn that the beautiful paved walkway that leads to the summit where that lone tree stands is called La Capilla Trail. Its turned-out resting areas are designed to aid traffic flow, and it meets standards set forth in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The lovely, somewhat magical brick road that winds up the hill to the chapel area is called Loma Lane. A full 10 feet wide and 600 feet long, it also is ADA approved.
Beyond the facts and figures—a $5,000 donation from Silver City Moose Lodge 1718 here, state money there, the cost of the bathrooms and shade structures—the Raels want to impress upon me the importance of the entire La Capilla project, how the facility will be a welcoming resource to both locals and tourists, commemorating and preserving the region's Native American and Hispanic cultures.
Building on the successes La Capilla has already enjoyed—a ribbon-cutting ceremony in May 2004 celebrated the completion of the actual chapel—the board has big plans for monies it was granted from the state for construction this year. Over the summer, the project will continue to use the labor of the Youth Conservation Corps and Children, Youth and Families. The workers will gain useful experience and knowledge in the construction field by building covered picnic areas and assembling modular picnic tables and benches, signs and walk bridges.
Also slated for this summer is the construction of restroom facilities: two men's, three women's and one for family use. A 2,200-foot surfaced and curbed trail will begin at the Silver City Senior Citizens Center and proceed to the south end of the park project, officially called La Capilla Heritage Park, making La Capilla and its 21-acre grounds accessible to the Senior Center, as well as El Refugio women's shelter.
Still in the works and seeking support are a 300-space parking area and the Casa de Cuentos y Piedras, the "House of Tales and Stones." The plan calls for a 40-by-80-foot adobe structure with 12-foot ceilings, to be used for historical, educational and recreational displays, which also will house an office for a curator and a gift shop. The building and its purpose were inspired by Earl Montoya of the local Hispanic Roundtable.
The Casa de Cuentos will also have a room to be used for creating copper articles, enabling local youth to develop skills for the metal-working profession, as well as generating income for the park.
The La Capilla Board of Directors has submitted a request to Phelps Dodge for a replica of an underground mine shaft, reminding visitors to the park of the area's mining history.
Anticipating a summer of completed construction projects, La Capilla's board of directors is already putting out the invitation to a July 2 Open House at the property. "Come see what we have done!" the flyer exclaims. From 10 a.m.-2 p.m. there will be refreshments, speakers, guided tours and continuous music. Doubtless all the excited people connected with La Capilla Project will be on hand to share their enthusiasm.
For more information on the La Capilla Project, contact Martin and Clo Rael at
Donna Clayton Lawder is administrator for the Mimbres Region Arts Council and a Silver City-based freelance writer.