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Crumbling Catholic Mission Holds the Sacred Heart of a Town’s Past

Times Staff Writer

Not much is left of this old farming town, isolated and forgotten in the vast emptiness of far West Texas.

On the side of a dirt road are a cantina, a rustic convenience store and a ragged row of mailboxes for the town’s 17 residents. As the trail curves, the crumbling remains of an adobe church built nearly a century ago come into view. Some walls of the Sacred Heart of Jesus mission are missing, as is most of the corrugated metal roof. A stately arched entry remains.

Though the abandoned church is on the verge of collapse, architects for the Texas Historical Commission believe it can be saved; a frantic fundraising effort recently netted most of the $65,000 needed for the first phase of reconstruction.

“If the church goes, the whole history of the community goes,” preservation architect Lyman Labry said. “This is the last thing standing that lets you know people worked and raised families here, that there was a whole string of communities linked together by this church. It’s important to preserve that memory.”

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The first order of business simply will be to keep the church walls upright, he said. Workers will attempt to stabilize the foundation with new adobe bricks made from an old recipe: local dirt, straw, pebbles and cactus juice mixed together, shaped into rectangles and dried in the sun. Missing windows will be replaced and a new roof will keep out the rain and wind.

The result will be a shell of the original church, but it will be safe to enter and explore, said Larry Oaks, executive director of the historical commission. The restored building may serve as a traditional place of worship, or simply as “a reminder of a culture and way of life that no longer exists,” Oaks said. “This was the heart of the community.”

Set at the foot of the Chinati Mountains on the Texas-Mexico border, Ruidosa in 1910 was a remote outpost for American troops guarding the frontier during the Mexican Revolution. By the following year, the population had grown to more than 1,700. Farmers had moved into the area, raising cotton irrigated by water from the Rio Grande.

The Sacred Heart church was built around 1914 by villagers who arranged adobe bricks into high, graceful arches -- an engineering feat not seen elsewhere in the area, Labry said.

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In the 1930s, when dams upriver reduced the flow from the Rio Grande, the cotton crops began to wither. Salt cedars planted at the river’s edge to reduce erosion turned into tree-sized straws, each absorbing up to 200 gallons of water a day.

With the river reduced to a trickle, residents started moving away. The local cotton gin went out of business in 1936, and the post office closed in 1954. Ten years later, every store in Ruidosa had shut its doors.

A Catholic church in Candelaria, about 12 miles upriver, became the area’s religious hub, with a priest navigating the bumpy back roads by truck to celebrate the weekly Mass. The practice continues to this day, with Father Lazaro Gonzales making the 45-mile drive from Presidio, passing the mission in Ruidosa along the way.

“It is terrible to watch the church fall little by little,” he said. “Many people were baptized or married there. Their families have a history there, and there is sadness because it is in ruins. If it is repaired, I believe many people will return to try to reconstruct their memories.”

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Next door to the church, retired schoolteacher Celia Hill runs La Junta General Store. She has watched Sacred Heart’s adobe brick walls erode with the seasons, but marvels at its resilience. “Every time it rains, more of the church goes,” said Hill, 76. “It’s a miracle it’s still standing.”

Four years ago, she said, a back wall of the church crashed down and knocked over her fence. After that, her son built a sturdy new fence made of old tires stacked waist-high and covered with concrete. The barrier keeps strangers out of their backyard, but she welcomes tourists who come through the front door of her store. “We’re hoping the restoration will help business,” she said.

Down the road, land broker and cantina owner Jim Blumberg has similar hopes. The restored church may prompt more people to go off the beaten path, he said. “I tell you, it’s kind of a forgotten area, but that’s why it’s still pristine. More and more, people are starting to discover we’re here,” he said.

In the distance, the mountains reflect hues of violet and blue. Horses roam wild; jackrabbits and roadrunners streak into the canyons. The stark grandeur of the region is a revelation to anyone who imagines Texas as a flat desert rolling with tumbleweeds.

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“What it’s all about in this part of the state is the experience of seeing the majestic landscape, driving for hours and not seeing one single structure,” Oaks said. “Then you come upon an old town, an old church, and it delivers a sense of awe and respect for the ability of people to survive.”


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