June 22, 1952By CLEOFAS CALLEROS
(Editor’s Note: This is the 13th of a series on El Paso del Norte Missions by Cleofas Calleros, El Paso historian.)
There is a legend, and a strange one, told among residents of this valley. It is a story that takes one’s fancy, and that strongly suggests the supernatural. However, it is held to be truth by many, which fact gives it worthy historical significance.
According to the legend, a wooden image of San Miguel was being transported by ox cart to New Mexico. The Indians, entering El Paso del Norte Valley on their tedious journey, were anxious to travel as far as possible with their burden by nightfall. But a bewildering thing happened. At one point along the river the cumbersome team of four oxen bogged deep into the mire, the ladened cart slowly sinking with it.
This was an irritating delay to their progress. The tired Indians strained at the cart for hours, pulling at the chains and frightening the animals, but no strength could budge them. They seemed permanently lodged there, as if by the will of God, and it was thus so that the Indians interpreted the incident.
And so at the exact spot where the oxen had stalled the faithful natives erected a mission, designed in the form of a cross, and dedicated to its patron saint, San Miguel. This was the beginning of the original Socorro Mission, built in 1683, but inundated by a change of the Rio Bravo bed in 1776.
The mission had come to play an important part in the life of the Valley Indians, which truth left the padres no other course than to duplicate the old one. This, they knew, would be an undertaking that would employ their energies for years. It would entail months of backbreaking labor, bringing materials and carved beams over miles of hot desert from Mexico.
Had a contract been signed, it would have specified that construction was to be completed 64 years from that date, that the site of the mission was to be one mile from the original one, and that dimensions were to be the same.
In 1840 the completed mission was an architectural wonder of its day. The intricately carved ceiling was, and today is, the only one of its kind in the country. These “vigas,” closely resembling herring fish ceilings, are the most interesting part of the mission to tourist.
The walls, three feet in depth and formerly wide enough for two men to walk on them pushing wheel barrows, as well as the woodwork of the mission, contribute further toward making it an architectural gem. Although the wooden frame of the structure is not held together by steel nails, but by wooden pegs, it is nevertheless as secure and stable as the day they were placed.
Wandering through the mission, one sees the original statue of San Miguel, standing prominently in a niche on the left side of the church where once it was proudly placed by its owners. Searching further, one encounters a room in which the vestments and equipment are stored in anticipation of Passion Week when the natives will portray the Passion from its beginning to the Resurrections.
To one who will let his imagination soar, the low, oblong room speaks out of the past. It is damp and wet. In one corner an image of the crucified Christ, its hair and eyes dark brown and its face sallow and blood-stained, lies in a wooden sepulcher beneath cloths of silk and linen. One is startled by the torn and emaciated body.
Leaning against the wall is an old cross, so heavy that it is barely portable, which is carried annually by one of the natives in the pageant. Antique mural paintings, designed on elk’s hide and canvas, are further remnants of an Indian regime contained in the room.
Originally Mision de Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion de el pueblo de Socorro, and then Mision de San Miguel del Sur, and finally La Mision de la Purisma, is a legendary and colorful page in this region’s history. From its cottonwood trees outside several outlaws have hanged, these being bandits that had come from independent state of Texas and rudely asserted their sovereignty over the valley.
These and others were disposed of while the sagacious old mission look attentively on.