Sunday, December 27, 2020

Nuestra Morada Privada


Cruz Blanca

Early in December I headed out for a browse of favorite photo locales around Taos. As is often the case I headed to La Morada de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, locally referred to as the Morada. Near the Taos Historic District, the Morada, a Catholic lay chapel, sits on a glorious patch of high desert with sweeping views across Taos Pueblo lands toward the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It’s a special piece of land and the Morada, while underknown and appreciated, is one of Taos’s most important and aesthetic historic sites.

Cruz Negro

La Morada with Taos Pueblo and the Sangre de Cristos beyond

La Morada de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe

To my modest surprise, as I approached the Morada grounds I found that a gate had been installed across Penitente Road so that public access to the property is no longer possible. I say modest surprise since there’s been a fraught relationship between the Penitente Brothers who use the Morada for their severe devotionals and anyone who is not a Hermano. That tension has existed forever. Since the property was sold to the Diocese of Santa Fe by the Taos Historic Museums in 2008, visitors have sometimes been accosted by Hermanos when they attempt to enter the grounds. And more recently a sign appeared saying that painting and photography are expressly forbidden. But the right of the Penitentes or the Catholic Church to deny access to the Morada grounds has been called into question. It is believed but not yet proved that under the terms of the sale of the Morada to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe by the Taos Historic Museums public access was preserved and that access includes the right to depict it artistically. 

Much to my frustration I backed out the entire length of one lane Penitente Road and put it aside for the moment. Days later I received an email from a fellow photographer who had suffered the same fate. Rupert Chambers, who does not turn the other cheek, had tracked down the parish priest under whose purview the Morada lies. When questioned by Rupert about the closing here’s how the priest replied.

Mr. Chambers,

My secretary forwarded me your email, thank you for your question. The short answer is though a historic site, it is a living morada, and the men of our local fraternity practice their devotions and care for the grounds/building. Though the choice remains with me, I chose to honor their wishes that the grounds remain private for their use and for official parish use only. Furthermore, the pueblo tribal government has asked that we keep visitors out since our land borders theirs as they are worried about issues with trespassing. So, in the end I am respecting the wishes of our special group and of our neighbors. You should know, however that visitors are allowed when we have public worship events there such as Mass (once a month during normal time) and for certain devotions during the Lenten season.

I do hope you and your loves one enjoy a warm, safe, and joyful Holiday Season!


Prompted by the Father’s answer, I weighed in.


Dear Father, 

The interchange between you and Rupert Chambers was shared with my wife Peggy who in turn shared it with me. I am disheartened that in your narrow view the desires of the Penitente Brotherhood exceed the value of the general public’s freedom to visit one of Taos’s extraordinary historic sites. It’s shortsighted at best. Further, it is my understanding that a stipulation of the sale of the property by the Taos Historic Museums to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe in 2008 was that public access to the grounds be guaranteed and that access was to include the right to paint, photograph or otherwise depict the Morada and its grounds. If that is not the case the Historic Museums dropped the ball in an inexcusable way. If that stipulation is part of the agreement the Archdiocese is bound by it. In your response to Mr. Chambers, you declare with not a little pride that the decision was entirely yours. In your presumed wisdom you are denying access to the property to the devout who are not Penitentes and to those who simply appreciate New Mexico’s rich Catholic history. You are making that history smaller, less approachable and for the very few.

It is no secret that the insular, and may I say bitter, Penitentes do not want to share the Morada with anyone who is not a Hermano. Even more they are revulsed at having it painted, photographed, or otherwise depicted. Surely you are aware that artistic works memorialize sacred sites for all time. How is the Church served by denying that legacy?

I harbor no illusions that you will be swayed to reconsider. But I hope you will ponder what you have wrought.

Steve Immel


Sounds good! I have no qualms that your argument has weight and is meaningful, but as pastor here it’s both my call and it isn’t, because I do not represent merely my interests and I am also well aware of this.

In a different context I might just say do as you wish, but the Hermanos and the Pueblo have been here a lot longer than both of us and both have been wronged and often overlooked. With the abundance of gorgeous vistas in our fair valley I am sure you can find many a spot that suits your needs as an artist and in capturing visual history. 

I mean no harm and I didn’t intend my previous email to presume wisdom or anything of the kind, I am just telling you where I stand, and I would prefer we would respectfully disagree than any sense of injustice or disrespect being fostered.

I certainly hope you and your loved ones enjoy a warm, safe, and consoling celebration of the holidays. Lord knows this year has been hard enough on all of us.

Paz, Father 



Thank you for your thoughtful response. As you say, we’ll have to agree to disagree.

In my view you have chosen to serve the few rather than the many. There is no doubt that the Pueblo and the Penitentes have each been “wronged” and “overlooked.” The list is long. As you know the Penitente Brotherhood stemmed in part from the inability or disinterest of the Catholic Church in providing spiritual guidance, namely priests, to the lowest caste of New Mexico Hispanic society, mostly mestizo. After 1821 the problem became more acute when Spain withdrew its priests. In lieu of real Catholic clergy devout campesanos built their own lay chapels and practiced their own fundamentalist brand of Catholicism. Taos Pueblo provided land for La Morada de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in 1798 if memory serves.

Because I referenced access to the Morada grounds for artistic pursuits you have you have singled out that use. That trivializes my argument for access. This is not about “gorgeous vistas” or spots to fill our needs as artists. Those are of modest importance. It does, however, have a lot to do with freedom, choice, and inclusion. I am addressing the inequity of denying access to anyone who is not a Penitente.

The Morada is a special place, even a spiritual one. Being there is a gift unto itself. It’s a shame that no one else will discover it.

And finally, is there or is there not a provision for public access within the agreement that conveyed ownership of the Morada from the Taos Historic Museums to the Archdiocese in 2008?

I suggest that The Church or the Brotherhood install proper signs at the bottom of Las Cruces Road and Penitente Road indicating the Morada grounds are no longer open to the public. That way folks are spared the difficulty of backing out the entire length of Penitente. A press release announcing the closure would seem appropriate, as well. This should be public knowledge.




Steve, I am sorry, I have no answers for you as I am in the midst of Christmas preparation, a sacred and busy time for us Christians.

I know that registered with the country, morada property belongs to our parish corporation. Thus it is private property under my name currently and I have seen no clause of the sort you mention.

Certainly, our diocesan chancellor could answer your questions as he has all of the paperwork for our parish. His name is Tom Macken and you can reach him at (505)831-8100. Also, I believe some documents are also public information and you can contact the county clerk for that.

If you still want to discuss this with me personally, I would be happy to meet with you, please just make an appointment after the new year with my secretary, Anita. 

Again, I appreciate your concern and I am not opposed to discussion at all, but I can’t do it right now.

I hope this special season brings you and your loved ones hope, joy, and consolation.

In His joy, Father

Thank you once again for your openness, Father.  That there is a contractual obligation to allow public access to the Morada grounds is what I’ve been told by individuals who should know. The last two presidents of the Historic Museums, Sarah Turner and Margo Gins, contend that access is part of the deal. I don’t know the opinion of Daniel Barela the current president. Legal obligations, of course, can be different than what is right and fair and serves the common good.

Let’s table this discussion till after the busy Christmas season and the New Year. In the meantime, I wish you a blessed Christmas and a better New Year.




This is a quandary for the Father or at least I hope it is. But it feels more like a verdict rendered when only the complainant was represented before the court. And what if unfettered access to the Morada Grounds is guaranteed? Who would challenge the Father’s and by extension the Catholic Church’s decision? And when made public what judgment will the Court of Public Opinion render?

I understand that this more than a legal issue. Public access may or may not have been guaranteed. I’m hellbent, excuse the term, on finding that out whatever resolution is reached. The Father’s desire to the right wrongs comes from a good place no doubt. The Morada at some point was owned or at least controlled by the Penitente Brotherhood. They built it after all. But at some time in history, they lost legal possession of their prized property. Does that mean that this particular wrong should be righted? What about other losses at the hand of the conquerors? Is it possible to right all the wrongs perpetrated by Hispanos and the Catholic Church on Native Americans or by Anglos on Hispanos? The answer of course is no. Though it may be worthy.

I am less sympathetic to the Pueblo which wants the public denied access because someone might trespass on Pueblo lands adjacent to the Morada. Is the “possibility” of a misdeed or the rare occasion of that incursion a fair rationale for denying access to everybody else to a property you no longer own? I suggest No. Clearly, Hispano and Native American interests hold great sway in Northern New Mexico. And that’s as it should be to a point. But one suspects the Father’s deliberation in this case was made without an opposing voice.

More will be revealed.

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