Trail of the Indian Chapels

As one travels around Mexico, urban areas and countryside alike, the overwhelming economic and cultural power of the Catholic church is inescapable. There are churches bumping into other churches, sometimes two or three on the same block, perhaps with a convent or school sandwiched in between. The churches vary in size and splendor but none are makeshift storefront temples you find in American inner cities. Indeed in Mexican colonial skylines church steeples and domes rise above all other earthly real estate, like exclamation marks signaling the supremacy and power of Catholicism. 
Once past the initial awe at the baroque opulence of some of these Catholic temples–the almost vulgar excess of gold, precious woods, paitings, statues and other trappings seemingly intended to humble as much as inspire the faithful–some mundane questions come up. How could there have ever been enough parishioners with enough money, even at the zenith of Roman Catholic influence over the Mexican populace, to fill all these churches, much less pay for their construction and perpetual maintenance? 
The ubiquitousness of religious buildings spills over to the countryside. Out my office window I can see a small, century-old chapel belonging to the community of Biznaga. From our kitchen we can also see the impressive dome of the church of Sosnavar, a town of about 800 with not an inch of paved streets. A few miles in the opposite direction is Jalpa, hardly richer or larger than Sosnavar, with its own outsize church lording over the town and its inhabitants.

At the suggestion of a posting on the Civil List, the local expat Internet bulletin board, last Sunday Stew and I went on a recently completed tourist attraction called “Trail of the Chapels of the Indians,” a driving tour of seven restored tiny chapels scattered on the countryside just outside San Miguel. Along the way you find a few other chapels and churches that are abandoned or for some reason were not included in the refurbishing campaign by the state government.

Jack Connelly, a Chicago friend who lived here for several years memorably described Mexico as a country “where everything almost works” and so it is with the signage along the chapel trail. Upon departure from San Miguel you follow shiny new signs, increasingly vandalized, later replaced by handwritten arrows on pieces of cardboard tied to trees–and ultimately no signs at all. We never found the last chapel listed on the fancy tour brochure.
Each chapel on the tour had a couple of smiling and charming young women ready with a spiel that was informative though limited to the script they had memorized. Nevertheless it was a fascinating introduction to church building in this part of Mexico; it’s a shame there was only one other visitor on the trail aside from the two of us.
The chapels are tiny, and everything in them proportioned accordingly. Anyone over six feet tall has to duck to get through some of the entrances and passageways. Even the largest one couldn’t accommodate more than 25 people comfortably. In the case of the chapels of Santiaguito and Guadalupe, they are located a scant 400 feet from one another along the same road. In the town of Cruz del Palmar–around the area where all signage vanished–there were three or four small churches within shouting distance of one another.
What type of marketing plan were church authorities following when building a string of tiny churches so close to one another? The answer appears to be “none.” According to our guides, these mini tabernacles were not built by the church but by families for their own use and that of their employees. Why not pray at the chapel already built by the Joneses just on the other side of the fence?  Well, evidently that would be like grilling your hot dogs on their BBQ. In addition, building your own mini church, complete with a miniature bell tower, was a way of flaunting your faith and wealth. 
The exteriors of the chapels reflect an indigenous aesthetic and craftsmanship. One of the young tour guides talked about neo-classical design, but that may be a bit of a stretch. In fact the nave-to-steeple proportions don’t seem to follow any patterns or rules, and the lines are often crooked, no doubt owing to a combination of age, settling and primitive construction skills. 
That crudeness, though, is precisely what gives the chapels their arresting beauty and charm, particularly in the heavily decorated interiors. The paintings are not the work of budding Michelangelos, but Indian artists who went at it with far more fervor than artistic training or experience. In one church the ceiling over the altar is filled with chubby, clumsy angels blowing flutes and stroking violins and representing the artist’s vision of heaven. Artwork could get a little subversive too: One ceiling included images of the moon and the sun that may have more to do with indigenous cosmology than anything in Christian scripture.
As with any old temples or monuments, one can just sit back and imagine a handful of people 150 years ago fervently praying for deliverance from an illness, or expressing gratitude for good fortune or sorrow at the passing of a dear one. 
Maintenance was the responsibility of the families who built the chapels which means that many were abandoned or turned into storage sheds when properties changed hands or times got tough. One miniscule chapel, opened in 1865, is in ruins and filled with hay, bats and swallows. Some of the chapels also were looted over the years, so the altar decorations today are of recent vintage, like pictures of Pope John Paul and plastic babies that are supposed to depict the “Holy Child”. In other cases the renovation and painting was so heavy-handed the exteriors have lost their ancient feel.
This tour partly explained the abundance of churches in the countryside. These mini temples were  built by wealthy individuals or families to celebrate a happy event or merely show off their wealth, rather than as a result of a campaign by the Spanish church to evangelize, indoctrinate or subjugate native Mexican populations.

Ironically, either way the result was pretty much the same.  


A niche in the Capilla de Guadalupe, the first one on the Trail of Indian Chapels. 

[Above and below]: The chapel of San Isidro Labrador.


[Above and below] This tiny chapel which is abandoned and now used for storing animal feed, was built by a mason named Pedro García, and opened in August 1865, according to a carving on the stone over the door. The entrance is about five feet high and the interior could not accommodate more than a dozen people. 


[Above and below]: This mesquite door is original and so is the lock and key mechanism which still work.  The interior of this chapel could not hold more than 20 people. 


[Above and below]: According to the legend on one of the walls of the heavily decorated Chapel of San Mateo (above and below), construction began on August 11, 1867 and the chapel was finished about two and a half years later. The sign also mentions that the total cost–including masonry work, painting and the blessing–came to 234 pesos. 

One of the more interesting features of most of the chapels were the “Calvarios”–or “Calvaries”–which were like mini-churches that held small wooden crosses, personal items and other mementos of people in the community who had passed away. Even today, local folk come to the Calvarios to ask permission from their ancestors before having a community celebration. Unfortunately, many of these Calvarios have been looted and now stand empty. Some chapels had an additional and smaller Calvario (or “Calvarito”), about the size of dog house.  
A mystery chapel, not on the tour, atop a hill.

[Note to any fact-checkers who may read this: I didn’t take notes so some of the names of the chapels included in the captions may be wrong. In fact we may go on the trail again this coming weekend to sort this out and see some of the chapels we missed.] 

4 thoughts on “Trail of the Indian Chapels

  1. The building of the chapels in 1865 and 1867, mentioned in your piece, coincides with Mexican historical events. President Benito Juarez suppressed the Catholic hierarchy which was in league with Conservative forces in Mexico. Juarez seized churches and the lands of the Bishops. Mexico also experienced the French Intervention with Emperor Maximilian who was supported by the Conservatives and the church. Given this turmoil and sporadically cut off from access to the churches in towns and cities, the rich families in Guanajuato state may have decided to commence building their chapels to avoid interrupted worship in town. Juarez's efforts ebbed and flowed especially in northern Mexico. Early on during this period, the landowners may have viewed their chapels as only temporary buildings when some of the capillas were built. These chapels were built in a minimalist fashion. At other points of time, Juarez's influence surged militarily and the capillas were built as a permanent fixture as families became resigned to the loss of parish churches. Therefore, some chapels were built more substantially and their decor, as you noted, also took on an ostentatious element to demonstrate family prominence and a not so subtle sign of resistance to Juarez.


  2. Bill: That's a very interesting point that I had never heard mentioned. Indeed the battles between the church and the Mexican government may have played a role, when essentially prominent families decided to create their own little parishes.


  3. Suppression of the clergy and bishops has a long history starting in 1810, and picking up steam with Juarez. It continued for 70 years after Maximilian. A Terror ensued in the disruptions from 1917 to 1934.This article states that 17 Mexican states had no priests at all in 1935.'m sure the Bishop's library in San Miguel has the best account of the seizures of land in 1865-67 and the dissolving of the parish churches at that time. Who knows what happened to the clergy. Either they rode to the Conservative forces to the South or were sheltered locally by the great estates. Juarez's forces moved through the area in the government-in-exile period. How much disruption occurred is written down somewhere. The Bishops kept meticulous financial records and inventories.


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