Old Town marks the original town site of the Spanish villa of Alburquerque, established in 1706 by New Mexico Governor Francisco Cuervo y Valdés. It is now listed on the New Mexico State Registry of Cultural Properties as the Old Albuquerque Historic District. Home to buildings erected in the 1700s as well as the high-tech Explora Science Center, it’s a district with a wealth of unusual and forgotten history hidden amid its small knot of 300-year-old streets and alleyways.
San Felipe de Neri Church/Cottonwood Madonna
2005 North Plaza St. NW
Built in 1793, the Spanish Colonial San Felipe de Neri Church, bordering Old Town Plaza’s north end, is one of the oldest buildings in the city. Its parish and original structure, in fact, date all the way back to the city’s founding in 1706. (That structure collapsed in the winter of 1792.) During the Victorian era, the church was remodeled under Bishop (later Archbishop) Jean-Baptiste Lamy in a more Gothic Revival style.
One popular urban legend says San Felipe parishioner Toby Avila returned from the Korean War in 1958 unharmed and was moved to carve the Virgin Mary into the bole of an old cottonwood tree behind the historic church. (Others versions place it in 1970 after the Vietnam War.) Avila allegedly worked for two years on the project—using only a kitchen knife, a sharpening stone and a mallet—and died two days after it was finished. His hands were still stained with blue paint used on the Virgin’s mantilla as he lay in repose. According to local folklore, the dying tree came back to life after Avila carved the religious image. For decades the monument to Our Lady of Guadalupe was visible in the church’s back parking lot, a popular stop for tourists and the faithful. Some of the most devoted observers say the image can miraculously change color or position. According to surviving family members, Toribio “Toby” Avila (a veteran of both Korea and Vietnam) actually put his final touches on the carving in December of 1979 before slipping into a diabetic coma. He passed in January of 1980. In 2011 a winter storm snapped the old tree in half, but Avila’s “Madonna of the Cottonwood” remained undamaged. In 2014 the dead tree was cut down and its trunk transported to the front of the church on the corner of San Felipe St. and North Plaza St.
Sister Blandina Convent/Old Town Public School
205 North Plaza Ave. NW
Sister Blandina Segale was an Italian-born missionary who took her vows with the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati but was most famous for her work in the American Frontier, ministering to the likes of Billy the Kid and various Native American tribes. In 1881 Blandina came to the San Felipe de Neri Church in Old Town Albuquerque to establish a convent. It is said that the convent on the West side of the church was the first two-story adobe built on the dusty plaza. A graveyard had to be moved and a stonemason was hired from Santa Fe.
When the convent opened, the Sisters of Charity started teaching students, establishing the first public school in Albuquerque. They opened the Old Town Public School and Our Lady of Angels Private School in rooms of their newly built convent. Nuns taught the private school, and Jesuit priests taught the public school. By 1885 the free public school moved to a new brick building on Sixth and Lomas near the railroad tracks in “New Town.” It was designated Public School, Precinct 12. Sister Blandina then tried to build an infirmary on the old San Felipe de Neri site, but was recalled to Trinidad, Colorado in 1889. She eventually returned to Albuquerque and, by 1901, oversaw the construction of St. Joseph Hospital (now Lovelace at 715 Dr. Martin Luther King Ave. NE). She also established the St. Vincent Academy. Turns out she had been recalled to her previous posting in Colorado to defend the nuns’ rights to teach school in their full religious habits. It was a fight she lost, blaming it on anti-Catholic sentiment. Back home in Albuquerque the Board of Education also issued an edict that all public school teachers had to wear secular attire. That law went into effect in 1892. So Blandina turned PS-12 into St. Vincent, a private, religious boarding school for girls, re-opening it in 1895. The school stayed open until 1969.
Today, a historic plaque marks the site of Old Town Public School, a one-story extension of the old Sisters of Charity convent with a distinctive wooden cupola on the roof. Sister Blandina is currently being considered by the Catholic church for sainthood. She would be the first saint from New Mexico.
Old Town Plaza/Confederate Cannons
206 San Felipe St. NW
Many flags have flown over the Old Town Plaza. In the 1850s a 121-foot flagpole was erected by the U.S. Army. That was (briefly) replaced when Confederate soldiers showed up a decade or so later. Other prominent changes include the picket fence used to replace the original adobe wall in 1881. At the height of the Great Depression, in 1936, the Works Progress Administration came to town to replace the picket fence with a stone wall and construct a stone bandstand/gazebo in the center of the plaza. The clunky stone additions proved unpopular. Just 11 years later, a grassroots campaign organized by the Old Albuquerque Historical Society had them torn down and replaced with today’s wood, brick and wrought iron versions. A 1947 report in the Albuquerque Journal noted that county commissioners authorized the demolition and the improvements, but “refused to use a nickle of the county’s money for the project.” The project ended up privately funded, with two of the city commissioners volunteering to pay for two of the estimated 55 cubic yards of concrete needed for sidewalks out of their own pockets.
On the East end of the Old Town Plaza sit two M1835 mountain howitzers. The guns were originally placed there by the Texas Brigade, a 3,000-soldier group commanded by Gen. H.H. Sibley that raised the Confederate flag over Old Town on March 2, 1862. Emboldened by easy victory, the Southern troops tried advancing toward Fort Union in Colorado. They were soundly beaten back. And on April 8 of that year, Union Col. E.R.S. Canby and his artillery troops started bombarding Sibley’s fallback position at Old Town Plaza. By the next day, severely wounded and out of ammunition, Confederate troops fled, leaving their supplies behind. Not wanting their eight brass cannons to fall into enemy hands, however, the Confederates buried them under a nearby horse corral. The troops retreated to Texas, and the cannons were lost. Some 27 years later, in August of 1887, former Confederate artillery officer Trevanian T. Teel of El Paso returned to Albuquerque and led a group of locals to the burial spot of the cannons—now a chile patch just northeast of the church. Turns out they were Union cannons to begin with, captured in Texas by Confederate soldiers at the outbreak of the Civil War. Two of the cannons were kept on display in Albuquerque and the rest were sent to Colorado and Texas.
But the cannons visible on the plaza today marking the “Skirmish of Albuquerque” are not actually the ones that Maj. Teel helped unearth. In 1982, worried about vandalism and weather damage, then-Mayor Harry Kinney ordered the originals moved to the nearby Albuquerque Museum and replaced with bronze replicas.
Romero House/The Frances Lynn Maternity Home/The Chaparral Adoption Agency Home for Unwed Mothers
205 Romero St. NW
Built in 1915 for prominent merchant Jesús Romero, this two-story, prairie-style adobe was the last residence to be erected on the Old Town Plaza. At the time, it had already transitioned to mostly commercial real estate. But Romero, owner of a successful grocery, wanted something to rival his pal Charles A. Bottger’s nearby mansion (built in 1912 at 110 San Felipe NW and currently employed as a bed and breakfast). Overlooking the historic plaza and kitty corner to the San Felipe de Neri Church, Romero House was undoubtedly a home to envy.
By July of 1936, however, Romero had moved on, and the residence was donated to establish the Frances Lynn Maternity Home. It served as a place for tragically unwed mothers to hide their shame and give birth to their children in privacy. Most of the pregnant girls were shipped in from out of town (as was the fashion at the time). The facility originally employed 15 volunteer directors, a social worker and a “house mother.” A 1938 article/editorial in the Albuquerque Journal about the home bore the headline: “Young Women Taught to Sew and Cook: Prepare Themselves For Service.” A 1957 article in the Albuquerque Journal assured readers that, “Unfortunates Find Haven at Frances Lynn Home.”
By 1966 the Albuquerque Tribune still took time to note that, “Illegitimacy is one of this country’s greatest problems,” and that, “The general public looks upon the unwed mother as someone they could never know.” Other judgement-filled insight from the period included the observation that, “The unwed mother very often is an emotionally immature girl with a problem in her relationship with her mother.” The ’66 article also contained a choice quote from Mabel Shanner, a social worker with United Protestant Adoption Agency, who helpfully cautioned readers that, “You cannot treat unwed mothers like tramps. Because many of them are not.” Good to know, Mabel.
By ’68 up to 16 girls were allowed to enter the home under an assumed name and were “not allowed to return a second time.” They engaged in small household chores, including cooking and serving meals. All arrived “four and a half to six months” into their pregnancy and paid $5 a day room and board until they gave birth. Invited guest speakers came for weekly teas. The unwed mothers were allowed to leave for shopping and movies in the neighborhood but, “We don’t encourage large groups,” said the president of the home’s board of directors. (An improvement from 1938 when, according the Journal, “Mrs. John Pilcher takes the girls for rides, their only opportunity to get out-of-doors.”) By 1960 the Lynn Home had merged with adoption agencies Catholic Social Services and Jewish Welfare Fund. If the girls allowed their babies to be adopted, the church paid their bills. If they ended up keeping the child, the mother paid all the medical expenses.
By 1970 the facility was renamed the Chaparral Home, though most still knew it as the Frances Lynn Home. Throughout the ’60s and into the early ’70s, the United Community Fund covered upwards of 60 percent of the home’s budget. But its days were numbered. By 1972 the Gallup Independent noted that many homes for unwed mothers were “closing for a lack of clientele, homes that are moving into other programs and homes that are wondering how they can afford to stay open when the occupancy rate drops lower and lower each year.” Much of this “lack of clientele” was blamed on the invention of the birth control pill and the rise of something called “feminism.” Visitors to Old Town in the early ’70s could still be treated to the puzzling sight of pregnant teenagers hanging out on the porch of the stately old Romero home, hooting and hollering at passing tourists. By 1975 the home was closed down for good. It is now home to a variety of shops.