Heritage, Volume 04, Number 03, Winter 1986

of northern New Mexico to build missions
at Ysleta del Sur (Ysleta of the
South, to distinguish it from the New
Mexico site) and Socorro, which share
the honor of being the oldest missions in
Texas. Both missions were constructed
using Pueblo techniques and the molded
adobes that had been introduced by the
newcomers.
The age-old technique of adobe making,
handed down even today from one
generation to the next through demonstration
and hands-on practice, is quite
simple. Adobe earth, a heavy loam, is
mixed thoroughly but sparingly with
water; then straw is added to provide
binder, helping hold the bricks together
much as reinforcing rods are imbedded in
cement floors and foundations. Then the
mixture is mashed by hand into a wooden
form that resembles a short ladder two
sidepieces with crosspieces separating the
whole into two or three sections. The
mixture is thick enough that the form
(inside surfaces slick with water) can be
lifted, leaving the moist adobe bricks
lying on the ground. There they stay for
several days, curing in the sun, and are
then turned up on one edge to dry further.
Eventually they are stacked edgewise,
with air cracks between them, for
further drying and baking in the sun until
the builder needs them.
Present-day adobe building blocks are
generally about four inches thick, eight
to ten inches wide, and eighteen or so
inches long, although the folk practitioner
usually makes his own form to suit
himself and in earlier times blocks were
often much bigger. They are used with
mortar, just as oven-baked bricks are, but
the folk construction may use lime or cement
mortar, or even zoquete-adobe
mud-to hold them together. After several
months of drying for the walls and
mortar, the outside is plastered with either
lime or mud plaster, then smoothed
and even painted or whitewashed, both
for looks and protection from the
elements.
Maintenance is necessary if adobe is to
endure. Paul Horgan in his monumental
Great River reports that Spanish padres,
with Pueblo converts to do the actual
work, would apply fresh mud plaster to

mission walls each spring using a wet
sheepskin-wool side to the wall-to
smooth the plaster. Attention to the roof
is also vital, since when the roof is gone,
the walls are in grave danger.
20

A rampaging river, like the Rio
Grande, can wipe away an entire adobe
building, as it did the original site of the
Socorro, Texas, mission in a flood in 1740
and again in 1829. Archaeological explorations
by crews from the University of
Texas at El Paso reveal fascinating clues
to the past, including the huge size of the
adobe blocks used there: three to four feet
long and half as wide, making the mission
walls eight feet thick and turning the
church building into a veritable fortress,
as well as one well insulated from the elements.
After the last flood, the mission
was moved a half mile away from the unpredictable
river; the nave of the present
building was completed in 1843, the balance
some thirty years later. Over the
years, despite efforts of parishioners and
priests. there has been serious deterioration.
Often the parish lacked the funds to
preserve the church beyond minimal repairs.
The chancel, or altar area, in particular
faced imminent collapse because
of a deviation from building techniques
tested and proven suitable more than a
century before: for aesthetic purposes,
perhaps, to give a more open atmosphere
to the chancel, the corbels were omitted,
leaving the vigas unsupported for six to
ten more feet than in the rest of the
building. By the 1980s the vigas were sagging
badly, having to be propped up with
beams from below, and creating something
of a safety hazard besides an unsightly
appearance.
A decade ago the West Texas Council
of Governments, led by Pat O'Rourke
and stimulated by the work of archaeologist
Herbert Morrow, first began organized
efforts to study the Mission Trail
area of El Paso's Lower Valley. The Socorro
Mission was judged to be in most
immediate need of attention in a study
conducted by architect and consultant
Dr. Eugene George. Subsequently, a host
of conservation-minded people in the
area, with the help of the Texas Historical
Commission, the National Park Service,
and the local Mission Heritage Association,
joined with the members of the
church-many of them descendants of
the refugee Pueblos of three centuries before
and the diocese to restore the mis

sion. Those efforts began to bear fruit
when Phase I of the restoration project
started in January 1984 with a consecration
service conducted by Bishop Raymundo
Pena.

The inside of the Socorro Mission bore
considerable damage, due in part to the
roof-building techniques inherited from
the Pueblo ancestors. Local stories said
that forty inches of earth had been piled
upon the vigas and latillas (crosspieces
resting upon the beams to support the
roof), and such weight was more than
the structure could bear. The initial work
of the restoration, supervised daily by El
Paso architect and engineer Pat Rand,
concentrated on the vital roof and its
supports. When the roof was stripped,
it was found that only about fourteen
inches of dirt covered the roof-but the
weight was still considerable, especially
when that dirt was soaked with rain. The
walls of the mission were built in the form
of a lowercase h, some two feet thick at
the top and five feet below, providing a
three-foot shelf to support huge corbels
and pine vigas, some brought from more
than seventy-five miles away in New
Mexico. One of the first tasks in restoration
was to cut away the chancel walls so
that new corbels could be installed-corbels
made to reproduce the style used well
over a century before. Once they were replaced,
then vigas could go in, using
original timbers where possible, and new
latillas were made of peeled branches
to supplement the usable old ones. The
peeling reduced the possibility of insect
damage, as also made possible the decorative
painting that Pueblos customarily
use.
Restoration plans were concerned primarily
with preserving the mission's original
style, but they also looked to the comfort
of modem parishioners. Electric
conduits replaced exposed wiring both
within the building and above, for lighting,
heating, and air conditioningwhich
the old Pueblos never dreamed of!
The deep layer of dirt on the roof was removed,
leaving only an inch or so above
the latillas for insulation, augmented by
a layer of fiberglass, then covered by
wooden framing and decking plus tar
paper roofing to allow rainfall to run off
harmlessly. Traditional clay spouts had
earlier been replaced with metal ones to
carry water trapped on the roof safely
away from the walls, where drips could
eat away adobe and even plaster if unattended.

The restoration of the structural wood
within the mission was accomplished by
filling in cracks in vigas and corbels with

Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 04, Number 03, Winter 1986. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45440/. Accessed July 10, 2014.