The Sacred Circle Tour

The nine Sacred Circle Mission Churches lie in Costilla County Colorado; nestled on the border of New Mexico. Construction of the original historic buildings in the Sacred Circle began in the mid 1850’s and continued until the 1930’s.  Each has its own character and architectural style. Their stories will pull at your heart strings.

The tour has been arranged by the Costilla County Economic Development Council in collaboration with Sangre de Cristo Parish. It features nine historic churches or missions that help interpret the religious and architectural history of Hispano settlers. It also features Capilla de Todos los Santos (The Chapel of All Saints) atop La Mesa de la Piedad y de la Misericordia and its associated Stations of the Cross (15 bronze sculptures).

Nine Historic Churches/Missions:
1 – St. James the Less Mission, Blanca
2 – Holy Family Mission, Fort Garland
3 – Sangre de Cristo Parish, San Luis
4 – St. Peter and St. Paul, San Pablo
5 – San Francisco Mission, San Francisco
6 – Immaculate Conception Mission, Chama
7 – San Isidro Mission, Los Fuertes
8 – San Acacio Mission, San Acacio
9 – Sacred Heart Mission, Garcia

For further information, read the Tour Brochure or call 719-672-0999

Mission Churches

Mission churches were established when new villages were settled, but because of the lack of clergy in the region, masses were held once a month in most communities. The role of religion in settlement here was not just a mass or church weekly or monthly, but a reminder that “church “happens outside of the four walls and entire communities were practicing their faith daily. The beautiful churches were and still are a reminder of the faith that held and still holds these communities together. Sprinkled throughout Conejos County and Costilla County are 22 Catholic Mission churches that are still standing, many near old cemeteries of settlers long past.

To see locations of the Mission Churches in the Heritage Area, see our map

Like northern New Mexico, the lack of clergy also led a strong following of La Sociedad de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno (the Society of Our Father Jesus the Nazarene) also known as the Penitente brotherhood. Most of their moradas have since been destroyed.

Mission Churches in Conejos County
Mission Churches in Costilla County


Buddhism was the predominant religion of the Issei who came to Costilla County and other parts of the San Luis Valley. The first Buddhist church was established in La Jara in 1937. Bessie Konishi shared that on the day of the church opening, “I’m sure that all of the Japanese in the San Luis Valley were in attendance, as well as some from Denver area, Fort Lupton and that part of the State of Colorado. We had two of the main Buddhist preachers come for that opening ceremony. One from New York and the other was from Denver, Reverend Tamai.”

There was also a church in Blanca, “next to the Yoritomo place, near the city limits,” shared Richard Nakasawa. There were some who also practiced religion in their homes. The close knit communities shared holidays and social events together. New Year’s was always a big celebration. They would eat fish and buckwheat noodles the night before for good luck. Often the men would visit each other and drink Sake and have a good time. They would consume ozone, a broth they would eat with rice cake or mochi. Then clean the house and take a bath the day before to get rid of all from the old year.

The Buddhist Temple in La Jara.
In Buddhism, the swastika is considered to symbolize the auspicious footprints of the Buddha. It is an aniconic symbol for the Buddha in many parts of Asia and homologous with the dharma wheel. The shape symbolizes eternal cycling, a theme found in samsara doctrine of Buddhism.

Father’s Day weekend was also a big gathering time at Aspen Glade campground on the Conejos River. Men would go and fish the day before and families would join the following day for a big picnic. A similar event took place in Blanca.


In the 1870s, Anglo Protestants made their way into the San Luis Valley in attempts to convert the predominantly Hispano Catholic population.

The village of Mogote was a center of Presbyterian activity for both religious and educational programs. The school building is no longer standing but the church is still a visual reminder of their strong presence here. Presbyterian churches were located in Antonito, Cenicero, present day Capulin, La Jara, Alamosa, San Rafael and San Pablo.

Along with churches, six Presbyterian mission schools emerged. The mission schools were open to the public and taught reading, writing and scriptures. The Board of Missions also provided medical supplies, clothing, toys, food, and books to the communities. Many Spanish-Americans sought skills in reading and writing in English, Presbyterian schools along with Catholic boarding schools, fulfilled these needs and allowed them to learn skill sets that helped them succeed in the changing times of the region. Part of the success of these schools was due to the dedication of the teachers like Mollie Clements, who served the Mogote school for 23 years.

The introduction of the Presbyterian religion influenced the pattern of twin villages like San Rafael-Mogote, Garcia-Costilla and San Pablo-San Pedro.

San Rafael Presbyterian Church is the second oldest church in Conejos County and is listed on the State Register for its architectural and ethnic significance. It is an unusual example of Territorial Adobe and one of the oldest extant adobe church constructions in the country. Its unique features of its asymmetrical bell tower, hipped roof and belfry with hipped roof and spire is distinctively different from other Territorial Adobe constructions. It is also significant in Ethnic Heritage of Hispanos of the region. The building itself represents in influx of Protestants into the predominantly Catholic region and is the only remaining Hispanic-speaking Presbyterian Church in Conejos County. The cemetery is located about a mile south east on County Road 9.

The church in San Rafael was incorporated in 1893 with 27 members. That number grew to 140 for 1920. As other Presbyterian churches in the area closed over the years, members that wished to continue practicing transferred to San Rafael. As young people left the valley in search of better jobs the number dwindled to 35 by 1960 and the Antonito Presbyterian Church absorbed San Rafael in 1965.


In 1887 John Morgan, arrived with 70 members of the Latter-day Saints Church in Pueblo, CO. They were mostly converts from the South who set up camp on the Arkansas River, while church leaders from Utah sought suitable land in the San Luis Valley. Lawrence M. Peterson, who has previously lived at Los Cerritos helped to bring the group that had wintered in Pueblo to their new land. The land consisted of two ranches purchased from the Hispanos on the south side of the Conejos River–across from Los Cerritos. The Mormons received a hospitable welcome from Lafayette Head and some of the prominent Hispanos. The new settlers had a rough first winter, as they were not accustomed to the extreme weather of the Valley. Had it not been for the help of Antonio Salazar and others who provided them with food and education on how to survive the short growing season and how to irrigate water, they may have not survived. Not all Hispanos were helpful, some blocked the Conejos River with dams, but those were destroyed quickly. The usual rumors about polygamy, thievery circulated and Denver’s newspapers event campaigned against letting Mormons settle in the state. The colony in the San Luis Valley continued to work hard and gain the respect of their neighbors.

In 1879, the Mormon settlers leased state mineral lands about three miles northwest of Los Cerritos to establish a new town, Manassa. This location was selected  as the permanent colony because it the railroad was said to be being built from Alamosa to Antonito. One year later the tracks were in service three miles west of Manassa in present day Romeo.

Additional Mormon converts arrived to the region from the Southeastern states, one family from Virginia included the ninth son out of eleven children, who went on to became the world heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Dempsy or the “Manassa Mauler”.

In 1881, the town of Ephraim was settled and in 1882 the town of Richfield. Both locations were compromised by the raising water table from irrigation and the people had to abandon the areas.

Today in the heritage area there are active Mormon churches in Manassa, Sanford, La Jara, San Luis and Alamosa.


Los Hermanos Penitentes,La Sociedad de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno (the Society of Our Father Jesus the Nazarene), were a secret society that wove together some of the traditions of the Catholic faith with community charity and extreme devotion. The organization is a Catholic lay order which originated in medieval Europe as the Third Penitental Lay Order of St. Francis. It was based on St. Francis de Assis’s devotion to the Passion of Christ and the Way of the Cross. The story of Los Hermanos Penitentes is rooted in Hispano traditions and remains a part of the area’s landscape today. The brotherhood has played a role in nearly every Hispanic community in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado since1850. In addition to substituting for resident clergy and undertaking spiritual matters, the brothers also took responsibility for the charitable and economic needs among their communities. Los Hermanos has a long somewhat hidden history going back as early as the 1500s in Europe. Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy arrived in Santa Fe  with fellow French priests and had little respect for Los Hermanos, which forced their religious practices underground. He encouraged the building of Catholic Churches in the area, which often overtook the locations of moradas. Among the historic mission churches is Our Lady of Guadalupe located just south of Conejos. John Lamy oversaw its construction in the 1850s making it the oldest parish in Colorado.

The organization came to northern New Mexico and southern Colorado with the Fransican priests that accompanied the Spanish Conquistadores in the sixteenth century. The number of priests was insufficient to serve all the new settlements that were being established in the new territory and as a result villagers ereted moradas, buildings or meeting houses, that were blessed by the priests for their spiritual and communal needs.

The agricultural lifestyle was subject to this religious brotherhood. Before planting in the Spring, the penitentes would bless the fields for San Isadoro. Many religious holidays took place during Holy Week. Their ‘Stations of the Cross’ re-enactments involved carrying life-sized wooden crosses, barefoot, over dirt roads. They staged crucifixions and participated in flagellation to demonstrate their penance and devotion.

Hermanos roles included presiding over funerals, burials, wakes, assistance to neighbors and other crises that arose. The wives, or members of “Las Carmelitas”, the female version of the Third Penitental Lay Order of St. Frances, hermanas, cleaned the morada, cooked meals and cared for the ill.

A disciplina was made of yucca fiber. It was used by participants as an act of penance, and by some other religious groups for centuries in Europe.

Seemingly random field stones on the grounds of this morada mark burials of children. Most bear markings of a cross and date.