March 1st is the Catholic feast day for San Albino in Mesilla just south of Las Cruces. The people of Mesilla originally blessed the acequia madre in his honor. In the following years, townspeople held processions on his feast day and lit a blacksmith’s anvil filled with gunpowder. The explosion would send the anvil rocketing into the sky with a terrific bang. The event delighted the town’s children and frightened the adults, especially since the vibration shook the walls of the surrounding adobe homes.
Patron Saint of Orphans
During the day shadows form around the steeples at San Albino reminding all of the passage of time. At dawn and again at dusk, the bells of the church alert people for miles. The sound resonates throughout the valley reminding people of San Albino, the patron saint of orphans, widows, the sick, and the indigent. In May 2007, the church became the Basilica of San Albino. Pope Benedict XVI bestowed the special designation for San Albino. The sanctuary joined a list of churches around the world that provide exemplary leadership.
Transformation of a Community
By the 1880s the railroad bypassed Mesilla and the growth and activity of Doña Ana County shifted to Las Cruces. But the spirit of the Mesilleros, with their triumphs and tragedies never wavered. The townsfolk never forgot the history of Mesilla, or the fact that it was once larger than both Las Cruces and El Paso. Just as the Santa Fe Trail had transformed Las Vegas into a hub of economic and political activity, the Chihuahua Trail (formerly known as El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro) spurred growth in southern New Mexico. By the 1850s, people were traveling back and forth from Chihuahua to Santa Fe. Mesilla served as a way station for passengers arriving on the stagecoach. The town also provided postal and passenger traffic traveling east to west from San Antonio to San Diego.
A Leader in Mesilla
Many people shaped the community of Mesilla. Jose Ramon Ortiz was born in Santa Fe in 1814. He was a soldier, a priest, and a champion of the Mexican people. While serving as pastor of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe Mission in Juarez, he also served as commissioner in charge of new colonies. Ortiz fought for the rights of the Mexican lower classes and was often incarcerated for his convictions. Yet the controversial priest prevailed. His efforts helped with the settlement of Mexican immigrants in southern New Mexico.