San Agustín de la Isleta Mission (Video)
Established in the 1300s by the Tiwa tribe on the Rio Grande's west bank (approximately 13 miles south of present-day Albuquerque), Isleta Pueblo is the original site of the San Agustín de la Isleta Mission. Spanish conquistadors dubbed the pueblo "Isleta" (or "Small Island") because of its position on a tongue of land that juts into the river. In 1540 Francisco Vásquez de Coronado was the first conquistador to enter the village. Two Franciscan volunteers, Father Juan de Padilla and a lay brother known simply as Luis, stayed there after Coronado moved on. Padilla was later found murdered and gained the dubious distinction as the first missionary martyr of what is now the United States. No one knows what became of Luis. Spanish explorers once again visited Isleta Pueblo around 1582, when Antonio Espejo arrived to investigate the murders of Father Rodriguez and two other Franciscan missionaries.
The Franciscans established a mission at Isleta in 1612. Until the outbreak of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the population at Isleta may have reached 2,000. The mission was destroyed in the Revolt, and the inhabitants fled south to the mission of San Antonio in El Paso, Texas.
Around 1692 Diego de Vargas reconquered the Pueblo country, and mission work resumed soon after. In approximately 1710 the Isleta people reoccupied the original pueblo, and a new mission was established there under the name of San Agustín. With the growth of the Spanish population, the importance of the Native American missions declined. In 1780 the pueblo lost a third of its population to smallpox, and most of the missions were abandoned, but Isleta continued to exist under Spanish and Mexican rule for fifty more years, when it became a secular church.
In 1923 Father Anton Docher remodeled the Isleta mission, building prominent spires on the adobe walls. "The Padre of Isleta" spent thirty-four years (from 1891 to 1925) there and is now buried near the church altar. A recommended book is Julia M. Keleher and Elsie Ruth Chant's The Padre of Isleta: The Story of Father Anton Docher (Sunstone Press Publishing, 2009).
The pueblo now has a population of approximately 1,100. Fronting a large public plaza, the church is one of the largest and most important in New Mexico. Constructed of adobe, San Agustín is 110 ft by 27 ft, with 4-ft-thick walls, high windows, and impressive examples of architectural features from the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.