Men return to familial roots in effort to restore church and cemetery
DURAN — Gary Sanchez is a man with a vision, based on a pledge he made years ago.
“I made a promise to my parents that if I buried them in Duran, I would always go back to visit them there,” he said.
He is keeping his promise, making frequent visits from his home in the Bay Area of California to this small New Mexico community in Torrance County. He visits the graves of his parents and his sister, Joan Sanchez Al-Shamili, whose burial in 2016 is the most recent in the cemetery surrounding the Marino church just outside Duran.
Sanchez says he plans to be buried there himself, when the day comes.
Though Sanchez grew up in California, his parents brought the family to New Mexico for annual summer vacations, including spending time with his father’s parents in Duran. His father was born and raised in the community located 14 miles southwest of Vaughn.
Duran was originally laid out in 1902, when the El Paso & Northeastern Railroad completed a stretch of track between El Paso and Santa Rosa. Brothers Blas and Espiridón Durán, great-uncles of Sanchez, provided water to the railroad, which built repair shops and a roundhouse. The community grew quickly, reaching a population of around 300 people.
Within a couple of decades, however, the railroad moved its operations to Carrizozo about 60 miles to the south and Duran’s decline began. The 2010 census set Duran’s population at 35.
Sanchez’s vision extends far beyond his final resting place. He is spearheading an effort to restore the one-room church. His vision is to see both the church and the graveyard preserved, to ensure public access and to see them being used for functions that have historically occurred there, including not just funerals but small weddings and other events as well.
Sanchez is not alone in his vision. He and his brother Don purchased a house in Duran that they are working to restore. The two of them have pledged to pay for materials to replace the roof on the church. Volunteers have removed the old rotten roof and the new corrugated metal roof will go up soon.
The brothers are also working closely with their second cousins, Joseph Hindi and James Duran, both of whom live in Albuquerque and maintain a close connection with the Duran community. Hindi owns the ranch on which the Marino church and cemetery are located. Sharing more than blood ties, all four men also share a vision of the restoration of the church and renewal of its mission.
That is only the beginning. Gary Sanchez views the restoration as an opportunity to “involve the community in the broadest way” and, with that goal in mind, on June 23 he attended the fiesta at the San Juan Bautista church in Duran. He updated a crowd of approximately 125 people gathered for lunch of the goal to restore the Marino church and introduced other agencies being brought on board to help with preservation. Some 35 to 40 of the attendees visited the Marino church and cemetery after lunch.
Steven Moffson, state and national register coordinator with the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division, also spoke to the lunch crowd. He was evaluating Duran and the Marino church to see if they meet criteria for inclusion on the National Registry of Historic Places.
He said he had seen many original stone and adobe buildings as he toured the community, as well as some catalog bungalows from the early decades of the 20th century, all of which seemed to be in good shape. He suggested to those gathered that there is a possibility of the entire area being classified as a historic district on the National Registry. Duran would be a “strong nomination” for such a designation, he said.
Moffson was also impressed by the people he met.
“I found everyone was so welcoming and pleasant. All seem interested. There could be a critical mass in the community to see this through,” he said.
Jake Barrow of Cornerstones Community Partnerships also attended. According to its website, Cornerstones is “dedicated to preserving the architectural heritage and cultural traditions of New Mexico and the greater Southwest, using a hands-on approach to teach and reinforce these methods to both adults and youth.”
Barrow called the Marino church “impressive” and said it “captured my imagination.” He said that, although Cornerstones is not officially engaged in the project at this point, the organization does intend to help in in raising funds and organizing volunteers.
Both Moffson and Barrow mentioned the stonework of the church. Barrow called it “unusual and very beautiful, very finely done.”
“Someone knew what they were doing. (It’s) exciting to see,” Barrow said.
The outside walls are built of carefully cut stones that are “dry stacked” — that is, the walls contain no mortar.
The process for the restoration of the church will be a long one. The building itself is “pretty stable,” according to Barrow, and once the new roof is installed, work will begin on the interior restoration.
There is no timeline for completion. Raising funds, planning the work, finding and training volunteers and figuring out ways to allow access to the church and cemetery without adversely affecting the cattle ranch on which it is located are all potential stumbling blocks.
But, as Sanchez points out, “Stumbling blocks provide opportunity for workarounds and involve a larger community.”