Restoring the Faith in RUIDOSA
By Rob D ’ Amico
Photos by Sarah Vasquez
Benny Benavides has fond memories of his time spent as a kid in the tiny community of Ruidosa , down on the Mexican border west of Presidio – helping his mother with her little store and taking refuge from the hot Texas sun across the road in the once grand adobe church . Ruidosa had a history of being a harsh but rejuvenating place , a hamlet of homes and buildings perched above the Rio Grande where families scraped out a living . Yet they would alway celebrate life ’ s milestones in the church amid the rocky hillsides and thorny scrub of the Chihuahuan Desert .
But one late night in 1991 , Benny recalled something big – almost catastrophic – happening with the church while his family slept in peace under the dark , starlit skies of the border . “ We just heard a boom . We got up and went out to the front door and looked through the glass and all we could see was a cloud of smoke , dirt .” One of the church ’ s lofty towers had collapsed into the road . “ The adobe , where it shattered against the pavement , created a big old dust storm , a big old dust cloud .”
Benny ’ s mother called the state transportation office in Presidio for help , because the road ( Highway 170 ) was blocked by the debris , and the bus picking up school kids from the tiny town of Candelaria to the west wouldn ’ t be able to get through . Heavy equipment arrived to scoop up the remains and dump it into a nearby arroyo . And now , more than three decades later , it ’ s become apparent that renovating the second church tower to save it from falling proved to be a lot more difficult than cleaning up the one that fell .
The Ruidosa Catholic church ( El Corazon Sagrado de la Iglesia de Jesus ) was first built at the direction of a priest from mud adobe bricks in 1915 by locals in a small but thriving farm community . It was a marvel for the them , who held masses , weddings and funerals there under a high ceiling with four arches – a difficult architectural achievement to construct from wood and adobe . The church ’ s two towers framed an arched entryway with a bell perched atop it to ring the town together for services and celebrations . But Ruidosa , even with its school , store , and post office , was already in decline . The once booming population of some 1,700 in the late 1800s started to leave after irrigation water from the Rio Grande began drying up with droughts and an upstream dam . The cotton gin closed in 1936 , with the post office leaving in 1954 , both signaling an eventual end of services at the church . Today , only a dozen or so permanent residents remain .
Decades of abandonment did not fare well for the adobe structure , which lacked plaster to protect its bare bricks from the elements . By the 1990s , it was but a shell of its former glory . The Catholic diocese in El Paso was determined to demolish the structure for safety reasons . But many Big Bend residents were just as determined to bring a new story to the historic structure .
In November , Ismael Cabezuela Rodriguez stood near the entryway to the church , proudly pointing to a board pinned with some three dozen photos – many of them old and faded – to tell visitors of his family ’ s long history in the Ruidosa area . One photo is taken against the wall of the church with a posing wedding party . “ This was taken in 1915 or 1916 , or somewhere around there ,” he said , pointing to another , a group of men
Continued on page 21
Cenizo Winter 2024