IF YOU GO

What: Aztec Presbyterian Church 125th Anniversary

When: 11 a.m. Sunday

Where: Aztec Presbyterian Church, 205 North Church Ave.

More info: aztec-presbyterian.org

AZTEC — In 1888, 10 people got together in Aztec to form a church. They met in a little schoolhouse where the American Hotel now stands on South Main Street.

These 10 people came from as far away as London, England, and were from a variety of denominations including Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian. They are now considered the charter members of the Aztec Presbyterian Church.

A year later, the Aztec Presbyterian Church expanded to its own building on North Church Avenue in Aztec, where it still stands.

They built the church out of adobe and used rocks from the Animas River for the foundation.

Mrs. Austin, one of Aztec Presbyterian Church’s charter members, is seen in this undated courtesy photo. Mrs. Austin and her husband, John Hovey
Mrs. Austin, one of Aztec Presbyterian Church's charter members, is seen in this undated courtesy photo. Mrs. Austin and her husband, John Hovey Austin, were from Canon City, Colo. (Courtesy of Aztec Presbyterian Church)

It is the longest continuously used church building in San Juan County and is now celebrating its 125th anniversary. On Sunday, the congregation will celebrate the anniversary during the weekly service. The service will include a potluck.

While the church is celebrating the anniversary Sunday, it will have a much larger celebration in June when weather allows outdoor activities.

The church that now stands has evolved over the years from the original small single-room building. As the congregation grew, so did the church. In 1989, in celebration of the 100th anniversary, the church added commemorative leaded cut-glass windows in the sanctuary.

Pastor Dwain DePew said each window has a special meaning and, while church is in session, light reflects off the car windshields parked outside illuminating important dates that are part of the etched designs.

One window displays a cup representing communion, another has a flower for Easter and another represents music.

"We're probably the only church in town that still has a choir," DePew said. He said many of the churches in Aztec have switched to having a worship band.

The church has evolved over the years from the original small single-room building.
The church has evolved over the years from the original small single-room building. (Megan Farmer / The Daily Times)

A foyer was added to the church in the 1950s and in this area one of the church's old pump organs is displayed. Some of the keys no longer work, but it is mostly functional.

For the first part of the church's life, it never had a permanent pastor. Instead, visiting ministers would live in the back section of the church.

After World War II, the church's practice of having visiting ministers ended. Randolph and Harriet McCluggage moved to Aztec in the 1940s and he became the church's first official pastor.

In the 1960s, one of the steel buildings used during construction of Navajo Dam was moved to the site in order to serve as the religious education center. In 1991, this building was replaced by a permanent structure attached to the church.

The Aztec Presbyterian Church in Aztec is shown on Tuesday. The church is celebrating its 125th anniversary later this month.
The Aztec Presbyterian Church in Aztec is shown on Tuesday. The church is celebrating its 125th anniversary later this month. (Megan Farmer /The Daily Times)

During the construction of the basement of the new structure, crews uncovered a Native American burial. Congregant Roger Moore, who was also an archaeologist, helped record the find and reinterred the woman's remains a short distance from the original burial site.

While the church initially grew, it came on hard times in the 1930s and only periodically had meetings. Many of the congregates began attending the United Methodist Church, only a block away. Some of them returned to the Presbyterian church later on, but many remained at the Methodist church.

In the 1950s, a natural gas boom brought a recovery for the community as well as the church. Deanna Blythe, who grew up attending the Presbyterian church, remembers how some of the people employed on the rigs would drop off their children — called "Sunday morning orphans" — at church and headed to work.

John Burk Austin and Ora Maud Brown are seen after their wedding in 1902. The couple were the first people married at the Aztec Presbyterian Church.
John Burk Austin and Ora Maud Brown are seen after their wedding in 1902. The couple were the first people married at the Aztec Presbyterian Church. (Courtesy of Aztec Presbyterian Church)

Blythe's parents were early tenant farmers in the Cedar Ridge area. Her family members were some of the church's original congregates and her grandparents were the first couple married inside the church.

The family attended church every Sunday and Blythe even has a pin given for perfect attendance.

"As a kid, I have to admit, it felt like I didn't have a choice," she said. "I had to come."

Later, Blythe became less active and moved away from Aztec. While living in California and going through a divorce, Blythe found herself returning to church.

"I just found it really comforting to go to church even out there," Blythe said.

After moving back to Aztec, she returned to the church she had grown up in and she continues to attend.

Much of the church's early success can be attributed to the women.

"The ladies became a force in this church very early on," DePew said.

Some remember how the women would have a bake sale every week at Don Gay's Grocery store. The sale helped the church pay the visiting ministers and missionaries who preached at the church.

The church has remained active in the community, but has now turned its focus to helping others.

Some of its missions include Angel Tree — members of the church buy Christmas presents for children who have parents in prison — and building ramps for senior citizens.

De Pew said many of the church members are involved in home health care and let the church know when someone needs a ramp.

"One of the people once referred to us as the church of ramps," he said.

Hannah Grover covers news, arts and religion for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 and hgrover@daily-times.com. Follow her @hmgrover on Twitter.