The Fight to Save the Historic Santa Fe Christian Church
By Diane Euston
When a fire sparked inside a historic country church on Santa Fe Trail on Nov. 14, 1969, a community was forever changed. A battle lasting a year and a half ended in demolition and devastation for members who fought to save the little white building called the Santa Fe Christian Church.
Organized out of Bethlehem Church of Christ in 1869, the church was founded by pioneers looking for a convenient location to worship near the state line. It was dedicated in 1892 on land in the diminishing town of New Santa Fe. Legally named the Christian Church at New Santa Fe, the name over the years was shortened to Santa Fe Christian Church by locals.
Families such as the Wells, McKinneys, Sweaneys, Manions, Kerrs, Weeks and McPhersons were some of the early members who are now buried in a cemetery to the north. These families often attended services at the church even after they moved to other communities.
At 7 p.m. on Nov. 14, 1969, firefighters received a frantic call that smoke was pluming above the church’s roof. They were able to control the flames and reported the building was not severely affected.
But perhaps the newer members had a different future in mind for the little white church at 1031 Santa Fe Drive (now approximately Belleview and Santa Fe Trail), because tensions became heated quickly.
Newer members didn’t see any reason to save the historic church, and in 1970 part of the congregation met and voted to raze the building without notifying everyone. Hugh Keltner and Bill McKinney began to ask questions about why the church couldn’t be saved. After being given answers such as “It would smell like smoke” and “That’s the past—I’m for the future,” Keltner and McKinney organized a Restoration Committee to try to save the church from bulldozers.
The Restoration Committee gained strength from more members and met with Mel Solomon, chairman of the City Landmark Commission. He agreed the church was worth saving, and considered as a state landmark.
However, the newer members eventually obtained a construction permit next door to the historic church with plans to build brand new.
Keltner and McKinney met Gus Broockerd of Broockerd Construction Co. to get an estimate on fixing the church. Brookerd remembers his report from over 47 years ago. “It wouldn’t have been much to repair it,” he recalled, and records show his estimate was $3,000 to $3,500.
The Restoration Committee finally decided to gather private funds to fix it themselves.
But the situation drastically changed in October 1970 when three trustees of the Christian Church at New Santa Fe, the legal name of the old church, signed a specialty warranty deed. Allegedly, some were misled to believe what they were signing was a “release of trusteeship.” In truth, they signed the church over to the newer group who had incorporated the name Santa Fe Christian Church.
This act signed all legal rights over to the new organization. They bought property next door to the church with the insurance money from the fire and prepared to break ground on a new brick building at 940 W. Santa Fe Trail.
The Restoration Committee wasn’t willing to give up, so Keltner and McKinney met with state representatives Nick Penna and Harold Esser. With help from the City Landmark Commission, the old Santa Fe Christian Church for up for consideration as a state landmark.
In December 1970 a letter from the city slowed their progress—they had five days to tear the historic church down because it was considered “dangerous.” With the help of Mel Solomon and lawyers who had been hired, they were granted a 60-day extension.
The cold temperatures outside matched the reception of the Restoration Committee as they made one last-ditch effort to save their beloved church on Feb. 7, 1971. William and J.K. McKinney, Eliza Holmes, Mabel Lawson, Hubert and Louise Briggs, Mary, Hazel and Robert Sharp, and Hugh and Esther Keltner pleaded their case to the congregation. They explained that private funds would be used to restore the little church and would not interrupt any plans for their new building. The matter again came to a vote (only members active in the last 90 days could vote, according to bylaws) and the tally was 17-3 to raze it.
Left with no choice, Keltner and McKinney filed a restraining order on Feb. 12 to stop demolition. Early the next morning, Keltner drove to the top of the hill to look at the quaint white church he was trying to save. It stood, weathered and unharmed. Judge Richard Sprinkle arrived at his office downtown and signed an injunction to stop demolition at 10:36 a.m. But, unbeknownst to him, bulldozers had begun leveling the building an hour earlier.
After the dust settled, Keltner and McKinney filed suit as “The Christian Church at New Santa Fe” against the Santa Fe Christian Church in April 1972. They sought monetary damages as well as control of the cemetery that stood in the shadow of their beloved church.
Some resolution was found in 1975 when pioneer families formed the New Santa Fe Cemetery Association and the “new” Santa Fe Christian Church deeded part of the original lots of the church for $1, protecting the burial ground of their family and friends forever.
Today, the outline of the baptismal font and the chimney of the original church can be seen inside the cemetery’s gates. And in March 2017 a grant sponsored by NSDAR’s Little Blue River Chapter was approved for the Historical Society of New Santa Fe to erect a marker commemorating the history, the fire and the fight to save the church.
This month, on Oct. 7 at 1 p.m., relatives of founding pioneers and members of the old Santa Fe Christian Church were present at a formal marker dedication. Everyone iwas invited to celebrate this landmark lost on the Santa Fe Trail and celebrate the memories of these brave pioneers.
To read more about the history, the fire and the demolition of the church, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com