The La Capilla Heritage Park project recreated a small chapel, called “capilla” in Spanish, that graced Silver City’s skyline in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The recreated capilla is part of an ongoing 23-acre heritage park development by Silver City and civic groups. La Capilla is just a few blocks south of historic downtown Silver City and forms the heart of a growing area of trails, civic monuments and other recreation areas.
Introduction to La Capila
In 1887, residents of Silver City could look to the south of downtown and see an elegant little chapel — known in Spanish as “la capilla” — gracing the skyline. Made of adobe bricks from the local soil and timbers from nearby trees, La Capilla was built up from the very landscape of Silver City and quickly became an important element of it.
For parts of three decades, the little chapel served as a centerpiece for community activities, including pilgrimages and festivals celebrating the Feast of the Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose statue La Capilla housed. But with time, and after the return of Our Lady’s statue to Mexico, the little chapel lost its special purpose and slowly deteriorated on its hilltop.
Now, more than 110 years after the creation of La Capilla, a large group of Silver City and Grant County business people, civic leaders and volunteers are recreating the magical environment at the top of Chihuahua Hill, with a new Capilla and with a visionary plan for a celebration of our community’s diverse heritage.
Building La Capilla
The history of La Capilla reflects the interconnected cultures and peoples who came to our community. Early Spanish and Mexican settlers called the area San Vicente de la Cienega, in English “ St. Vincent’s of the Springs.” The spring-fed wetlands this name refers to were an important resource to Native Americans in the area and were equally important to immigrants coming to this arid landscape.
With a faith deeply rooted in Catholic traditions, early Mexican and Spanish immigrants made religious festivals and pilgrimages important community events. Two sisters living in Silver City in the late 1880s funded the construction of La Capilla to house the statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe and local Hispanic residents built the chapel from adobe and timbers. The sisters’ motivations for the gift of La Capilla to the community have been debated over the intervening century, and some news articles of the day characterized the sisters as “fallen angels,” women who may have been involved in prostitution. Prostitution was a business in Silver City’s rough-and-tumble frontier days that attracted both Anglo and Hispanic madams and clients.
Whatever the inspiration for their gift, the sister’s Capilla became a meeting place and a center of activities ranging from religious observations to kite flying on the windy hilltop.
Decline of the chapel
Around the turn of the century, the statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe was returned to Mexico. Without its original purpose, and as Silver City’s population changed, the little chapel began to deteriorate.
News articles from the period differ in their descriptions of the decline of La Capilla. Some accounts say the chapel was destroyed in 1914, and that for some time beforehand its timbers and adobes had been salvaged — or vandalized — for use in homes or fireplaces. Other accounts say portions of the original Capilla remained standing until a violent wind storm in 1918. There is even a written account from a Silver City resident who claims to have inadvertently burned down a portion of La Capilla while trying to smoke out a rabbit he was hunting.
Whatever the final blow was to La Capilla, by the early 1920s the original structure was down and the city’s southern horizon no longer had its distinctive profile. In the following decades, the hill on which La Capilla was built remained a focus for some activities in Silver City. For a time, the hill hosted the Town’s annual fireworks display, and its windy slopes make it as good a spot for flying kites today as it was in 1887. But for the most part, the hilltop remained bare, with little more than the Capilla’s original foundation stones showing where it had stood.
Rebirth of La Capilla
Beginning in 2000, a small group of Silver City residents began to develop plans to rebuild La Capilla and to use the 23-acre tract of land on which it sits as a cultural heritage park celebrating Native American, Hispanic and Anglo cultures and traditions.
This original group quickly grew to include support from businesses, civic organizations and volunteers, and to win support from town, county and state political representatives. In 2004, the first major construction on the site was completed, with a recreated Capilla based entirely on the original chapel’s design and dimensions.
Silver City once again has its distinctive chapel on its southern horizon. In addition to the chapel alone, however, the La Capilla Heritage Park project now also includes more than one dozen other planned developments, including a network of walking trails, a promontory highlighting the Summer and Winter solstices, a grotto for meditation and relaxation, Native American rock mosaics, wildflower fields and more.
Visiting La Capilla
To visit La Capilla, walk or drive south from Historic Downtown Silver City along Cooper Street or Arizona Street . La Capilla sits atop the large hill directly to the south of downtown, and its primary entrance is on Chihuahua Street (see map).
The La Capilla Park area is open from sunrise to sunset and has walking trails covering much of the 23 acres in the planned development. The La Capilla tract also adjoins Silver City’s expanding network of green break trails and walkways, allowing you to travel from the Town’s Big Ditch Park, through the Chihuahua Hill area and into the Boston Hill trail area, where you can see evidence of the area’s hard-rock mining history.
Access to the Capilla itself is available most days. If the Capilla is locked, you can request access to it by inquiring at 510 S. Cooper, slightly to the north of the Capilla. For information on scheduling events, including marriages, at La Capilla, contact:
La Capilla Board of Directors
510 S. Cooper Street
Silver City, NM 88061