In May of 1598 Spanish explorers under the leadership of Don Juan de Onate, accompanied by two Franciscan priests came to what is now known as Socorro where they found a friendly tribe of Indians who furnished them with a generous supply of corn, of which they were in great need (as their provisions were running very low.)
While the explorers went farther North along the Rio Grande, the two priests remained to do missionary work among the Indians. Father Alfonso Benavidez was so successful in this work that he became known as: "The Apostle of Socorro". It was he who named the village: "Nuestra Senora de Perpetuo Socorro" ... meaning: ""Our Lady of Perpetual Help", in recognition of the succor they received from the Indians. In later years the name was shortened to SOCORRO
The two priests, with the help of the Indians, built that same year a modest little church which they replaced with a larger building between the years 1615 and 1626, and which is the present church building with its massive walls and huge carved vigas and supporting corbel-arches. The work on these vigas and corbels took many months of tedious work, which can be understood readily by noting the careful and uniform carvings on beams were carved were cut and carried in from mountains many miles from Socorro. The Indians were taught to mix straw into the adobe mud to make a more substantial brick. The walls were built about five feet in width and the windows placed high to guard against attack from the unfriendly tribe of Navajo Indians.
Under the leadership of one of the priests the natural ability and craftsmanship of the Indians began to bear fruit and the interior of the Church was greatly enriched. The Spaniards knew of the rich silver deposits around Socorro and to keep the Indians busy and draw out their natural ability, much of the silver mined was used in the church. it was the priests' desire to have this church an beautiful as those in Mexico and Spain. They made a solid silver Communion Rail, a Tabernacle, and sacred vessels used in the Sacrifice of the Mass.
The mission continued to flourish until the outbreak of the rebellion in 1680 when most of the Indians joined the Spaniards in their retreat to what is now called El Paso, Texas (nearly 200 miles South). When news reached Socorro that the Northern tribes of Indians were in revolt, and Spaniards were retreating everywhere, the priests had the Indians disassemble the Communion Rail which was buried along with other valuables they could not take along on their hasty retreat. The pastor made a map of the buried treasure, feeling certain the revolt would be put down quickly and they could return.
However, it was a number of years before new settlers of Mexican and Spanish descent began to arrive in Socorro. they found the church in a very dilapidated condition, but the massive walls and huge beams were still in place. After much hard work it was restored and Divine Service again resumed and have continued daily to the present time. Several expedition shave come up from Mexico to try to find the buried treasure, but if any were successful, there is no record of it. There was a million dollar reward offered in the early 1980s to anyone who fount it and thousands of dollars have been spent looking for it.
According to some descendants of the early settlers, during a raid by Apache Indians about the year 1800, the Indians suddenly withdrew and when one of the captured Apaches was questioned about the sudden withdrawal, he claimed they saw a man with wings and a shining sword hovering over the door of the church. Shortly after this, a petition was sent to the Bishop of Durango, Mexico, under whose jurisdiction this territory was at the time to have the name of the church changed to: "San Miguel" - in honor of St. Michael, the Angelic Protector of the people. The Church has gone under the name of San Miguel since about 1800.
The main body of the church, which is the part built between 1615 and 1626, now seats about 250 people although many more attended services in the early 1880s when there were no pews and the people either stood or knelt on the floor. In 1853 another wing was built unto the church and this accommodates another 150.
There are four sub-floors under the present church under which lie the bodies of some of the prominent residents of the past. Under the Sanctuary lies the bodies of four priests who died while serving the faithful of this historic Church. In the Northeast corner of the church is the burial place of General Manuel Armijo, the last governor of New Mexico under the Mexican Regime.
San Miguel Church is the center of a Spanish Land Grant. It consists of over 17,002 acres given by the King of Spain and known as THE SOCORRO LAND GRANT. It was designated as being one Spanish league (2.64 miles) North, South, East, and West of the Church. All surveys, within this Grant, are described as running from the center of the church, in order to get the proper legal described.
As it stood in the first decade of the 17th century, San Miguel Church was of pure Pueblo style of architecture, but in restorations made after the rebellion of 1680 and through subsequent repairs, many deviations have been made from the Pueblo style.