Built in 1619, and located 15 miles south of Albuquerque, the adobe church of San Agustín is one of the two oldest surviving mission churches in New Mexico. However it's not the historical significance, but the identity of a priest buried in the 1700s under the church floor that has drawn visitors for hundreds of years.
Originally dedicated to San Antonio de Padua, the mission was built on the side of the river from the Camino Real assuring its prosperity. This route thronged with trade, as well as connecting settlements and other missions. During the 1700s, victims of Apache raids and famine took refuge there.
In the mid-1700s Fray Juan Jose de Padilla, a Laguna Pueblo missionary met a grisly end when he was stabbed to death by unknown assailants. Another story is that the Franciscan met a peaceful end. Whichever story is true, in 1756, he was buried in the church floor near the high altar by the presbytery.
Nineteen years later, as Mass was being celebrated, the altar started to shake. Strange noises filled the church, and the earthen floor opened up as Padre Padilla's corpse rose to the surface. If this occurrence was not shocking enough, inspection of the priest's remains showed that he had not decomposed.
The Church initiated an investigation and experts inspected the body in order to establish how the man's body remained supple and moist. The church authorities could not come to a conclusion as to how this happened.
The father's body was re-buried in a hollowed-out cottonwood tree. In an effort to appease what many suspected might be an unquiet spirit, they dressed the corpse in the blue robes used by the Franciscan Order.
All was quiet until 1819 when the coffin containing Father Padilla broke through the church floor once again. His body was still preserved as were the robes he wore. The Church ordered another examination, and during this time they allowed public viewing. Due to the length of time since his death the remains were considered a "sacred" corpse or incorruptible. To be classified thus the body has to be supple, moist and emit a pleasant odor. Other holy relics smell of jasmine, roses or fresh spring water. In Padre Padilla's case he smelled "as the earth freshly watered". This is called the "odor of sanctity".
The mission at Isleta became a destination for Holy Pilgrimage,
It took 76 years before Padre Padilla's corpse once more came to the light of day, but this time he was dug up. A foot was missing and the original witnesses to his previous risings were dead.
Father Anoton Docher a priest at Isleta exhumed the remains after years of strange knockings coming from underneath the wooden floor that now covered the famous grave. There were also reports of the apparition of an 18th-century Franciscan being seen at the Church.
During the exhumation Father Docher injured his arm and contracted gangrene. The doctor attending him feared he would have to amputate it. The natives at the Mission believed Padre Padilla had cursed Docher for disturbing his grave. The Franciscan said a prayer asking for Padre Padilla's intercession and the infection was cured.
Once more Padre Padilla's body was reinterred, but this was not the last time he rose from beneath the church floor. This did not stop until the 1960s when a cement floor was installed. An explanation for the body's preservation have never been fully explained nor any of the miracles attested to the Padre Padilla been officially recognized as such.
In 1928, Docher known as "The Padre of Isleta" died, he was buried next to Father Padilla near the high altar.
There is a clear distinction between mummification and incorruptibility. Mummies are embalmed and remain preserved but only through artificial means. A mummified body is still and unnatural whereas incorruptible bodies are unspoiled, supple and the person appears to be asleep. This state is said to be achieved through a supernatural or spiritual intervention which defies explanation.
A corpse found to be incorruptible is that of St. Bernadette who witnessed the Marian apparition of what became known as Our Lady of Lourdes. She died in 1879 when she was 35 years old.
In 1909, Bishop Gauthey of Nevers exhumed her body with witnesses from the church and medical doctors. The crucifix and rosary in her hand had oxidized, but her body was free from decomposition. This miracle was used to support her canonization. Her body was buried once more after being washed and re-clothed.
On April 3, 1919, Bernadette's corpse was exhumed once more and examined by a doctor. He noted, "The body is practically mummified, covered with patches of mildew and quite a notable layer of salts, which appear to be calcium salts. The skin has disappeared in some places, but it is still present on most parts of the body."
1925, marked the third time the body was exhumed for the purposes of taking relics which were sent to Rome. An imprint was made of her face and hands so that a wax mask could be made in Paris to be placed on her body. This time she was interred inside a crystal and gold reliquary and placed in the Chapel of St. Bernadette at the motherhouse in Nevers, France.
Doctor Comte who performed the examination in 1925, later published a report in 1928. In it he made commentaries regarding the taking of the relics.
I would have liked to open the left side of the thorax to take the ribs as relics and then remove the heart which I am certain must have survived. However, as the trunk was slightly supported on the left arm, it would have been rather difficult to try and get at the heart without doing too much noticeable damage. As the Mother Superior had expressed a desire for the Saint's heart to be kept together with the whole body, and as Monsignor the Bishop did not insist, I gave up the idea of opening the left-hand side of the thorax and contented myself with removing the two right ribs which were more accessible. ... What struck me during this examination, of course, was the state of perfect preservation of the skeleton, the fibrous tissues of the muscles (still supple and firm), of the ligaments, and of the skin, and above all the totally unexpected state of the liver after 46 years. One would have thought that this organ, which is basically soft and inclined to crumble, would have decomposed very rapidly or would have hardened to a chalky consistency. Yet, when it was cut it was soft and almost normal in consistency. I pointed this out to those present, remarking that this did not seem to be a natural phenomenon.
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer