Catholic Church involved in legal fight over 'sacred land'

GUADALUPITA, N.M. (KRQE) - An unusual debate over who owns what land is expected to continue in court on Friday.

While some say it is sacred ground, a cemetery that's been part of the Catholic community for more than a hundred years, one family is suing, claiming part of that land as their own.

Once the site of Our Lady of Guadalupita, built back in the 1860s, the land is now memorialized by one marked grave and possibly countless unmarked burial sites depending on who you ask.

"We've always thought of it as a sacred land," said Clarence Garcia, a Guadalupita resident. "We do believe that there's a lot more people buried in this area here."

That area in Guadalupita, about 14 miles north of Mora, is now the subject of a Fourth Judicial District Court civil lawsuit.

Jacob Regensberg and his son, Jude, filed a complaint in June against homeowners in that area, Mora County Commissioners, and the Archdiocese of Santa Fe claiming their right to ownership of land there.

Jacob is a former Mora County Commissioner and father to former State Rep. Bengie Regensberg.

His complaint says it is based on a deed and the theory of adverse possession, that they've exclusively used the property since 1979.

Included in the property the Regensbergs are claiming is a small piece of land just north of the marked grave, near the site of the old church.

Tire tracks cut through the dirt, leading to a mobile home that the Regensbergs own.

"That's what we're trying to do right now is keep him from traveling here because we never know," Garcia said, referring to unmarked burial sites. "Crosses used to be here, but they rotted away."

Garcia's cousin is one of the landowners named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

Garcia said his family is related to Francisco Herrera, the man buried in the marked grave at the site.

"He's my grandpa," said Theodora Cordova. "He died the same year I was born."

They believe the land belongs to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and the community as a whole. Some residents are even raising money to help pay for the defense's legal fees.

"I don't want nobody to take our properties, which belong to us. Not to me, to everybody from Guadalupita that have people buried here," Pearl Garcia said.

"I think he's working with sacrilege. I mean, that's the way I see it. It's sacrilege," Cordova said.

KRQE News 13 stopped by the Regensbergs home and tried to reach them by phone, but they didn't answer.

Their attorney, Kelan Emery, declined to comment. However, he appeared in court last week by video conference for a hearing in the case.

"He had no reason to believe ever that the church was claiming that property," Emery said of his client.

He was fighting a motion for summary judgment that called on the judge to forgo a trial and side with the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.

"The church's deeds contain no legal description that one could ever identify on the ground," Emery said.

Instead, he pointed to a 2013 survey that puts the disputed land within the Regensbergs' property. It was created by one of his clients, Jude, who is also a surveyor.

"Our records go back to 1861," said Thomas Macken, the attorney representing the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.

Macken argued the Regensbergs did not have a case because they did not pay taxes on the land as required by adverse possession.

However, a judge disagreed with that assessment this week, denying the motion.

Judge Emilio Chavez said the law requires paying all taxes "assessed against the property."

However, in this case, the county assessor considered it property of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, which is exempt from taxes. Therefore, no taxes were assessed against the property for the Regensbergs to pay, the judge wrote in his order.

People in Guadalupita will continue to follow the back and forth in court closely because they say the small piece of land plays a big role in the community's history.

"It means a lot," Cordova said.

Another hearing is scheduled in this case for Friday at 10:30 a.m. in Las Vegas. Judge Chavez is expected to hear debate over whether or not Mora County should continue to be part of the lawsuit.

A bench trial is set for April.

The Guadalupita/Coyote Historic District has been listed on New Mexico's Register of Cultural Properties and the National Register of Historic Places.


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