United Brethren Mission Center in New Mexico
Responding to the needs for educational opportunity, Mellie Perkins opened the first small mission school in Velarde in 1912. From the opening day of that boarding school, McCurdy Mission served as a home away from home for literally hundreds of students. From the first graduating class of six students in 1926, the school grew to a 44-acre campus with an enrollment of over 500 students in grades one through twelve. Farming programs, athletics, community recreation programs, new church congregations, elementary schools, a community hospital and a nursing program have been extensions of this Christian mission.
An initial gift of $1,000 from Mr. and Mrs. Richard Hauser to establish work at Velarde combined with the offer of Mellie Perkins to go to the Rio Grande Valley mission field. During the school year 1911-1912 Perkins temporarily left her work in the North Texas Conference in order to attend Campbell College in Holton, Kansas. She became friendly with a young teacher named Edith McCurdy, a young woman from an affluent family in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. After McCurdy’s death, a family gift in her memory caused the first new mission building at Santa Cruz to be named The Edith M. McCurdy Mission.
The beginning of the mission work at Alcalde, located midway between Santa Cruz and Velarde, is a special story. Perkins was passing through the town when she was approached by a gentleman named Clark, one of the leading citizens, who urged her to open a school at Alcalde. The citizens had made an offer of free land, free adobe, and help with hauling and construction. When asked by Perkins why they were so anxious to have such a school, Clark replied that the work at Velarde and Santa Cruz missions had shown the importance of enlightenment and education.
The heart of the mission school was its academic program. Missionaries John Overmiller and Lillian Kendig sought constantly to improve the school’s standards. By 1921, it was realized that while one eighth grade student was to graduate that year, a large seventh grade class followed. So it was decided to begin a high school by adding one grade each year. The tuition was raised at this time to sixty dollars per year for grade school and seventy-five dollars for high school students.
The outreach of the mission school was extending farther and farther into the mountains and valley. On many occasions Overmiller traveled to outlying villages such as Ojo Caliente and Abiquiu for services.
Overmiller as Superintendent of the New Mexico Conference as well as Superintendent of the Mission School was required to visit each church and hold a quarterly conference. To service the churches out on the plains meant traveling over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains with dirt roads all the way. This was a round trip of about 200 miles and took at least two days in travel time.
Numerous improvements occurred during the Overmiller tenure. Among these were the construction of a new home and office for the superintendent, the dedication of the new girls’ dormitory, an addition to the boys’ dormitory, erection of a power plant for electric lights, remodeling of the chapel at Velarde, construction of a two-room school at Velarde (1927), and establishment of a new church in Espanola (Valley View).
In 1927, Glen F. McCracken was chosen to fill the staff vacancy for high school principal. For the next forty years this man was destined to mold and shape the entire mission. McCracken, a native Texan, had been teaching in the Espanola public school and was well known to the mission. Within one year, due to the departure of Overmiller for a new position in Albuquerque, McCracken was appointed chief of the mission.
By 1930, the Great Depression was upon the entire country. Life certainly was not easy on the mission field, and yet that summer a new outreach was started at Vallecitos. For some time several students from that little mountain community, whose name in English means “Little Valleys,” had been urging the establishment of a grade school.
Throughout the years of the Great Depression the mission school at Santa Cruz continued to grow with McCracken reporting a fall enrollment in 1930 of one hundred eight. The year of 1931 turned out to be one of the most dramatic in the history of the school due to a great fire that destroyed the much-needed new gymnasium. According to local folklore the one positive result was that the fire served to bring about the creation of the Espanola Fire Department. Rebuilt and dedicated in May 1940 as “McCracken Gymnasium,” it was the only gym from Santa Fe to Taos. Area residents were both surprised and pleased by McCracken’s generous ecumenical offer to share the new gym with both the Espanola public school and the Santa Cruz Catholic school.
In 1942, with help from the Women’s Missionary Association and the Otterbein Guild, a medical clinic was started on campus. Through the generosity of the Arthur Packs of Ghost Ranch fame, a local gift of land, and the arrival (following the war) of Dr. Samuel Zeigler, the small clinic at McCurdy became in fact a hospital. Zeigler, son of the General Secretary of the Board of Foreign Missions of the United Brethren Church arrived in the Espanola Valley via Youngstown, Ohio, and the occupation Army in Japan. On May 8, 1948, the new thirty-two bed hospital was dedicated and opened its doors with a professional staff of fifteen missionary doctors and nurses.
Adapted from Robert H. Terry, “The McCurdy Mission School Story,” Methodist History 25:2 (January 1987): 111-126.