If you are not looking out for it, it may be easy to drive by the ruins of the old San Dionisio Church in Umatac without realizing the significance of the site where the first Catholic Mass on Guam was held.

"It’s really rich in its history," said Joe Quinata, of the site that once was a place of worship and is now a place where archaeologists hope to learn more about those who worshipped there. Quinata is chief program officer of the Guam Preservation Trust.

Built in the 1800s by Spanish conquerors, the church is now being excavated by visiting archaeologists. Quinata said the study is in its third year.

Sandra Montón and Natalia Moragsas, both professors from Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain, are part of the team that includes the four Ph.D. students who are leading the study.

“The idea was to understand how the Spanish colonization had an impact on the local population — to understand Spanish colonization and colonialism — but not only from the Spanish prospective but from the local perspective. One thing that was very important was the churches that made a real change in the local lives,” Montón said.

Quinata said the project is what is called “community-based archaeology,” which involves a collaboration of parties.

History and identity

Tyler Aguon, 19, a resident of Umatac and member of the Humåtak Community Foundation, which conducts heritage tours of the village, is one of the local youths involved in the project.

“It’s important for us to be a part of it, to actually engage in the excavation, because it helps us learn about ourselves," Aguon said. "If you don’t know your history, then you don’t know yourself." 

In digging deeper to understand what life may have consisted of centuries ago, the team has made significant discoveries, uncovering a set of stairs leading to the entrance of the structure and the depth of the walls making up the foundation of the church.

“The church is a lot larger than we thought it was,” Quinata said. The church looks like it was built with stone and is more ornate than originally believed, he added.

Human remains

The team also has unveiled unexpected artifacts.

“We are not looking for human remains, but we did find them,” Quinata said. “That poses a new question that we are trying to figure out.”

He said the human remains are not full skeletons but rather pieces, possibly from multiple bodies. The remains, following standard procedure, will be reburied at the site in the same location they were found, according to Quinata.

Montón, who is the principal of the project, said that while the excavation is ongoing, team members also are researching Spanish documents and Spanish sources, from different areas of research, on how food, clothing and other habits changed during the period.

“What it meant to have a church and a structure like this for the local population and how this may have changed life,” she said.

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