On occasion, the dolls in the china closet at the entrance to the Church Street Cafe move. Some turn around. Some shift in place. A few press their faces against the glass. Only one person has a key to the display case, but restaurant owner Marie Coleman doesn’t touch the dolls except to put them back in their proper place. Something, or someone, else is responsible for the intermittent redecorating.
Coleman was a college student in 1993 when a boring study session in the library convinced her to get a little fresh air. She drove to Old Town to go for a walk and stretch her legs. Behind the San Felipe de Neri Church, Coleman spotted a home that drew her interest. “I saw this old building that was just melting into the ground,” she says. Inside the building, Coleman saw cobwebs and a sagging roof.
Later, Coleman would discover that the Casa de Ruiz was more than 300 years old and had survived a flood and then been remodeled several times. At one point, the hacienda held 18 rooms.
Coleman fell in love with the building and offered the realtor half of the asking price, thinking there was no way the offer would be accepted. She was wrong. Still in college and with no real plan to speak of, Coleman had become the owner of a decrepit building.
Fortunately, she had restaurateurs in the family. She also had a close family friend in contractor Charlie Trujillo. “He was an old curandero. If you [don’t] know what a curandero is, they’re kind of like healers and more spiritual, I guess, than I am,” Coleman says. Trujillo took on the contract and started repairs to the building.
“One day I came in, and Trujillo was by the fireplace writing a list of all the things I needed to do that day and what I needed to pick up. It was never on a piece of paper; Charlie would find scraps somewhere to write this list down,” Coleman says. Trujillo was shaking his head, and it concerned Coleman. She asked him what was wrong.
“Can you just tell me why you can’t talk to your ghost? Just let her know that everything is going to be OK,” Trujillo said.
“What ghost, Charlie?” Coleman asked.
“The ghost that lives here,; she follows you everywhere,” Trujillo responded.
Coleman didn’t believe in ghosts at the time but thought she should play along with Trujillo. “Charlie, what is her name?” she asked.
“Sarah,” Trujillo said.
“She lived here?”
“What would you like me to tell her?”
“Just tell her that things will be fine. That we’re going to restore the place and she’ll have lots of people to entertain,” Trujillo responded.
“Sarah, this is all gonna be fine. We’re gonna restore the place, and it’s gonna be nice once again. There’s gonna be lots of people who’ll come through, and you’ll be able to have fun,” Coleman told both Trujillo and the ghost. Then she asked Trujillo if that was OK.
“Oh, that was good, but can you tell her one more thing?” Trujillo said.
“Can you tell her to stop kicking the buckets? I know she has to feed the chickens every morning, but she does not have to kick the buckets. It really annoys me,” Trujillo said.
Later, Coleman went to the state archives in Santa Fe to research the Ruiz home. While digging through papers, she discovered something. Sarah Ruiz had lived at the house just years before Coleman arrived.
“There was a lady who lived here in Old Town, right next door, and her name was Maria,” Coleman says. “I saw her out there one day watering.” Coleman decided to ask about Sarah.
“Maria, did you know the lady who used to live in this house?” Coleman said.
“Oh yes, I can tell you lots of stories about Sarah. She and I were very good friends,” Maria said.
“Did she have chickens?”
“Oh yes. Every once in a while one of those chickens would get loose and she’d go chasing after it,” Maria said.
In the years since she first met Sarah, Coleman says that a number of people have visited the restaurant and encountered Sarah both as an adult and as a little girl. Sarah, it seems, loved to play with dolls almost as much she likes to entertain and take care of her chickens.
Story from the Santa Fe New Mexican, Oct, 30, 2020
Written by Jason Strykowski