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Churchman Of The Desert

June 2024
19min read

In the wild Southwest, Archbishop Lamy of Santa Fe contended with savage Indians, ignorance, and a recalcitrant clergy.

Winter storms in the Gulf of Mexico overtook a small ship beating her way from New Orleans to Galveston in January, 1851. Despite the fact that she had been condemned as unsafe, she carried 100 passengers. One of these was a French priest, 37 years old, who on November 24, 1850, in Cincinnati, Ohio, had been consecrated a bishop. Carrying with him the papal bull of Pius IX, which appointed him as vicar apostolic of New Mexico, he was on his way to Santa Fe. In the icy darkness of gales at sea he faced uncertainties, immediate and remote, for the ship held small promise of delivering him safely to shore, and he knew little enough of what might await him if he should survive the voyage.

In fact, he was traveling toward a job of work vast in scale. His new ecclesiastical province embraced a corner of present-day Nevada, about a fourth of Colorado, and all of Arizona and New Mexico except the southern strip which would presently be added by the Gadsden Purchase. Taken together, these lands were larger than the whole of his native France.

Their physical character was formidable—great elevated deserts divided at far intervals by forbidding mountains and threaded by only a few long, meager rivers with narrow belts of green life. There were few towns, and almost all of these lay widely separated along the valley of the Rio Grande in New Mexico. The population consisted largely of Spanish-Mexicans and Pueblo Indians. Until the year before they had belonged to the Mexican Republic; but in 1848 their territory had come to the United States as part of the settlement following the war with Mexico.

Previously, New Mexican ecclesiastical affairs had rested under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Durango, in central Mexico, 1,500 miles from Santa Fe. When New Mexico and her adjacent areas became United States territory, not only civil affairs, but also the administration of the Church came within the new national frame. It was as a consequence of the Mexican War that social and religious conditions in the great Latin and Indian Southwest arrested the attention of the American bishops meeting in national council at Baltimore in the summer of 1819.

Periodically ever since 1630 the great lost province of Spain, and later of Mexico, on the northern Rio Grande, had asked for a bishop of its own to be seated at Santa Fe, but to no avail. Generations went by without an episcopal visitation to the exiled North, while mission friars struggled to hold their authority against the civil governors and even broke into quarrels with their distant and invisible bishop at Durango. In the early nineteenth century the long process of secularization began with the dismissal of the Franciscans, and without a bishop to guide it on the scene the Church fell upon unhappy days. The absence of a spiritual leader seemed like a symbol of the abandonment of the province. Who cared?—so far, so outlandish, with only a handful of Spaniards amidst a diffused population of Indians—New Mexico was lost in its golden distance, and the world did not appear to miss it.

Without leadership in the affairs of the spirit, the society lost any motive larger than that of simple survival. Ignorance was the heritage of each new generation. New Mexico had no schools. Her churches were for the most part in ruins. The Indian missions were abandoned. There were only nine priests in over 200,000 square miles. The deportment of some of these was at times reprehensible.

The state of affairs could hardly be worse, and one thing seemed clear to the council of bishops at Baltimore: so long as New Mexico’s ecclesiastical responsibilities continued to come under the authority of the Bishop of Durango, her religious and social conditions could not be improved. The assembled bishops petitioned the Holy See to establish a vicariate apostolic for New Mexico, and to preside over it nominated Father Jean Baptiste Lamy, who had come to Kentucky from France in 1839 as a missionary priest. On July 19. 1850. Pope Pius IX approved the petition, and named as titular Bishop of Agathonica and vicar apostolic of New Mexico the man recommended to him.

When to his “great amazement and surprise” the papal bull with the news of his elevation reached Father Lamy in Kentucky he did not hesitate to accept, but in his heart he attached a condition, and his first act was to fulfill it by writing to his closest friend, Father Joseph P. Machebeuf, who was a pastor in Sandusky, Ohio.

“They wish,” wrote Lamy of the Roman powers, “that I should be a Vicar Apostolic, and I wish you to be my Vicar General, and from these two vicars we shall try to make one good pastor. …”

These friends were born in the same department of France—Puy-de-Dôme in the Auvergne—and attended seminary together, and together came to America in 1839 when recruited as young missioners by Bishop Purcell of Cincinnati. Machebeuf consulted his superiors and his conscience. Both told him to go. He had to agree. With a sigh of regret for the faithful whom he was leaving, he yet kindled at the prospect of the adventure ahead.

Sharing a common dedication, the two vicars otherwise presented contrasts in appearance and personality. Lamy stood five feet ten inches in height, but his spare build made him seem taller. His manner was reposeful, but when he met people’s gaze his dark eyes sparkled, and when he answered them his smile was persuasive. Patience, kindly gravity, and intelligence marked his face. All his life subject to spells of illness, he prevailed against them and went his way with his “usual and untiring energy.” He was an expert horseman, with a good seat, erect in the saddle.

Machebeuf was of another type. He was a short man. His thin little frame seemed always to quiver with controlled animation. His hair was so light and his skin so pale that his classmates used to call him Whitey. His face was as plain as the Bishop’s was handsome. Over his deepset eyes he wore small spectacles with metal rims. Through all this there moved and reached a witty, compassionate and charming nature that raised people’s spirits as they looked at him.

Nearing Galveston, Lamy’s ship was driven aground in the shallows of the low coast. The Bishop lost most of his belongings, including “a fine new wagon which he bought at New Orleans for the trip over the plains,” as Machebeuf later told. Lamy saw his trunk floating ashore in the wreckage, and with the help of a Negro boy salvaged it. It contained his vestments and his books, now waterlogged. The shipwreck cost him $350, a great sum for a new missionary bishop to lose.

He went on to San Antonio, where a United States Army train was making ready for a march to El Paso. He planned to go with it, and to carry Machebeuf and himself he bought a new buggy and a pair of newly broken mules. One day on a drive near San Antonio his coachman lashed the mules until they bolted. “I jumped out,” said the Bishop, “and dislocated my ankle in the loose sand.” He could not stand or walk. When Machebeuf arrived in San Antonio he found his friend laid up in pain. The army train had marched without him. It would be weeks until another went. Machebeuf brought him sad news—his sister had died in New Orleans. He needed all his fortitude to endure pain, loss, and idleness.

But presently they were on the way to the Rio Grande with another army train of 200 government wagons, 25 merchant wagons, a troop of cavalry, and stock animals. In six weeks they reached El Paso, where the pastor, a famous host, offered “every hospitality in his power.” After years of never seeing a bishop, the El Paso priest now entertained his second within nine months, for in the preceding autumn Monsignor Zubiria, the Bishop of Durango, had paused at El Paso on his way to and from Santa Fe. The Mexican bishop’s vast northern lands had already been transferred by the Holy See to an ecclesiastical jurisdiction within the United States—but he did not know it then, and the pastor of El Paso could not say if he knew it even now.

In this confusion lay the seed of heavy trouble for the new bishop. For when, after a progress northward through the Rio Grande towns, where he passed beneath triumphal arches of evergreens erected by jubilant villagers, he came to his capital on August 8, 1851, he found the local clergy respectful of his purple, but otherwise waiting to greet him with discouraging news. Receiving a great civic welcome at Santa Fe, the vicar apostolic was informed by Father Ortiz, the vicar in Santa Fe of the Bishop of Durango, that he and his clergy must refuse to accept him as their new superior.

But the papal bull, the letters of appointment? Bishop Lamy displayed them.

They might be in order, to be sure; but Father Ortiz had received from Durango no word of any change of administration; and until he had this he could not resign his powers to Bishop Lamy, and his priests must not consider themselves subject to a new lordship.

Lamy considered the matter from the local point of view and patiently concluded that in official terms the vicar of Santa Fe was justified in his position. There was only one thing to do. The vicar apostolic must go, himself, on a longer and harder journey than the one he had just made. It would take him to the city of Durango, where he would have to present his case to old Bishop Zubiria and convince him that it was just.

Delegating Father Machebeuf to act for him in his absence and giving orders that a school for the teaching of English be established at Santa Fe without delay, he rode out on a mule in late September for the episcopal city 1,500 miles away. With him he took only a guide—and Vicar Ortiz.

In Santa Fe Machebeuf saw a one-story town built of adobes—earthen bricks plastered over with more earth. Threading away from the long central plaza, the principal streets, about a mile long, were irregularly parallel to the Santa Fe Creek. Five or six thousand people lived in the capital. Trade was lively. Gambling, drinking, and dancing, in both American and Mexican styles, animated the public airs of evening. The city lay at 7,000 feet of altitude under changeable glories of sky and mountain light. Its social character was little modified since its foundation in 1610.

“This is a country of ancient Catholicity,” wrote Machebeuf in his first impressions. “The people in general show the best disposition. … But alas! the great obstacle to the good which the Bishop is disposed to do among them, does not come from the people but from the priests themselves, who do not want the bishop, for they dread reform in their morals, or a change in the selfish relations with their parishioners. One of the great neglects of the priests of New Mexico is that they seldom or never preach.” Then, having seen how they lived, Machebeuf added in wrath, “But how could such priests preach?”

The Bishop was home in time for Christmas. He had much to tell his great friend. Bishop Zubiria had renounced any claim to New Mexico. He examined Lamy’s papal bull, and at once said, “I knew nothing about it officially.” Under the circumstances, how could he, or his clergy in turn, have submitted to another prelate? But “this document is sufficient authority for me,” he said with grace, “and I submit to it.” Monsignor Zubiria ordered the preparation of papers in which he renounced his jurisdiction over the vast northern province.

Promptly upon Lamy’s return, Zubiria’s instrument of renunciation was posted for all to see. Any of the clergy who refused to accept it, and any who did not mend their ways, were released from their duties, to depart from New Mexico. To those who remained the new bishop and his vicar general served as examples. It was time to go to work.

Most of the native priests responded with obedience, but in a few cases the Bishop was forced to resort to severe measures. The pastors of Albuquerque, Taos, and Arroyo Hondo defied him in various degrees of disobedience. When after repeated warnings they persisted in their defiance, the Bishop acted to suspend them from priestly functions and even in two cases, to excommunicate them. Father Machebeuf was sent in each instance to execute the Bishop’s sentence.

The recusant pastors had their partisans, and in Taos, particularly, followers of Father José Antonio Martinez threatened an outbreak like the Taos Rebellion of 1847 with its bloodshed. But Machebeuf, too, had powerful friends in Taos, one of whom was Kit Carson. “I am a man of peace,” said Carson, “and my motto is: good will to all; I hate disturbances among the people, but I can light a little yet, and I know of no better cause to fight for than my family, my church, and my friend the Senor Vicario.”

When the vicar general came to do his duty his friends saw to it that armed men were stationed about the village to defend him and his mission. He accomplished it from the altar of Taos in a scene of great tenseness, and a week later repeated it at Arroyo Hondo. Peace held. The Bishop never again was forced to show what such cases of discipline showed—that the clergy must be worthy of their vocations, and that there was strength in the new administration of the Church in New Mexico.

To fulfill his vision of his duty, the young bishop had to proceed from the abstraction of a map to the reality of his people and their far separated places on the great open land. He crossed desert and mountain, traveling tens of thousands of miles on mule or horse, making the hard country yield up to him its blind ways. Machebeuf, too, often went into the country as a simple missioner. Between them they tried to rectify the neglect of centuries. When new friends whom he traveled to serve asked where he lived, Machebeuf would reply: “In the saddle … they call me El Vicario Andando, the Traveling Vicar, and I live on the public highway.” Lamy could say the same. His duties sent him east and west by wagon several times on the Santa Fe Trail.

In 1852 Lamy’s wagon overtook a larger train of 25 others bound for New Mexico with merchandise from Saint Louis for the five Spiegelberg brothers, whom he had already come to know in Santa Fe where their famous emporium on the plaza did a thriving business. As the Bishop approached he saw that the wagon train was halted. Someone from the train was being carried by Mexican teamsters into an abandoned sod hut. It was Levi Spiegelberg, they explained, and they were sure he had cholera. Out of fear they refused to travel with him.

The Bishop went to Levi without hesitation and said to him, “Good friend, we willingly make room for you in our covered wagon and will nurse you until you regain your strength, for we could not think of leaving you here in this lonely prairie cabin. We do not believe you have cholera, and even if you have we are not afraid of contagion.” The Bishop and the priests who accompanied him took care of the sick man, who was cured in a week.

Two months later when they all arrived in Santa Fe, the story was told to the other Spiegelberg brothers—handsome and cultivated men—and ever afterward the whole family and the Bishop were devoted friends. On a later prairie voyage—in 1867—cholera actually did strike the Bishop’s train, and two of his party died, including a young American nun. During her illness, the train was attacked at the Arkansas River crossing by 300 Comanche Indians. For three hours they continued their attack, circling in single file about the parked wagons and keeping up a steady fire. Among the wagoners who fought back was the Bishop, who handled a musket.

For his duties required him to excel in the frontiersman’s craft, and many a night going alone on missionary journeys he slept “under the moon,” as he said, and sometimes he crossed as many as 75 miles without water, and often he walked in order to rest his horse. The prairies he called “beautiful and vast.” His first venture into Arizona covered 3,000 miles and lasted six months and he said his Christmas Mass there on a snow-covered slope of a mountain forest. After his long pastoral journeys to Colorado, he told of its cold heights, its great rivers pounding out of the mountains into wide valleys, like the San Luis, where in his time farmers came in swelling numbers to raise cereals.

Sometimes abroad in winter he found it necessary to walk up and down all night by a campfire to escape freezing to death. Only too often, taken ill on his lonely journeys, he fought to overcome his body’s weakness with his strong will. And knowing his immense land in the same terms as any other frontiersman, he loved it the more for seeking out, and surviving, its hazard and its challenge.

In August of 1866 Lamy gave to Rome an accounting of his first sixteen years in the old river kingdom. Civilization was emerging under his touch. As people in old Mexican towns and Indian pueblos came to know him well, and to feel his interest, the parishes revived. The spirit of growth in religion created growth in all other beneficial expressions of society. By a simple extension of his own character, the Bishop also created for the old Spanish kingdom a sense of social enlightenment through which, for the first time in all her three centuries, her people could advance their condition and so come to be masters instead of victims of their environment.

In 1853 the vicariate apostolic had been raised to the rank of diocese and a year later the Bishop had gone to France on the first of the many journeys taken by himself and later by Machebeuf to enlist young priests for the tasks in New Mexico. New Mexico, he reported in 1866, had 110,000 Mexicans and 15,000 Catholic Indians. To serve the great diocese he now had 41 priests where he had arrived to find 9. Most of the ruined churches had been repaired, and he had built 85 new ones, and the total number was 135. They were all made of earth and had “no architectural character” and were as poor inside as out. But—what mattered to him—they were “well frequented.”

And so were the schools. He now had three in Santa Fe “in full prosperity, with never fewer than two hundred pupils, and often three hundred.” In almost every mission there was one school, and in some, several. There were now five Lorettine convents and academies in the diocese, and on New Year’s Day, 1866, four nuns of St. Vincent de Paul opened the first orphanage and hospital in New Mexico, using the Bishop’s own house which he gave up to the purpose.

All these signs of compassionate belief in the dignity of human beings and their right to growth were made against the familiar background of primitive techniques and general poverty in the New Mexico Rio Grande country. His plans prospered, and there was good will all about him, for everyone, including non-Catholics—like the military commander of New Mexico who gave him $1,000 toward the new orphanage—was eager to help him in his work.

There was one detail he did not trouble to include in his report. In 1863 he had worked for the passage of the first Public School Act of New Mexico, and when it became law, he was, along with the territorial governor and the secretary of state, a member of the commission erected by the legislature to administer it. Only a few years before, given an earlier chance to vote on the creation of free schools, the citizens had defeated the measure. The social climate had changed with the general effort at enlightenment under his example.

Increasing settlement of the West added heavy burdens to the work of the See of Santa Fe. In 1867, upon Lamy’s recommendation, Colorado was detached from the diocese and given its own vicar apostolic—Machebeuf, who in his turn received the miter. A year later Arizona was similarly organized, with Father Juan B. Salpointe as vicar apostolic. In 1869 Bishop Salpointe presented himself at Rome, in company with Bishop Machebeuf, and the two were closely questioned by Pius IX about their vast outlands.

Returning through France, their fatherland, they paused to do an errand for the Bishop of Santa Fe. When Bishop Salpointe arrived home in the Southwest, he was able to say that the errand was done, for he had arranged for French architects Antoine and Projectus Mouly, father and son, and several skilled stonecutters, to come to Santa Fe where they would build out of native rock the Cathedral of Saint Francis.

On Wednesday, June 16, 1875, at daybreak, cannonading sounded over Santa Fe in salute from Fort Marcy. Shortly afterward the students’ band of music from Saint Michael’s College came before the Bishop’s house to serenade him. In the streets, which were decorated with evergreens, small boys set off firecrackers, while the bells of the still unfinished cathedral and the other churches sent out widening rings of sound that met in the brilliant air.

The old capital was beginning its greatest day of jubilee, for it was celebrating the elevation of the diocese of Santa Fe to the rank of a metropolitan see, and Juan Bautista Lamy was appointed by Pope Pius IX to be its first archbishop. Everyone took part in the jubilee—the civil government, the military forces, the public, and a great gathering of clergy, headed by Bishop Salpointe, who bestowed the pallium that had come from Rome, and Bishop Machebeuf, who sang the Pontifical High Mass in the courtyard of St. Michael’s College. A grand luncheon was held in the Archbishop’s garden, where the 8th Cavalry band played lively airs among the trees.

At a suitable moment William G. Ritch, the acting territorial governor of New Mexico, rose to read a speech which he later sent to the New York Herald. Sketching the history of New Mexico, he was happy to see present some lineal descendants of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, who in 1535 was the first European to set foot on New Mexican land. The Governor then described conditions as the Archbishop had found them and catalogued the improvements which had come about under his touch.

“The reforms, the general elevation of the moral tone and the general progress that has been effected since the American occupation,” he said, “are very largely, and in some cases entirely, due to the judicious ecclesiastical administration and to the wholesome precepts and examples which have shone forth upon this people from the living presence of the Archbishop of Santa Fe … whom we all know, and know only to admire and respect.”

When evening fell there were speeches in the plaza in Spanish and English, and more band music by the cavalry musicians, and bonfires, fireworks, and a balloon ascension, and illuminated transparencies of Pius IX, the Archbishop and the two visiting bishops. Late at night all ended with a torchlight procession.

A day later, when the Archbishop’s garden was cleared of the clutter of celebration, it was once again a retreat where every tree and raked bed and flowing water course showed something of the abiding joy of its master in the materials of natural life as they were brought to growth and usefulness.

There as he grew older the Archbishop spent happy and busy hours. His garden was walled with adobe. Extending for about five acres around his plain small town house with its private chapel south of the cathedral, the garden was laid out with a playing fountain, a sundial on a pedestal of Santa Fe marble, and aisles of trees, plants, and arbors. Formal walks led from one end of the garden to the other, with little bypaths turning aside among the flower beds and leading to cunningly placed benches in the shade. To the west through the branches of his trees he could make out the long blue sweep of the Jemez Mountains. At the south end of the garden on its highest ground was a pond covering half an acre, fed by a spring. Trout lived in the pond and came to take crumbs which the Archbishop threw to them. Now and then he would send a mess of trout over to St. Michael’s College to be cooked for the boys.

From the first the Archbishop had been interested in the approach of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad into New Mexico. After traveling thousands and thousands of miles on the back of a horse throughout a quarter of a century of pastoral visits—he called it “purgatorial work”—he knew better than most men what the railroad would do for the development of archdiocese and territory. But as the tracks crept forward from the east a mile or two a day in 1879, reaching toward the Rio Grande, it became known that they would bypass Santa Fe.

The leaders of Santa Fe were concerned, foremost among them the Archbishop. If the railroad would not route its main line through the capital, then a seventeen-mile branch line must be built to connect the two; and if the railroad would not budget funds to build such a branch line, then let the citizens of Santa Fe raise the money to pay for the job. He headed a petition calling for a bond issue election to authorize the expenditure of $150,000 for the branch line. The election was held, the issue was carried by a three to one vote, and on February 9, 1880, Territorial Governor Lew Wallace drove the last spike in the new spur. The junction point on the main line was named Lamy.

The city at large knew him as a friend. When he passed through the plaza he stopped to speak to all who greeted him. If citizens were locked in stubborn dispute, he was sometimes called upon to compose their quarrels. A fellow citizen once said of him in a speech that he was the greatest peacemaker he knew.

He had a fine sense of the past. Once when there was a movement by progressive citizens to tear down the old Palace of the Governors on the plaza in order to build on its site a new territorial capital, he opposed the destruction of that repository of so much history, and others joined with him to save it.

As there was a time to take up work, so was there a time to lay it down. On February 19, 1885, Bishop Salpointe came to Santa Fe from Arizona as coadjutor to the Archbishop with right of succession. On July 18, the bishop coadjutor took over the affairs of the archdiocese. The act could mean only one thing. It was explained in a letter which Archbishop Lamy sat down to write at Santa Fe on August 26. On Sunday, September 1, 1885, in every parish the priest unfolded the pastoral letter and read aloud the expected but still affecting news. The first, the great, Archbishop of Santa Fe had retired.

But if now he was free to take his ease at the Villa Pintoresca, his little rural lodge at Tesuque, four miles from Santa Fe, it was not long until he was off again on his Father’s business. In May, 1886, he blessed the nearly completed cathedral and then set out for Mexico to raise more funds for its last additions. He was 72. The journey took him across 10,000 miles, and once beyond El Paso, he traveled almost entirely by mule or horse. On a certain day he rode over thirty miles in high mountains on difficult trails, wearing a shawl against the chill of the thin air. On that day he confirmed over 1,000 people, and during the whole journey 35,000.

During the decades after the Mexican War, civilization came to the old Latin kingdom of the Southwest. It was the product principally of two agents—one, the government of the United States in all its formal expressions of law and administration; the other, Archbishop Lamy and the energetic example of his dutiful faith. Neither could have succeeded so well without the other. Both kept pace with the increase in population and consequent social need.

Both met and survived various threats of violence—the furies of the last Indian wars, the Civil War with its Confederate invasion of New Mexico happily defeated in a single campaign, the murderous extravagances of outlaws who succeeded too long in holding cheaply human life and safety. Together the separate but harmonious governments of Church and State worked to bring the vast southwestern frontier into the frame of peace and order.

On October 4, 1887, Juan Bautista Lamy appeared in Santa Fe to keep the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi. There was a procession that evening. Little stacks of pinon wood burned along the streets, throwing firelight like banners across adobe buildings. The marchers carried lighted candles through the sharp autumn air. In the procession walked the retired archbishop, and it was a wonder to see him again—so thin and white, so frail and faithful—passing through his streets to the cathedral for vespers at the end of the feast. He was back again on December 12 to dedicate the chapel of Loretto Convent, now at last completed. The cathedral was not finished—but it was in continuous use, and the choir of Saint Michael’s College sang the midnight Mass there at Christmas.

A week or so later in January, 1888, a message came from the Villa Pintoresca. The old archbishop had been taken ill in the country and asked to be brought into town, where his cold—he said he had a heavy cold—might be treated properly. A carriage was sent at once. He was brought to his old, high, square room in the Archbishop’s house where the white plaster walls were finished at the ceiling with plaster cherubim. It was plain that he suffered from pneumonia. At first he seemed to recover, but relapses followed and early in the morning of February 13 all the bells of Santa Fe began to toll, and soon everyone in the old mountain capital knew for whom. He died mildly after having received the last sacraments from his successor, Archbishop Salpointe. He was 74 years old. He had been a priest for 50 years, a bishop for 38.

Robed in pontifical vestments, his body was laid first in the Loretto Chapel. From there it was taken in procession around the plaza to the cathedral, which it was never to leave again. For 24 hours it lay in mitered state before the high altar where 6,000 people came to pass by it in candlelight. One who kept vigil was Joseph Machebeuf. On February 16 was sung the pontifical Requiem Mass. It was the last occasion to draw the two prelates together, one in life, the other in death.

When it was time for a sermon, Joseph Machebeuf came forward to give it. As fast as memories ran through his mind, tears ran down his deeply marked face, and he found it difficult to speak. He remembered what they had passed through together, the two seminarians, the two missioners, the two vicars, and what together they had transformed in the immense land where they had spent themselves for the lives, mortal and immortal, of others.

Presently, the tremendous liturgy of the dead was resumed which by its impersonality brought a sense of triumph over death; and the body of the Archbishop was laid into a crypt before the high altar of the church which the generations have made into the monument over his grave.

A year later Bishop Machebeuf died in Denver.

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