Roman Catholic Church
Digital History ID 585
Willa Cather's bestselling 1927 novel Death Comes for the Archbishop presents a highly sympathetic portrait of Jean Baptiste Lamy (1814-1888), the French archbishop who reorganized the Catholic Church in the Southwest. It depicts Archbishop Lamy as a man of patience and piety, who was forced to excommunicate corrupt clergymen and to suppress superstitious religious rites. In recent years, the history of the Catholic Church in the Southwest has undergone close scrutiny and revision.
The early southwestern church suffered from a severe shortage of priests, and in the late eighteenth century, a Catholic lay order emerged known as Penitentes, which was responsible for preserving religious life and traditions. The Penitentes acted as ministers. They supervised wakes and funerals, performed charitable works, and organized religious ceremonies, including reenactments of the suffering of Christ. The Penitentes were vilified in the mid-nineteenth century by Anglo Protestants and some Catholics, who were appalled by their practice of flagellation. Anglo-Americans also charged that the Penitentes, perhaps instigated by the Mexican priests, took part in a revolt against rule by the United States that took the life of the governor, Charles Bent.
Following the conquest of the Southwest by the United States, Lamy became the first bishop of Santa Fe. Finding only nine priests in New Mexico when he arrived in Santa Fe in the early 1850s, he brought in a large number of priests from France and other European countries. Unappreciative of Mexican and Mexican American culture, he quickly came into conflict with the small number of Mexican clergy in his diocese. He eventually excommunicated five Spanish-speaking clergymen, ostensibly for concubinage, and attempted to suppress the Penitentes. Lamy also suppressed the santos, carved saints and icons that are now prized as southwestern folk art.
Before the 1850s, Padre Antonio José Martínez de Taos had been the ecclesiastical leader of northern New Mexico. His bishop was in Durango in Mexico, six hundred miles to the south. In Willa Cather's bestseller, Martínez is portrayed as cruel and corrupt, whose mouth was "the very assertion of violent uncurbed passions and tyrannical self-will," a debauched man who fathers numerous illegitimate children, steals the land of peasants, and foments armed rebellion against the Anglos. In recent years, Padre Martínez's defenders have depicted him in a far more favorable light, as a deeply religious protector of the poor who resisted Bishop Lamy's threat to withhold the sacraments from church members who refused to tithe, giving the church ten percent of their income.
Bishop Lamy succeeded in driving the Penitentes underground. In 1947, the brotherhood was embraced by the Catholic Church. Today there about forty communities of the brotherhood in New Mexico and southern Colorado.
Even though Mexican Americans make up about two-thirds of the Southwest's Roman Catholic population, there is a sense that the Church did not begin adequately to address their needs until quite recently. Between 1850 and 1970, only one Mexican American bishop was appointed. As recently as the late 1970s Hispanics, who constituted twenty-seven percent of the nation's Catholics, made up only about one percent of priests in the United States.
In the report here, Archbishop Lamy describes the state of Catholicism in the Southwest in 1866.
In New Mexico we have only the most rigorously necessary things for our existence, as bread and meat. There are no factories of any kind here. The majority of the inhabitants raise sheep and cattle and horses, but they get very little profit out of it. It may be for lack of a market or on account of the savage Indians who steal the flocks, kill the shepherds or take them prisoner.... New Mexico is the most populated of the three territories that to this day comprise the Diocese of Santa Fe; we have 110,000 Mexicans and 15,000 Catholic Indians. Colorado has 10,000 Catholics in a settlement of 40,000 souls. Arizona has 8,000 Catholics. The present number of our Priests in missions is 41, five in charge of Colorado, three in Arizona, the rest in New Mexico. I have made three pastoral visits into Colorado, and only one into Arizona, but this took me six months, from the 1st of November 1863 to the 1st of May 1864. I traveled over a thousand leagues on horseback. In some places we had to sleep under the moon and to travel spaces from 20 to 25 leagues without a drop of water, walking to rest my horse. But we find ourselves rewarded for all this hardship, at finding such faithful souls. Not having seen a priest for many years, they take advantage of the visits of the missionary to receive the Sacraments with fervor and gratitude....
Until now, communication between New Mexico and the rest of the United States is difficult and transportation very costly. But railroads are building in the west in California; and from the east in Missouri and Texas. As soon as these are established, the working of the mines, the raising of the flocks, the cultivation of vineyards, will change entirely the condition of things. We will be able to employ laborers at more reasonable wages, construct houses and churches as in the east. We may probably see factories established in this country, where wool is to be obtained in great abundance. In this general increase of resources, this mission will without doubt find extension and a way of sustaining the great, heavy loads, which are always found in new undertakings. Providence will never abandon us, and the Order of the Propagation of the Faith, will, as we hope, continue to help us as heretofore, since the beginning of this See in Santa Fe, of which despite our personal unworthiness we have the honor to be the first Bishop.
Source: Louis H. Warner, Archbishop Lamy: An Epoch Maker, Santa Fe, 1936, Chap. 14.
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