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Santa Fe: Celebrating 400 Years of Holy Faith

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

When Bishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy, the first bishop and later archbishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico, ran out of money while building the city’s cathedral in the early 1870s, one of his French priests decided to use his talents for God. He took his parish’s Confirmation stipend for the bishop, gambled with the soldiers at Fort Union near Las Vegas, New Mexico, and won $2,000!

“That would be the equivalent of $200,000 or more now,” laughs Msgr. Jerome J. Martínez y Alire, rector of Santa Fe’s Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. “The priest had been a professional gambler before entering God’s service!”

That’s one of many Wild West stories of faith circulating among parishioners and tourists as the cathedral parish begins celebrating its cuarto centenario(400th anniversary) in 2010. But the spiritual significance and Franciscan influence of this historic mother church are being highlighted.

“The cathedral parish is the cradle of Catholicism for the American Southwest,” Msgr. Jerome explains. “The parish was founded in 1610, 10 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. It was from here that Franciscan missionaries were sent out to establish new parishes and bishops were sent out to create new dioceses.”

A Prophetic Start

The Catholic faith in New Mexico didn’t begin in Santa Fe, but rather with a prophetic proclamation. In 1539, missionary-explorer Fray Marcos de Niza was searching for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold when he came upon the Zuni Pueblo in western New Mexico. He planted a cross there and proclaimed the entire region the “New Kingdom of St. Francis.”

That proclamation became a reality in July 1598 when Spanish colonizer Juan de Oñate—along with 129 soldiers, 10 Franciscans and over 400 women, children and other men—settled along the Río Grande near Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, 35 miles north of Santa Fe. The friars dedicated the first parish church in the American Southwest to St. John the Baptist and celebrated the first Mass on September 8, the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary.

“Many people don’t realize the missions in New Mexico are 120 years older than the missions in San Antonio, Texas, and 170 years older than the California missions,” says Msgr. Jerome, a 13th-generation descendant of colonists who came with Oñate.

The colony was soon embroiled in dispute, and Governor Pedro de Peralta moved the capital of the New Kingdom south in 1610 to found La Villa Real de la Santa Fé de San Francisco de Asís (The Royal City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi). That year La Parróquia, a parish church built of adobe, was dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption.

(The present cathedral would be built on this exact site 259 years later, but not before two more adobe churches went up and the people’s faith had been tested many times over.)

“A jacál—a hut,” Fray Alonso de Benavides called La Parróquia when he arrived from Mexico in 1625 as the new head of the Franciscan missions. This was no sanctuary for the exquisite hand-carved statue of Our Lady that he had brought from Spain! The jacál was torn down and replaced around 1630 by a more sumptuous adobe church. At last, Our Lady (or La Conquistadora as she became known) had a throne worthy of a queen.

In the mid-1600s, La Parróquia changed its name to Our Lady of the Conception, a change undoubtedly inspired by Franciscan efforts in Spain and in its New World possessions to promote the teaching about the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Friars in the New Kingdom even dyed their gray habits a Marian blue.

The Pueblo Revolt

Like the Inquisition in Spain, Spanish colonial rule was often ruthless. Pueblo Indians were forced to pay tribute in corn and other products, labor in Spanish fields and convert to Catholicism. Pueblo kivas (underground ceremonial chambers) were destroyed and other native spiritual practices quashed.

On August 10, 1680, many of the pueblos banded together and revolted with a vengeance. They killed 21 Franciscans and many colonists on outlying farms before laying siege to Santa Fe. Fearing for La Conquistadora, sacristanaJosefa López Zambrano de Grijalva dashed into the burning Parróquia and rescued the 29-inch statue from certain doom. The colonists retreated 300 miles south to present-day Juárez, Mexico.

In the summer of 1692, Diego de Vargas, governor of the exiled colony, led a small contingent of soldiers and friars to Santa Fe to retake the villa. According to tradition, the governor knelt before La Conquistadora and made a promesa(promise): If Santa Fe falls easily, an annual novena of Masses will be offered in her honor for perpetuity. The Pueblos agreed to peace and, on September 14, de Vargas proclaimed a formal act of possession. The other colonists returned the following year.

“This is the peaceful re-conquest celebrated every year as Fiesta de Santa Fe,” says Msgr. Jerome about the 297-year-old tradition established by proclamation in 1712. “There was no separation of Church and State under Spanish colonial rule, and the Fiesta today still includes religious and civic events.”

Rebuild My Church

“Rebuild my church,” Christ told St. Francis in 1205. Likewise, the friars and their flock in 1714 began building a third adobe-brickParróquia to replace the church destroyed during the Pueblo Revolt. Dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi, the new church boasted a five-foot wooden statue of its patron in a painted blue robe. La Conquistadoragraced a chapel in the north transept.

In the late 1700s, the 200-year-old Franciscan presence in the New Kingdom began to wane. “The Spanish Franciscans ceased coming when Spain began losing its power in the New World,” explains Father Crispin Butz, O.F.M., cathedral rector from 1984 to 1994. “In 1797, the bishop of Durango, Mexico, placed La Parróquiaunder diocesan priests.”

The villa would soon change even more. In August 1851, Jean-Baptiste Lamy, a 37-year-old French native who had spent a decade ministering in the Diocese of Cincinnati, arrived as Santa Fe’s first bishop. He was hardly enchanted. After a grueling journey by land, sea and foot, he discovered his cathedral, La Parróquia. His flock knelt on mud floors, and when it rained he had to carry an umbrella—inside the church!

The bishop began dreaming of a grand stone cathedral worthy of the city’s name. But where would the faithful attend Mass while the cathedral was under construction? Ingenuity struck: Build the new church over the old Parróquia. Its roof would serve as scaffolding for the French Romanesque cathedral, an architectural anomaly in this town of adobe buildings.

After 18 years of dreaming, Bishop Lamy laid the cornerstone in October 1869. Less than a week later, vandals tore it up and stole the sacred objects inside. It was a premonition of things to come.

The first architect, an American, was fired and replaced by two Frenchmen, Antoine Mouly and his son, Projectus. In 1874, the elder Mouly went blind and returned to France. Meanwhile, the building fund shriveled up and construction was halted for several years. In 1875, Bishop Lamy became archbishop of the Southwestern see, which then included Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.

Before work could resume, Projectus Mouly died, and in 1879 a third French architect, François Mallet, was hired. As in a scene from a Wild West movie, he became entangled with the wife of the archbishop’s nephew, who shot Mallet dead. The nephew pled temporary insanity and was acquitted.

But the cathedral went on. Clergy were placed in charge of construction, and the indefatigable archbishop continued begging funds, even donating his carriage to be raffled off at a fiesta. His home diocese in France took up collections, and local Jewish merchants lent him money but later forgave the debt. There was also the padre who “gambled on God” and won.

Meanwhile, the cathedral of honey-colored sandstone kept reaching heavenward. In 1884, when the new nave was near completion, the adobe bricks from the old nave were carted out the front door of the new church. In 1886, Archbishop Lamy blessed the unfinished cathedral (the adobe sanctuary and transepts would remain intact for another 80 years).

The first bishop of the Wild West died in 1888 and was buried under his dream cathedral. In 1895, the cathedral was consecrated, 26 years after the cornerstone was laid.

Our Lady of Conquering Love

La Conquistadora, the nation’s oldest Marian statue, reigns from the nation’s oldest Marian shrine, the 1714 adobe chapel of Santa Fe’s Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. But the title La Conquistadorahas nothing to do with conquering others.

“The oldest prayers that were attributed to her say, ‘Oh, lovely lady, you conquer us with your immaculate lovingness,’” explains Msgr. Jerome. “It’s a spiritual conquest of hatreds and divisions.” In the 1980s, former Archbishop Robert Sánchez gave her an additional title, “Our Lady of Peace,” to explain her role more aptly.

Carved from a willow tree in Spain, the nearly 400-year-old statue is a bulto a vestir (a clothed statue). And like a Spanish queen, Our Lady has crowns and rosaries galore, as well as several hundred gowns, including a cape made from vestments worn by Archbishop Lamy. Her gowns and those of the tiny Jesus statue in her arms change with the liturgical seasons and other special events.

The statue stands in a nicho of a historic reredos (altar screen), crafted from sections of the original high altar of the 1714 church. Beneath her is a bulto(wooden statue) of Jesús Nazareno, patron of thePenitentes, a New Mexico confraternity devoted to the sufferings of Christ.

The Legend Continues

Although Jean-Baptiste Lamy is immortalized in Willa Cather’s 1927 classic,Death Comes for the Archbishop, the landmark cathedral remains his greatest legacy. The truncated bell towers—the archbishop had envisioned soaring spires but the coffers dried up—are a sermon in themselves: God’s work is never done.

“In 1920, Franciscans again assumed responsibility for the cathedral, but this time the friars were from the Cincinnati Province of St. John the Baptist,” says Father Crispin, 86, who came West in 1954 and retired there several years ago. “In 1985, the Cincinnati friars in New Mexico and Arizona formed the Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe.”

The Franciscan revival didn’t stop there. In 1919, Father Albert Thomas Daeger, O.F.M., a Cincinnati friar serving in New Mexico, was named archbishop. In memory of the Franciscans killed during the Pueblo Revolt, he erected the Cross of the Martyrs on a hill overlooking Santa Fe.

The Cathedral Today

Archbishops came and went; renovations were made to the cathedral and then redone by the next shepherd. In 1966, the remaining sections of the 1714 adobe church were demolished, except for La Conquistadora Chapel.

“We’re so grateful circumstances prevented Bishop Lamy from finishing the cathedral,” says Msgr. Jerome, 58. “New Mexico mission architecture is the only indigenous church architecture in the United States, and the chapel is a marvelous grounding in our Spanish colonial roots.”

In the mid-1980s, former Archbishop Robert Sánchez began restoring the 1,200-seat cathedral to its present glory. The interior, a blend of adobe, French Romanesque and modern architecture, represents the various cultures who worship here. An estimated 25 percent of the cathedral’s 1,500 registered families are descended from La Parróquia’s first parishioners.

In the sanctuary, two large oil paintings that once graced La Parróquia, The Agony in the Garden and The Arrest of Jesus, proclaim Our Lord’s sacrifice. The works of renowned artist Pascual Pérez, they date to 1710 and were brought by oxcart from Mexico in several rolls, which were stitched back together in Santa Fe.

The cathedral also features modern-day Spanish colonial art, a traditional form of religious folk art handed down from generation to generation. In the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, an exquisite reredos (altar screen) by Arlene Cisneros Sena depicts the life of St. Joseph. In one scene, Joseph is teaching Jesus carpentry, the nails in Jesus’ hands foretelling his crucifixion.

Adorning the nave are retablos (two-dimensional paintings on wood) of the Stations of the Cross by Marie Romero Cash. In Spanish colonial style, the retablosare edged with painted red curtains that add even more drama to Christ’s passion.

In between the Stations are Bishop Lamy’s French-imported, stained-glass windows of the apostles. Americanmade clerestory windows overhead depict the coats of arms of modern-day apostles, the archbishops of Santa Fe.

And to celebrate the cuarto centenario, several old church furnishings have been “rescued” and restored. Up from a basement came the throne of Placid Louis Chapelle, the third archbishop. A large French-made Crucifixion scene was resurrected from storage in a bell tower and placed above the confessionals. “It’s hard to minimize sins with a statue of Jesus crucified overhead,” says one parishioner.

Once obliterated with white paint, the 1908 stencils of the Adoring Angels from the Book of Revelation have reappeared over the altar. And if ever doors talk, it’s here. The enormous front doors (tall enough for current Archbishop Michael Sheehan to enter the cathedral on a horse!) present in 20 bronze plaques, executed by Santa Fe artist Donna Quasthoff, the intertwining religious and civic history of New Mexico. What other cathedral boldly proclaims its statehood?

But nothing catches the eye faster than the sanctuary’s great reredos, the work of renowned iconographer and Franciscan Brother Robert Lentz. Titled Saints of the Americas, the floor-to-ceiling reredos depicts in Byzantine-inspired icons 13 saints of North and South America, as well as Our Lady of Guadalupe. The icons’ 23-karat gold-leaf background shines as brightly as the New Mexico sun.

“Not all of the saints were canonized or even beatified when it was completed in 1986,” says Father Crispin, “but we were counting on it!” Mother Katharine Drexel, who built St. Catherine’s Indian School in Santa Fe in 1887 and sometimes worshiped at the cathedral, was canonized in 2000, and Junípero Serra, founder of the California missions, was beatified in 1988.

In the middle of the reredos is a nicho (niche) with a blue-robed statue of St. Francis. After the new cathedral was built, the ancient statue was given to San Francisco Church in tiny Golden, New Mexico. Retrieving that statue required paying a ransom!

“The priest gave the statue back, but the right arm was missing,” laughs Father Crispin, rector at the time. “The arms are removable, and he wanted $500 for the right arm!”

Forever Franciscan

Due to a decline in Franciscan clergy, the cathedral was again assigned to diocesan priests in 1999. But the spirit of St. Francis lives on. The cathedral is located on San Francisco Street, and the archdiocesan coat of arms depicts a crucifix rising from the crossed, nailpierced hands of Christ and St. Francis.

A six-foot-tall replica of the San Damiano Cross in Assisi dominates the sanctuary arch; a resplendor (sunburst) behind the cross draws eyes up to Our Lord. The Light of Christ preaches the gospel in the stained-glass windows of St. Francis and St. Clare, while wood carvings simulating the cord of a Franciscan habit decorate the altar, pulpit, lectern and other furnishings.

When Pope Benedict XVI made the cathedral a minor basilica in 2005, the archdiocese took as its motto “Rebuild My Church,” echoing the words of Christ to Francis. Even the birds seem to congregate in greater numbers during the annual parish celebration on October 4, the feast of St. Francis!

“¡Todos somos Franciscanos aquí! Everyone’s a Franciscan here!” says Msgr. Jerome. “This is the Royal City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi. It’s been that way for 400 years and hopefully will be for another 400 years to come.”

Cathedral photos in this article are from the 400th anniversary calendar available at or by calling (505) 955-8879. The cathedral office can be contacted at (505) 982-5619.

Marion Amberg is a freelance writer from New Mexico. LeRoy N. Sanchez is a Santa Fe professional photographer and a native New Mexican.