When we imagine the evangelization of the American Southwest, it is Spanish Franciscans who readily come to mind. Yet the slow decline of the Spanish Empire together with a revolt against the colonial administration caused the region to be almost without European influence from the mid-eighteenth century to the cession of the region to the United States in 1848. With their bishop a thousand miles to the south in Durango, the Mexicans and Indians of the New Mexico Territory descended into a mix of Christian faith, pagan superstition, disordered penitential rites, loose morals, and, among their mestizo clergy, profligacy and disobedience. The man chosen by Blessed Pius IX to restore the Faith to the troubled region was not a Spaniard, however, but the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Lamy, who died on the 13th of February in the year of Grace 1888. His story is an epic of perseverance as great as any in the American West, indeed, greater, for his sights were not aimed at high adventure or great fortune, but always on the Kingdom of God.
Lamy came of age in Auvergne, the part of France famous for the Council of Clermont that had launched the First Crusade. With the same white-hot love of Jesus Christ that fired the crusaders, Lamy and his lifelong comrade, Joseph Machebeuf, answered in 1839 the call to serve as missionaries on the Ohio frontier. The freshly-ordained priests left their homes without bidding farewell to their families; Machebeuf’s father did not approve of his becoming a missionary in America. After the crossing, during which Lamy studied English day and night despite constant sea-sickness, they landed in New York and made their way across the Alleghenies. Soon Lamy was in Danville, Ohio, overseeing the construction of six parishes at once in spite of serious financial difficulties.
For all Lamy knew, he would serve out his priesthood on the Ohio frontier. The outcome of the Mexican War, however, required a determined bishop to establish a diocese in Santa Fe. Determined he certainly was. Only one day after his episcopal consecration, he set off by riverboat for New Orleans, where he boarded the Palmetto, bound for Indianola by way of Galveston. The steamer wrecked on a sandbar off the coast of Texas. Salvaging one of his trunks containing some vestments and books, Lamy was forced to borrow the funds necessary to get him San Antonio where, reunited with Machebeuf, he took up Spanish, and waited until May of 1851 for a U.S. Army escort to El Paso, and then on to Santa Fe, where he arrived on Sunday, 9 August 1851.
Lamy’s arrival in Santa Fe coincided with a drought-relieving downpour, and he was welcomed there with a grand parade, but the joy was not lasting. The ranking clergyman, Monsignor Juan Felipe Ortiz, challenged his authority, declaring that Santa Fe remained under the rule of the far-off Bishop of Durango, an arrangement that suited Ortiz immensely. His rectory was lavishly outfitted, while the parish church of Saint Francis suffered a leaking roof, a dirt floor, and deteriorating wax statues. What was worse, he and his clergy had abandoned preaching and taken mistresses, some of whom openly administered rectory business. Other clergy fleeced their parishioners to support their gambling and drinking habits. Most troublesome was the pastor of Taos, Father Antonio José Martínez, a politically ambitious cleric who saw his fiefdom threatened by Lamy’s arrival.
When Lamy’s letters to Bishop Zubiría y Escalante of Durango went unanswered, he mounted his horse and began the thousand-mile trek south. Five weeks later, he was on Zubíria’s doorstep, documents in hand explaining to the bishop that his jurisdiction now stopped at the Rio Grande. Conversing in Latin, the two men came to see that Zubíria had never received word from Rome on the redrawing of diocesan boundaries. After expressing his frustration Zubíria conceded. Never one to linger, Lamy got back on his horse and returned to his diocese in January of 1852, with written instruction from the Bishop of Durango to the clergy of Santa Fe to render obedience to Lamy.
He immediately imposed a series of disciplines, not only for what Lamy called his “incapable and unworthy clergy” but also for a bizarre cult called the Penitentes who practiced secret rites of severe corporal penance including brutal scourging and crucifixions. Lamy was unpopular with his clergy and no small number of their followers, who resisted the new bishop’s efforts at reform, restoration of orthodox liturgies, and enforcement of the precepts of the Church.
Yet Lamy persevered, and even as he was cleaning house, he was planting the seeds of a revived diocese. “So deplorable,” Lamy wrote, was “the state of immorality in matters of sex,” that among his first acts was to bring in nuns to run a school for girls. He established a boys’ school—where Latin instruction began at the age of 12—with an eye to vocations. He restored balance to parish tithes and redistributed the surplus among the poorer parishes, and raised additional contributions from benefactors in France and Rome. For the next decade, Lamy fought a constant battle with the recalcitrant Mexican clergy. They tried every form of intrigue, from agitating the people against Lamy to appealing to the local secular authority to confiscate the Church properties. They even appealed to Rome, falsely accusing Machebeuf of breaking the seal of the confessional.
A lesser bishop would have capitulated. But Lamy was made of the sternest stuff. The strength of his interior life not only fired his heart for the difficult work of a bishop but also furnished him with the necessary peace of soul. His indefatigable pursuit of so much varied work at one time is astonishing. Even as he was putting out fires fanned by his recalcitrant Mexican clergy, he was recruiting sisters for his convents and loyal priests from France, Rome, and Spain for his parishes. He established hospitals and a seminary, and made journey after journey crisscrossing a diocese many times larger than his native country. At its greatest extent, the new Archdiocese of Santa Fe included what are today the states of New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado, and two of Lamy’s French clergy went on to take charge of the new dioceses of Denver (Machebeuf) and Tuscon (Salpointe).
The magnificent Romanesque Cathedral of Saint Francis of Assisi, built by Lamy, was elevated to a Basilica by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Towering over the adobe homes and shops of Santa Fe, the church is a powerful testimony to Lamy’s iron will. Americans who have never been to Santa Fe may well know Lamy through Willa Cather’s superb union of storytelling, mysticism, and scene painting, Death Comes for the Archbishop, in which Jean-Baptiste Lamy is romanticized as Jean Latour.
Lamy’s life, extraordinary as it was, is nonetheless a model for daily living. The fruits of Lamy’s prayer and sacramental life were the gifts of perseverance, patience, and peace of soul that keep a soldier of Christ focused on the eternal even amidst the unending trials of life. So equipped, any Catholic, whether a humble layman or a great bishop facing a bewildering myriad of responsibilities, tasks, and enemies ever seeking to undo his work, can build something beautiful for God, be it an archdiocese, a marriage and a family, or a soul.