January 19, 2018

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Willa Cather’s portrayal of Archbishop Lamy of Santa Fe

John F. FinkAfter writing last week’s column about Sister Blandina Seagle’s exploits in the Old West, I decided to stay with adventures in the Old West. I bought from Amazon and downloaded the Kindle edition of Willa Cather’s book Death Comes for the Archbishop (it cost all of $1.98), the fictionalized story of Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy. The book has been selling ever since it was written in 1927, and for many good reasons.

Archbishop Lamy (Archbishop Jean Marie Latour in the novel) was the first apostolic vicar for the New Mexico territory after the United States acquired the territory from Mexico in 1849. He became the first bishop of Santa Fe when it was made a diocese in 1853, and then archbishop in 1875 when the pope made Santa Fe a province that included Arizona and Colorado. He retired in 1885 and died in 1888.

That’s the thumbnail biography. But a lot happened to him during the 37 years he lived in New Mexico. I became interested in him the first time I visited Santa Fe many years ago, and saw the magnificent cathedral he constructed. If you have been there, I’m sure you will agree.

One of the things that occurred to me while reading Cather’s book was how long it took to travel back in the 19th century. Although Lamy was named apostolic vicar in 1849, he didn’t make it to the territory until 1851. He was born in France in 1814, was ordained a priest in 1838, came to the United States in 1839, and spent 11 years in Ohio before he left for New Mexico.

There were two ways to get there. One was the Santa Fe Trail from St. Louis, but it was dangerous because of Comanche Indian raids. Lamy chose the other route: down the rivers to New Orleans, then a boat to Galveston, across Texas to San Antonio, and then up into New Mexico. Because of mishaps along the way (his boat sank and he hurt his leg when he jumped from an overturning wagon), it took him nearly a year.

Once he arrived in Santa Fe, the local clergy refused to accept him. They thought that they were under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Durango. So Lamy got on a mule and rode 1,500 miles to Durango to show the bishop his papers from the pope. The bishop of Durango resigned his responsibilities to Lamy.

That didn’t mean that the Mexican priests in Santa Fe were ready to accept a Frenchman as their bishop. It took a while for Lamy to win them over, especially some who insisted that celibacy for priests might be OK for a Frenchman but not for the Spanish. There was a schism, and Bishop Lamy traveled back to Europe to recruit priests to replace those who opposed him. He also brought back Sisters of Loretto from Kentucky to help him.

Bishop Lamy was a friend of Kit Carson, who had a home then in Taos (it’s still open to tourists today).

Cather’s book tells of many of Bishop Lamy’s adventures in Santa Fe.†

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