Men travel faster now, but I do not know if they go to better things.
— Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop
Of the historical figures associated with this region, Jean-Baptiste Lamy is perhaps one of the most famous but least known. He arrived a year after New Mexico became a territory of the United States, and his story spans a turbulent era in the Southwest when Spanish and Mexican rule were giving way, for better or worse, to American and European influences.
Lamy (pronounced lah-MEE) came to New Mexico in 1851, was named archbishop in 1875, and retired 10 years later. To this day, tourists visit the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi (more commonly known as St. Francis Cathedral), which Lamy was responsible for building. Another nearby Lamy-related destination is Bishop’s Lodge. According to Santa Fe New Mexican archives, Lamy purchased property on a hill above Tesuque Creek and built Villa Pintoresca, two small rooms separated by a hallway leading to a chapel. (Currently owned by Auberge Resorts, of Mill Valley, California, the site is scheduled to reopen in 2020 as the Bishop’s Lodge Ranch, Resort & Spa.)
Forty years ago, North Carolina native Rick Hendricks arrived in New Mexico himself. He earned a Ph.D. in Ibero-American studies from the University of New Mexico in 1985 and studied the history of Spain in the Americas at Universidad de Sevilla. Hendricks and Claude Fouillade (retired from language and linguistics department at New Mexico State University) have been translating and editing 100 letters representing correspondence by and about Lamy, documents that are held at the University of Notre Dame Archives. Hendricks speaks at noon on Wednesday, Oct. 2, at the New Mexico History Museum.
Although Lamy was sent to this region by church officials in Rome, locals didn’t readily accept his authority. So he set off to visit the Bishop of Durango in an attempt to legitimize his standing. These and other travails in Lamy’s life are laid out in his many letters, including those written to figures like John Baptist Purcell, Archbishop of Cincinnati — the model for the character Father Ferrand in the prologue of Willa Cather’s novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop. Cather based the book’s main character, Father Jean Marie Latour, on Lamy himself.
During my absence, the greatest number of them did all they could to make the people believe that I had no authority, that I never would come back. At my return when they saw the letters of the Bishop of Durango, telling them that himself has no more jurisdiction in N. Mexico that I was their lawful ecclesiastic superior, and ending his letter by recommending them most earnestly to submit to my authority, then they showed me good face, though I have good reasons to think that they will submit rather by force than by goodwill. [Lamy letter to Purcell, dated Feb. 1, 1852.]
Different paths toward a fuller understanding
In the lecture, Hendricks will touch on “whatever I think is new from this big stack of letters,” he says. “I think part of what I want to do is say, if you’re interested in knowing more about Lamy, the best approach is to read his own words.”
Many who are familiar with Lamy’s story side with Padre Antonio José Martinez, a local priest who defied the bishop, characterizing him as little more than a symbol of the faraway, not terribly relevant authority of Rome. Martinez’s relationship with Lamy remained fairly contentious.
The [New] Mexicans care very much for their religion but unfortunately a large number of them have forgotten to practice it. [Lamy to Purcell, Aug. 15, 1851]
Hendricks, the New Mexico state records administrator and former state historian, sees Lamy and Martinez nonjudgmentally. “The popular view is that Martinez was standing up for his culture, very much a nationalist. You see Lamy come, trained by Jesuits, loyal to the Pope. Martinez would have said that a member of the faithful would have direct access to God. What Martinez was embracing was almost a Protestant idea.” And Hendricks acknowledges that Lamy “had nothing good to say about Protestants.”
He adds, regarding Lamy and Santa Feans, “I’ve always thought that the crux of the conflict was not, ‘I’m French and you’re Mexican,’ but rather, ‘I’m the bishop and you’re not.’ ” Hendricks sees the zeitgeist as central to Lamy’s standing. “I don’t think it helped that not only do you have Lamy coming, but you have this storming of the gates by people moving from the East, many of whom were Protestant. ... One thing people don’t like is when people start monkeying with their religion, with centuries of tradition.”
It may not have helped that Lamy was troubled by certain New Mexican practices in regard to Catholicism. For instance, he was uncomfortable with rituals of the Penitentes, a group of Roman Catholic men in Northern and Central New Mexico and southern Colorado that practiced good works but also engaged in self-flagellation. He was also concerned that celibacy was not being observed by the New Mexico laity.
Hendricks points out that the latter, at least, would not have been a new issue for Lamy: In France, rural clergy had the same problem. “In late 18th-century France, a rule was passed that you couldn’t have a woman under 50 who was not a family member living in your home,” he says.
And it should be noted that although there was friction between Lamy and the population, there were also evident instances of mutual concern and empathy.
we have had very hard Spring. ... last week we had a novena of masses in one of our chapels dedicated to our Lady del Rosario. [Lamy to Purcell, Santa Fe, June 20, 1859]
Hendricks thinks a view of Lamy as an outsider making judgments and changes willy-nilly is based on a misunderstanding of his assigned role; he sees a figure struggling to understand the region and its people even as he manifested a preconceived view of the way things should be.
Lamy’s acceptance into the local culture may have been more successful if he had acted differently, but Hendricks says, “the converse is also true. If [the locals] had received him respectfully and stuck with him, if they had said, ‘Hmm, we’re just going to send someone to Durango and see what’s up,’ the outcome may have been different” for all concerned. It should also be acknowledged that Pueblo people were in the region long before Europeans and resented the prohibition of Native religion. Complexities of faith, tradition, and culture were many and abiding.
An unflinching view of Cather
As for Cather’s famous novel, Hendricks acknowledges that even though “some of [her] descriptions of the landscape in Death Comes for the Archbishop are quite beautiful ... it would be hard to say her depictions of Hispanics and Native Americans are anything but upsetting.” Regarding Cather’s writing in general, however, Hendricks says, “If you find [the novel] offensive, go read some of her other works. Her power as a describer of the natural environment is amazing.”
“Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky,” she writes in Death Comes for the Archbishop.
The letters translated and edited by Hendricks and Fouillade offer interesting parallels between what Lamy said and what Cather portrayed.
Lamy: There is a great talk here of the Pacific rail-road, and some hopes that it will run through New Mexico. Then you might come and see our beautiful mountains, and breathe the purest kind of air. We are about ten thousand feet above the level of the sea, for this reason, I suppose, the air is so pure and so good. [to Antoine Blanc, June 1, 1853]
Cather: The sky was as full of motion and change as the desert beneath it was monotonous and still, — and there was so much sky, more than at sea, more than anywhere else in the world. The plain was there, under one’s feet, but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud. [Death Comes for the Archbishop]
Hendricks is intrigued that Cather and Paul Horgan, Lamy’s biographer, were each Pulitzer Prize recipients and saw in Lamy an important figure.
Horgan takes fragments of the letters “and tells part of the story that goes with that snippet. So all through the book there are little pieces taken … but when you see the actual document, you realize there’s far more to the story,” Hendricks says. And for better or worse, it’s the last biography that’s been written about the bishop.
The collection will help bring that scholarship up to date — and the letters, when Hendricks finds a publisher, will appear as written (as they do here), Lamy’s mistakes and all. “You can get in the head of the person who’s writing,” Hendricks says. “There’s an opportunity to learn more about this particular character. Lamy was a very important figure in New Mexico history. We have his words.” And the letters include details that haven’t been explored. “There are whole things he’s involved in that were of no interest to Horgan. Traveling to France, money issues, family issues, getting books from France ... and no one is probably ever going to write another biography of him.”
When asked what people may be missing about Lamy, if, when they think of him, what mainly comes to mind are the cathedral, the lodge, and his rigid Catholicism, Hendricks thinks a moment and says, “What is more reflective of him as a person is his garden, and his retreat home.”
He domesticated and developed the native wildflowers. He had one hill-side solidly clad with that low-growing purple verbena which mats over the hills of New Mexico. [Death Comes for the Archbishop]
At his retreat, “Lamy would interact with people from Tesuque. They would go fishing. Yes, the cathedral is austere and very French. But we know, for example, he had a close relationship with one of the Spiegelbergs [successful Santa Fe traders] because they could speak French to each other ... and they both enjoyed gardening.”
Whether pondering the biographical Bishop Jean Baptiste-Lamy or Willa Cather’s fictional Jean Marie Latour, the story of a French Catholic prelate who establishes a diocese and becomes its first archbishop in Northern New Mexico is a complicated one. It’s hard to know if Lamy was the severe person some suspect, or if he might be closer to Cather’s and Horgan’s romanticized version, or someone in between, but the story is one that deserves telling.
Hendricks thinks Lamy’s own words should be given a chance to tell it. ◀
▼ Lamy's Letters: A New Look at Santa Fe’s First Bishop
▼ Friends of History Lecture Series, presented by Rick Hendricks
▼ Noon Wednesday, Oct. 2.
▼ New Mexico History Museum, 113 Lincoln Ave.
▼ No charge; 505-476-5200, nmhistorymuseum.org