January 2012 Print

Archbishop Lamy: Iron Will and Profound Faith

Christopher Check

When Catholic Americans imagine the evangelization of the American West, it is Spanish Franciscans who first spring to mind. And well they should. With the very same spirit of risk taking that fired the hearts of Franciscans laboring for the conversion of Muslims during the Crusades, Spanish Franciscans courageously and tirelessly brought the Gospel to North America. The names of countless towns, villages, and cities in Arizona, Texas, California, and New Mexico bear witness to centuries of Spanish dominion, for so many of these places began as missions, presidios, and pueblos.

Spanish Influence Waned

Following the Thirty Years War, the Spanish Empire began her three-centuries-long decline, and the influence of the Spanish missions in North America waned. While the California missions founded by the Majorcan Blessed Junipero Serra and his successors endured for a time, others, such as the 18th-century San Antonio Missions, were fairly rapid failures, unable as they were, to withstand the depredations of the savage Apaches and Comanches. (Tourists to San Antonio today too often overlook these beautifully restored jewels just south of the city.) A century before the San Antonio Missions, the Pueblo Revolt forced Spanish missionaries and colonists to flee the city of Santa Fe for twelve years, delaying, as it would turn out, for another century and a half the establishment of Santa Fe as a diocese.

By the time Texas, California, and the Southwest were ceded to the United States with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, there had not been any serious European presence in the High Southwest for perhaps 80 years. (The final few Franciscans withdrew in the 1830s.) Lacking the regular guidance of a strong shepherd (their bishop was in Durango, Mexico, 1000 miles to the south) the Mexicans and Indians of the New Mexico Territory descended into a mix of Catholicism, pagan superstition, disordered penitential rites, loose morals, and among their mestizo clergy, profligacy and disobedience.

A Bishop to Restore Order

In 1849 the American bishops sent recommendations to the Archbishop of Baltimore for candidates to assume episcopal authority of those new territories now under American political authority. The man chosen by Pope Pius IX to restore order to the troubled region of the American High Southwest and at last to solidify the Faith there was not a Spaniard, however. He was a Frenchman. Jean Baptiste Lamy had little idea growing up in the small town of Lampdes, where his parents were landowning peasants and his father the mayor, that he would one day be the first archbishop of Santa Fe. God knew, however, and when one looks at the heroic life of Lamy—the physical privations, the grave perils, the threats to life (including cholera, Indian attacks, shipwreck, and an assassination attempt) but also the patience, charity, perseverance, and foresight Lamy exercised in bringing the people of his diocese into the embrace of Holy Mother Church—the only explanation is the deliberate hand of Providence. The young Jean Baptiste grew up in a family suffused with Christian piety. One of his brothers became a priest, and his sister, who died in New Orleans, a nun. Another brother, who married, fathered two priests and a nun. Such an abundance of fervor is less surprising when we learn that Lampdes is in the Auvergne region of France, which gave the Church 22 canonized bishops and 5 canonized monks, to say nothing of Pope Urban II’s Council of Clermont that launched the First Crusade.

Lamy and his lifelong comrade, Joseph Machebeuf, who would become the first Bishop of Denver, were Sulpician-trained priests from the seminary in Clermont. In 1839 they answered the call of another Frenchman, Bishop Jean Baptise Purcell, Bishop of Cincinnati, to serve as missionaries on the Ohio frontier. The freshly ordained priests, doubtless bearing in mind Luke 9:61-62, left their homes in May of 1839 without bidding farewell to their families, because Machebeuf’s father did not approve of his becoming a missionary in America. After the crossing, during which Lamy was perpetually seasick (yet studying day and night to learn English), they landed in New York, from where they traveled by canal barge to pay respects to Archbishop Eccleston in Baltimore. From there an overland journey took them across the Alleghenies to Pittsburgh where the winding Ohio River at last delivered them to Cincinnati.

Vicariate Apostolic for Santa Fe

For all Lamy and Machebeuf knew, they would serve out their priesthoods on the Ohio frontier. The outcome of the Mexican War, however, found Lamy invited by the Holy See to establish a Vicariate Apostolic in Santa Fe, New Mexico. On November 24, 1850, Lamy was consecrated a bishop by Bishop John Martin Spalding of Louisville, Kentucky. The day immediately following his consecration, he set off by riverboat for New Orleans, leaving word for Machebeuf, who had agreed to join him as his Vicar General, to catch up with him as soon as he had settled his affairs in Sandusky.

The journey to Santa Fe would count as the adventure of anyone’s lifetime, but it was one of many for Lamy. Lingering in New Orleans only long enough to arrange passage across the Gulf of Mexico, he boarded the Palmetto, bound for Indianola by way of Galveston. Unbeknownst to Lamy, the steamer had been condemned as not seaworthy. She ran aground and wrecked on a sandbar off the coast of Indianola. Salvaging only one of his trunks containing some vestments and books, Lamy was forced to borrow the funds necessary to get to San Antonio where in time he was reunited with Machebeuf. They studied Spanish and waited until May of 1851 for a U.S. Army escort first to El Paso and then on to Santa Fe, where he arrived on Sunday, August 9, 1851. Nearly nine months had passed since his episcopal consecration the preceding year.

Rejected Authority

Lamy’s arrival in Santa Fe coincided with a drought-relieving downpour, and he was welcomed to Santa Fe with a grand parade, but the joy was not lasting. It was not long before the ranking clergyman, Monsignor Juan Felipe Ortiz, rejected his authority. So far as Ortiz was concerned, Santa Fe remained part of the Diocese of Durango, an arrangement that suited Ortiz immensely, for he almost never saw, much less answered to his ordinary. His rectory was lavishly outfitted, while the parish church of Saint Francis suffered a leaking roof, a dirt floor, and deteriorating wax statues left behind by the Franciscans. What was worse, he and his clergy had lost their religious fervor and had abandoned preaching. Most troublesome of these priests was the pastor of Taos, Fr. Antonio José Martínez, an intelligent and self-educated, but politically ambitious cleric, who immediately saw his secular fiefdom threatened by Lamy’s arrival. In the carefully chosen language of the best of Church bureaucrats, Martínez wrote to the Bishop of Durango predicting conflict.

Lamy also wrote to Bishop of Durango, José Antonio Laureano López de Zubíria y Escalante. When several months brought no response, the new Bishop of Santa Fe, whose authority was still not recognized by his own clergy, mounted his horse, left Machebeuf in charge of the Vicariate and began another journey, this one 1000 miles to the south, to Durango. Five weeks later, Lamy was on Zubíria’s doorstep, documents in hand explaining to the Bishop of Durango 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, however, Zubíria conceded. Lamy returned to Santa Fe in January of 1852 with written instruction from the Bishop of Durango to the clergy of Santa Fe to render obedience to Lamy.

Unpopular Bishop

The first order of business was a series of disciplines for what Lamy called his “incapable and unworthy clergy.” Lamy was unpopular with his clergy and no small number of their followers. They resisted the new bishop’s efforts at reform, restoration of orthodox liturgies, and enforcement of the precepts of the Church. Lamy persevered, however, and even as he was cleaning house, he was planting the seeds of what would be officially named the Diocese of Santa Fe in August 1853. He brought in nuns to run a girls’ school and established a boys’ school—where Latin instruction began at the age of 12—with an eye on vocations. He restored balance to parish tithes and redistributed the surplus among the poorer parishes.

Hostile historians have declared that Lamy’s enforcement of the tithe was burdensome to the local poor, but the charge bears little scrutiny. It is true that Lamy withheld sacraments from parishioners who refused to follow the precept to support the Church, but the tithes were hardly onerous and, as Lamy’s abundant correspondence makes clear, the evangelization of these new territories required the material support of the faithful. As it was, many of the funds Lamy needed to govern, educate, and sanctify the people of his diocese came from France and Rome.

Made of Sterner Stuff

For the next decade, Lamy fought a constant battle with his 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 of which Lamy, as bishop, was owner. They even appealed to Pio Nono, making false accusations including one that Machebeuf had broken the seal of the confessional.

It must be said that without Machebeuf, Lamy would not have achieved so much good work. His faithful Vicar General made similar long journeys across the diocese, as well as to Kentucky and Ohio to recruit clergy and religious. Further, he was ever there to support Bishop Lamy with wise counsel and solid encouragement. In the person of Machebeuf we see another mark of Lamy’s greatness as bishop: the capacity to select the right clergy.

Testimonies to Lamy’s Iron Will and Profound Faith

Today, rising high above the adobe houses, shops, and businesses of Santa Fe is Lamy’s magnificent Romanesque cathedral of St. Francis of Assisi, which was elevated to a basilica by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. The decidedly European church, along with the neo-Gothic Loretto Chapel, inspired by the Sainte-Chapelle and home to the famous spiral staircase of mysterious construction, are towering testimonies to Lamy’s iron will and profound faith.

Anyone looking for a more detailed grasp of Lamy’s, and indeed of the French’s, influence in 19th-century Catholic America must read Paul Horgan’s masterpiece of narrative and research, Lamy of Santa Fe, for which Horgan won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976. Horgan’s book is an example of a rare kind of Catholic biography that comprises a perfect synthesis of piety and scholarship.

Much Inspiration

There is much inspiration to draw from the story of the French bishop on the American frontier: courage in adversity, for example, and firmness and charity in dealing with disobedience. At the center of Lamy’s greatness and in the midst his magnificent achievements we can locate a humble model for everyday living. The fruit of Lamy’s prayer life and sacramental life was the peace of soul necessary to make sense of and control a bewildering myriad of responsibilities. Who among us does not feel beset, as Lamy must have, by an overwhelming list of duties and concerns? These anxieties are exacerbated by the pace of modern communication technology, which prods us to seek immediate resolution to our problems. Yet, with the perseverance and patience that are the fruits of a peaceful interior life, anyone, be he a bishop or a layman, can build something beautiful, be it an archdiocese, a marriage and a family, or a soul, for God.



Two mysteries surround the spiral staircase in the Loretto Chapel: the identity of its builder and the physics of its construction.

With the 1851 appointment of French-born Jean Baptiste Lamy as the Bishop of Santa Fe came changes to the cultural and built environment of Santa Fe. Bishop Lamy introduced European masons to the area who constructed the Romanesque-Revival Cathedral of Saint Francis and the Gothic-Revival Loretto Chapel. Landscape details such as wrought-iron fences with masonry piers and a gazebo that housed military band concerts in the middle of a then fenced plaza similarly suggested the influence of current Anglo-American cultural values.

When the Loretto Chapel was completed in 1878, there was no way to access the choir loft 22 feet above. Carpenters were called in to address the problem, but they all concluded access to the loft would have to be via ladder as a staircase would interfere with the interior space of the small chapel.

Legend says that to find a solution to the seating problem, the Sisters of the chapel made a novena to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. On the ninth and final day of prayer, a man appeared at the chapel with a donkey and a toolbox looking for work. Months later, the elegant circular staircase was completed, and the carpenter disappeared without pay or thanks. After searching for the man (an ad even ran in the local newspaper) and finding no trace of him, some concluded that he was St. Joseph himself, having come in answer to the Sisters’ prayers.

The stairway’s carpenter, whoever he was, built a magnificent structure. The design was innovative for the time and some of the design considerations still perplex experts today.

The staircase has two 360-degree turns and no visible means of support. Also, it is said that the staircase was built without nails—only wooden pegs. Questions also surround the number of stair risers relative to the height of the choir loft and about the types of wood and other materials used in the stairway’s construction.