Churchman Of The Desert

Winter storms in the Gulf of Mexico overtook a small ship beating her way from New Orleans to Galveston in January, 1851. Despite the fact that she had been condemned as unsafe, she carried 100 passengers. One of these was a French priest, 37 years old, who on November 24, 1850, in Cincinnati, Ohio, had been consecrated a bishop. Carrying with him the papal bull of Pius IX, which appointed him as vicar apostolic of New Mexico, he was on his way to Santa Fe. In the icy darkness of gales at sea he faced uncertainties, immediate and remote, for the ship held small promise of delivering him safely to shore, and he knew little enough of what might await him if he should survive the voyage.

In fact, he was traveling toward a job of work vast in scale. His new ecclesiastical province embraced a corner of present-day Nevada, about a fourth of Colorado, and all of Arizona and New Mexico except the southern strip which would presently be added by the Gadsden Purchase. Taken together, these lands were larger than the whole of his native France.

Their physical character was formidable—great elevated deserts divided at far intervals by forbidding mountains and threaded by only a few long, meager rivers with narrow belts of green life. There were few towns, and almost all of these lay widely separated along the valley of the Rio Grande in New Mexico. The population consisted largely of Spanish-Mexicans and Pueblo Indians. Until the year before they had belonged to the Mexican Republic; but in 1848 their territory had come to the United States as part of the settlement following the war with Mexico.

Previously, New Mexican ecclesiastical affairs had rested under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Durango, in central Mexico, 1,500 miles from Santa Fe. When New Mexico and her adjacent areas became United States territory, not only civil affairs, but also the administration of the Church came within the new national frame. It was as a consequence of the Mexican War that social and religious conditions in the great Latin and Indian Southwest arrested the attention of the American bishops meeting in national council at Baltimore in the summer of 1819.

Periodically ever since 1630 the great lost province of Spain, and later of Mexico, on the northern Rio Grande, had asked for a bishop of its own to be seated at Santa Fe, but to no avail. Generations went by without an episcopal visitation to the exiled North, while mission friars struggled to hold their authority against the civil governors and even broke into quarrels with their distant and invisible bishop at Durango. In the early nineteenth century the long process of secularization began with the dismissal of the Franciscans, and without a bishop to guide it on the scene the Church fell upon unhappy days. The absence of a spiritual leader seemed like a symbol of the abandonment of the province. Who cared?—so far, so outlandish, with only a handful of Spaniards amidst a diffused population of Indians—New Mexico was lost in its golden distance, and the world did not appear to miss it.

Without leadership in the affairs of the spirit, the society lost any motive larger than that of simple survival. Ignorance was the heritage of each new generation. New Mexico had no schools. Her churches were for the most part in ruins. The Indian missions were abandoned. There were only nine priests in over 200,000 square miles. The deportment of some of these was at times reprehensible.

The state of affairs could hardly be worse, and one thing seemed clear to the council of bishops at Baltimore: so long as New Mexico’s ecclesiastical responsibilities continued to come under the authority of the Bishop of Durango, her religious and social conditions could not be improved. The assembled bishops petitioned the Holy See to establish a vicariate apostolic for New Mexico, and to preside over it nominated Father Jean Baptiste Lamy, who had come to Kentucky from France in 1839 as a missionary priest. On July 19. 1850. Pope Pius IX approved the petition, and named as titular Bishop of Agathonica and vicar apostolic of New Mexico the man recommended to him.

When to his “great amazement and surprise” the papal bull with the news of his elevation reached Father Lamy in Kentucky he did not hesitate to accept, but in his heart he attached a condition, and his first act was to fulfill it by writing to his closest friend, Father Joseph P. Machebeuf, who was a pastor in Sandusky, Ohio.

“They wish,” wrote Lamy of the Roman powers, “that I should be a Vicar Apostolic, and I wish you to be my Vicar General, and from these two vicars we shall try to make one good pastor. …”

These friends were born in the same department of France—Puy-de-Dôme in the Auvergne—and attended seminary together, and together came to America in 1839 when recruited as young missioners by Bishop Purcell of Cincinnati. Machebeuf consulted his superiors and his conscience. Both told him to go. He had to agree. With a sigh of regret for the faithful whom he was leaving, he yet kindled at the prospect of the adventure ahead.