Churchman Of The Desert


Sharing a common dedication, the two vicars otherwise presented contrasts in appearance and personality. Lamy stood five feet ten inches in height, but his spare build made him seem taller. His manner was reposeful, but when he met people’s gaze his dark eyes sparkled, and when he answered them his smile was persuasive. Patience, kindly gravity, and intelligence marked his face. All his life subject to spells of illness, he prevailed against them and went his way with his “usual and untiring energy.” He was an expert horseman, with a good seat, erect in the saddle.

Machebeuf was of another type. He was a short man. His thin little frame seemed always to quiver with controlled animation. His hair was so light and his skin so pale that his classmates used to call him Whitey. His face was as plain as the Bishop’s was handsome. Over his deepset eyes he wore small spectacles with metal rims. Through all this there moved and reached a witty, compassionate and charming nature that raised people’s spirits as they looked at him.

Nearing Galveston, Lamy’s ship was driven aground in the shallows of the low coast. The Bishop lost most of his belongings, including “a fine new wagon which he bought at New Orleans for the trip over the plains,” as Machebeuf later told. Lamy saw his trunk floating ashore in the wreckage, and with the help of a Negro boy salvaged it. It contained his vestments and his books, now waterlogged. The shipwreck cost him $350, a great sum for a new missionary bishop to lose.

He went on to San Antonio, where a United States Army train was making ready for a march to El Paso. He planned to go with it, and to carry Machebeuf and himself he bought a new buggy and a pair of newly broken mules. One day on a drive near San Antonio his coachman lashed the mules until they bolted. “I jumped out,” said the Bishop, “and dislocated my ankle in the loose sand.” He could not stand or walk. When Machebeuf arrived in San Antonio he found his friend laid up in pain. The army train had marched without him. It would be weeks until another went. Machebeuf brought him sad news—his sister had died in New Orleans. He needed all his fortitude to endure pain, loss, and idleness.

But presently they were on the way to the Rio Grande with another army train of 200 government wagons, 25 merchant wagons, a troop of cavalry, and stock animals. In six weeks they reached El Paso, where the pastor, a famous host, offered “every hospitality in his power.” After years of never seeing a bishop, the El Paso priest now entertained his second within nine months, for in the preceding autumn Monsignor Zubiria, the Bishop of Durango, had paused at El Paso on his way to and from Santa Fe. The Mexican bishop’s vast northern lands had already been transferred by the Holy See to an ecclesiastical jurisdiction within the United States—but he did not know it then, and the pastor of El Paso could not say if he knew it even now.

In this confusion lay the seed of heavy trouble for the new bishop. For when, after a progress northward through the Rio Grande towns, where he passed beneath triumphal arches of evergreens erected by jubilant villagers, he came to his capital on August 8, 1851, he found the local clergy respectful of his purple, but otherwise waiting to greet him with discouraging news. Receiving a great civic welcome at Santa Fe, the vicar apostolic was informed by Father Ortiz, the vicar in Santa Fe of the Bishop of Durango, that he and his clergy must refuse to accept him as their new superior.

But the papal bull, the letters of appointment? Bishop Lamy displayed them.

They might be in order, to be sure; but Father Ortiz had received from Durango no word of any change of administration; and until he had this he could not resign his powers to Bishop Lamy, and his priests must not consider themselves subject to a new lordship.

Lamy considered the matter from the local point of view and patiently concluded that in official terms the vicar of Santa Fe was justified in his position. There was only one thing to do. The vicar apostolic must go, himself, on a longer and harder journey than the one he had just made. It would take him to the city of Durango, where he would have to present his case to old Bishop Zubiria and convince him that it was just.

Delegating Father Machebeuf to act for him in his absence and giving orders that a school for the teaching of English be established at Santa Fe without delay, he rode out on a mule in late September for the episcopal city 1,500 miles away. With him he took only a guide—and Vicar Ortiz.

In Santa Fe Machebeuf saw a one-story town built of adobes—earthen bricks plastered over with more earth. Threading away from the long central plaza, the principal streets, about a mile long, were irregularly parallel to the Santa Fe Creek. Five or six thousand people lived in the capital. Trade was lively. Gambling, drinking, and dancing, in both American and Mexican styles, animated the public airs of evening. The city lay at 7,000 feet of altitude under changeable glories of sky and mountain light. Its social character was little modified since its foundation in 1610.