Churchman Of The Desert


“This is a country of ancient Catholicity,” wrote Machebeuf in his first impressions. “The people in general show the best disposition. … But alas! the great obstacle to the good which the Bishop is disposed to do among them, does not come from the people but from the priests themselves, who do not want the bishop, for they dread reform in their morals, or a change in the selfish relations with their parishioners. One of the great neglects of the priests of New Mexico is that they seldom or never preach.” Then, having seen how they lived, Machebeuf added in wrath, “But how could such priests preach?”

The Bishop was home in time for Christmas. He had much to tell his great friend. Bishop Zubiria had renounced any claim to New Mexico. He examined Lamy’s papal bull, and at once said, “I knew nothing about it officially.” Under the circumstances, how could he, or his clergy in turn, have submitted to another prelate? But “this document is sufficient authority for me,” he said with grace, “and I submit to it.” Monsignor Zubiria ordered the preparation of papers in which he renounced his jurisdiction over the vast northern province.

Promptly upon Lamy’s return, Zubiria’s instrument of renunciation was posted for all to see. Any of the clergy who refused to accept it, and any who did not mend their ways, were released from their duties, to depart from New Mexico. To those who remained the new bishop and his vicar general served as examples. It was time to go to work.

Most of the native priests responded with obedience, but in a few cases the Bishop was forced to resort to severe measures. The pastors of Albuquerque, Taos, and Arroyo Hondo defied him in various degrees of disobedience. When after repeated warnings they persisted in their defiance, the Bishop acted to suspend them from priestly functions and even in two cases, to excommunicate them. Father Machebeuf was sent in each instance to execute the Bishop’s sentence.

The recusant pastors had their partisans, and in Taos, particularly, followers of Father José Antonio Martinez threatened an outbreak like the Taos Rebellion of 1847 with its bloodshed. But Machebeuf, too, had powerful friends in Taos, one of whom was Kit Carson. “I am a man of peace,” said Carson, “and my motto is: good will to all; I hate disturbances among the people, but I can light a little yet, and I know of no better cause to fight for than my family, my church, and my friend the Senor Vicario.”

When the vicar general came to do his duty his friends saw to it that armed men were stationed about the village to defend him and his mission. He accomplished it from the altar of Taos in a scene of great tenseness, and a week later repeated it at Arroyo Hondo. Peace held. The Bishop never again was forced to show what such cases of discipline showed—that the clergy must be worthy of their vocations, and that there was strength in the new administration of the Church in New Mexico.

To fulfill his vision of his duty, the young bishop had to proceed from the abstraction of a map to the reality of his people and their far separated places on the great open land. He crossed desert and mountain, traveling tens of thousands of miles on mule or horse, making the hard country yield up to him its blind ways. Machebeuf, too, often went into the country as a simple missioner. Between them they tried to rectify the neglect of centuries. When new friends whom he traveled to serve asked where he lived, Machebeuf would reply: “In the saddle … they call me El Vicario Andando, the Traveling Vicar, and I live on the public highway.” Lamy could say the same. His duties sent him east and west by wagon several times on the Santa Fe Trail.

In 1852 Lamy’s wagon overtook a larger train of 25 others bound for New Mexico with merchandise from Saint Louis for the five Spiegelberg brothers, whom he had already come to know in Santa Fe where their famous emporium on the plaza did a thriving business. As the Bishop approached he saw that the wagon train was halted. Someone from the train was being carried by Mexican teamsters into an abandoned sod hut. It was Levi Spiegelberg, they explained, and they were sure he had cholera. Out of fear they refused to travel with him.

The Bishop went to Levi without hesitation and said to him, “Good friend, we willingly make room for you in our covered wagon and will nurse you until you regain your strength, for we could not think of leaving you here in this lonely prairie cabin. We do not believe you have cholera, and even if you have we are not afraid of contagion.” The Bishop and the priests who accompanied him took care of the sick man, who was cured in a week.

Two months later when they all arrived in Santa Fe, the story was told to the other Spiegelberg brothers—handsome and cultivated men—and ever afterward the whole family and the Bishop were devoted friends. On a later prairie voyage—in 1867—cholera actually did strike the Bishop’s train, and two of his party died, including a young American nun. During her illness, the train was attacked at the Arkansas River crossing by 300 Comanche Indians. For three hours they continued their attack, circling in single file about the parked wagons and keeping up a steady fire. Among the wagoners who fought back was the Bishop, who handled a musket.