Churchman Of The Desert


For his duties required him to excel in the frontiersman’s craft, and many a night going alone on missionary journeys he slept “under the moon,” as he said, and sometimes he crossed as many as 75 miles without water, and often he walked in order to rest his horse. The prairies he called “beautiful and vast.” His first venture into Arizona covered 3,000 miles and lasted six months and he said his Christmas Mass there on a snow-covered slope of a mountain forest. After his long pastoral journeys to Colorado, he told of its cold heights, its great rivers pounding out of the mountains into wide valleys, like the San Luis, where in his time farmers came in swelling numbers to raise cereals.

Sometimes abroad in winter he found it necessary to walk up and down all night by a campfire to escape freezing to death. Only too often, taken ill on his lonely journeys, he fought to overcome his body’s weakness with his strong will. And knowing his immense land in the same terms as any other frontiersman, he loved it the more for seeking out, and surviving, its hazard and its challenge.

In August of 1866 Lamy gave to Rome an accounting of his first sixteen years in the old river kingdom. Civilization was emerging under his touch. As people in old Mexican towns and Indian pueblos came to know him well, and to feel his interest, the parishes revived. The spirit of growth in religion created growth in all other beneficial expressions of society. By a simple extension of his own character, the Bishop also created for the old Spanish kingdom a sense of social enlightenment through which, for the first time in all her three centuries, her people could advance their condition and so come to be masters instead of victims of their environment.

In 1853 the vicariate apostolic had been raised to the rank of diocese and a year later the Bishop had gone to France on the first of the many journeys taken by himself and later by Machebeuf to enlist young priests for the tasks in New Mexico. New Mexico, he reported in 1866, had 110,000 Mexicans and 15,000 Catholic Indians. To serve the great diocese he now had 41 priests where he had arrived to find 9. Most of the ruined churches had been repaired, and he had built 85 new ones, and the total number was 135. They were all made of earth and had “no architectural character” and were as poor inside as out. But—what mattered to him—they were “well frequented.”

And so were the schools. He now had three in Santa Fe “in full prosperity, with never fewer than two hundred pupils, and often three hundred.” In almost every mission there was one school, and in some, several. There were now five Lorettine convents and academies in the diocese, and on New Year’s Day, 1866, four nuns of St. Vincent de Paul opened the first orphanage and hospital in New Mexico, using the Bishop’s own house which he gave up to the purpose.

All these signs of compassionate belief in the dignity of human beings and their right to growth were made against the familiar background of primitive techniques and general poverty in the New Mexico Rio Grande country. His plans prospered, and there was good will all about him, for everyone, including non-Catholics—like the military commander of New Mexico who gave him $1,000 toward the new orphanage—was eager to help him in his work.

There was one detail he did not trouble to include in his report. In 1863 he had worked for the passage of the first Public School Act of New Mexico, and when it became law, he was, along with the territorial governor and the secretary of state, a member of the commission erected by the legislature to administer it. Only a few years before, given an earlier chance to vote on the creation of free schools, the citizens had defeated the measure. The social climate had changed with the general effort at enlightenment under his example.

Increasing settlement of the West added heavy burdens to the work of the See of Santa Fe. In 1867, upon Lamy’s recommendation, Colorado was detached from the diocese and given its own vicar apostolic—Machebeuf, who in his turn received the miter. A year later Arizona was similarly organized, with Father Juan B. Salpointe as vicar apostolic. In 1869 Bishop Salpointe presented himself at Rome, in company with Bishop Machebeuf, and the two were closely questioned by Pius IX about their vast outlands.

Returning through France, their fatherland, they paused to do an errand for the Bishop of Santa Fe. When Bishop Salpointe arrived home in the Southwest, he was able to say that the errand was done, for he had arranged for French architects Antoine and Projectus Mouly, father and son, and several skilled stonecutters, to come to Santa Fe where they would build out of native rock the Cathedral of Saint Francis.

On Wednesday, June 16, 1875, at daybreak, cannonading sounded over Santa Fe in salute from Fort Marcy. Shortly afterward the students’ band of music from Saint Michael’s College came before the Bishop’s house to serenade him. In the streets, which were decorated with evergreens, small boys set off firecrackers, while the bells of the still unfinished cathedral and the other churches sent out widening rings of sound that met in the brilliant air.