Willa Cather’s Archbishop

Willa Cather once wrote that the story of the Catholic Church in the American Southwest “was the most interesting of all its stories.” She was particularly interested in the figure of Santa Fe’s first Archbishop, Jean-Baptiste Lamy (1814-1888), whom she described as “well bred and distinguished… there was something about him both fearless and fine.” Cather renamed Lamy Father LaTour and made him the hero of her 1927 novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, which recounts the story of how a French priest started a new diocese in New Mexico amidst various challenges, internal and external. Today marks the death of the real Archbishop, who was born in France’s Auvergene region and ordained there in 1839. Soon after his ordination he and his lifelong friend Father Joseph Machebeuf (Father Vaillant in the novel) answered the call for missionaries in the United States. For ten years he worked in Ohio and Kentucky before he was named Vicar Apostolic of New Mexico, an area covering all of New Mexico and Arizona, along with parts of Colorado and Nevada. When Santa Fe was named a Diocese in 1853, Lamy became its first Bishop. To read more about Lamy, check out Paul Horgan’s biography Lamy of Santa Fe, which won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize in History.

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18340342077372005773 Rugg

    Archbishop Lamy is a controversial figure in New Mexico. He was ill prepared for a diocese with a different culture, and one in which the religious orders had been suppressed by atheistic Mexican Revolutionaries. Trained in France, he was infected with Jansenism and Semi-Pelagianism. His controversies with the Hispanic clergy are well documented. He was Arch-bishop at a time when Hispanics lost their land grants to unscrupulous land speculators. He received a reprimand from the United States Congress and was counseled by the Vatican to communicate with the people of his diocese. Toward the end of his career he admitted that he finally came to understand the people he was as shephard for. Read “Of Time and Chance” by Fray Anelico Chavez for a local reference.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17953214762289672139 Pat McNamara

    Absolutely true! I wish I could have written more on those points, but I try to keep these brief. Thanks for pointing this out, because I think people should know about all these interesting and complex characters that make up our Church.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18340342077372005773 Rugg

    It is sad that those points about Archbishop are neglected. For one, the bishop did not have to start “new diocese”. Fr. Alonzo Benavidez recommended a diocese for New Mexico in 1630, over 200 years before it was created in 1853. His lasting monument is a sterile unfinished cathedral which was designed by his nephew, a recipient of his patronage. There are more beautiful ruins built of stone by Spanish friars and pious Native Americans at Pecos, Abo and Quari and Gran Quivira. Lamy was given a jewel, a treasure, which he, like the parable in the bible, he buried. He was given a docile and pious population of Catholics to shepherd. Yet what did he do? The memorial from Congress was scandalous. Lamy did nothing to canonize the martyrs both Indian and Spanish, and numerous Franciscan priests who shed their blood. As a missionary he was a failure. He did nothing to protect the Churches interests on the reservations and let Congress appropriate Church lands to the tribes. Where was Lamy when the troops hearded Navajos on the long march? Perhaps his excommunication of Padre Martinez was related to political reasons involving land grants as some historians allege. How New Mexico would have been better had there been a St Louis de Montfort, a Fr. Kino or a Juneper Serra instead of Lamy. A man “well bred and distinguished,fearless and fine”? Where is the humility or the sacrifice of the Franciscans who walked barefoot across the desert to spread the faith? There is little to be sentimental about Lamy. Prayers are needed for his soul. Until these issues are addressed healing will be lacking for the Catholics of New Mexico. People will, like children not understand what harm had befallen them. Thus they will not see what work is needed to bring a more vibrant Church.

  • Anonymous

    Great blog!Here is a post about Father Machebeuf from Sandusky:http://sanduskyhistory.blogspot.com/2009/08/father-joseph-p-machebeuf-pioneer.html