Willa Cather traduces Father Antonio José Martínez, the pastor of Taos, New Mexico, in her novel Death Comes to the Archbishop. It is only a novel, but is enough of a roman à clef that his memory has suffered. Lamy’s biographer, Paul Horgan (Lamy of Santa Fe), is fairer to Martínez, but glosses over many of Lamy’s actions that Martinez objected to.


Lamy was a representative of nineteenth-century French ultramontane Catholicism, and was determined to reproduce the French way of being Catholic in New Mexico. He did not like the art, the festivities, or the penances of the Hispanics. He replaced the santos by plaster saints and colored lithographs; he tried to suppress the fandangos (the social dances);and he tried to suppress the penitentes, the brotherhood that did works of charity and severe bodily penances.


When New Mexico was part of Mexico, tithes to the church were a civil obligation. Don Martínez, himself a well-to-do landowner who used his resources to help the poor, persuaded the Mexican Assembly to abolish tithes because they weighed so heavily upon the poor.


When Lamy came, he was determined to build up the church as an institution with convents and schools and hospitals (all good things) and he needed money to do this. Some funds came from France, but he reinstituted the tithes and enforced them by denying the sacraments to people who would not or could not pay them. To me this smacks of simony. Lamy, admittedly in a difficult situation, heavy-handedly enforced his decrees and his vision of the church..


The Mexican priests were close to the people (perhaps a little too close at times) and Lamy was scandalized that they did not leave reserved, austere lives – Mexican priests had even been known to dance! He got rid of them for the slightest real or imagined infraction and imported French priests. After New Mexico became an American territory, Lamy insisted that the French priests preach mostly in their limited English, with the result that the Hispanic parishioners were totally mystified.


In France the clergy objected to much of the popular rural culture that had carried over from the Middle Ages. One of the bones of contention between young men and the clergy was dancing. Priests, including I believe John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, would refuse absolution to men unless they promised to give up dancing. But the dances that the clergy found so objectionable were the traditional circle and line dances, not intimate body-to-body dances. Priests also found most saints’ day feasts and pilgrimages objectionable, because they were run by the laity and not controlled by the clergy.


Although there have been some short defenses of Martínez, no one has written a scholarly study of the conflict between Mexican and French Catholicism in New Mexico, a study that would, I hope, not take French Catholicism as the norm and Mexican Catholicism as a provincial deviation.


PS Father Martinez baptized Kit Carson and then witnessed his marriage. Carson, like the Texans at the Alamo, died a Catholic.

Leave a Comment