PHOTO BY LEROY N. SANCHEZ
WHEN BISHOP JEAN-BAPTISTE LAMY, the
first bishop and later archbishop of Santa
Fe, New Mexico, ran out of money while
building the city’s cathedral in the early
1870s, one of his French priests decided
to use his talents for God. He took his parish’s Confirmation
stipend for the bishop, gambled with the soldiers at Fort
Union near Las Vegas, New Mexico, and won $2,000!
“That would be the equivalent of $200,000 or more now,”
laughs Msgr. Jerome J. Martínez y Alire, rector of Santa Fe’s
Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. “The priest had been
a professional gambler before entering God’s service!”
That’s one of many Wild West stories of faith circulating
among parishioners and tourists as the
cathedral parish begins celebrating its
cuarto centenario (400th anniversary) in
2010. But the spiritual significance and
Franciscan influence of this historic
mother church are being highlighted.
“The cathedral parish is the cradle of
Catholicism for the American Southwest,”
Msgr. Jerome explains. “The
parish was founded in 1610, 10 years
before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth
Rock. It was from here that Franciscan
missionaries were sent out to establish
new parishes and bishops were sent
out to create new dioceses.”
A Prophetic Start
The Catholic faith in New Mexico
didn’t begin in Santa Fe, but rather
with a prophetic proclamation. In 1539,
missionary-explorer Fray Marcos de
Niza was searching for the fabled Seven
Cities of Gold when he came upon the
Zuni Pueblo in western New Mexico. He
planted a cross there and proclaimed
the entire region the “New Kingdom of
That proclamation became a reality in July 1598 when
Spanish colonizer Juan de Oñate—along with 129 soldiers,
10 Franciscans and over 400 women, children and other
men—settled along the Río Grande near Ohkay Owingeh
Pueblo, 35 miles north of Santa Fe. The friars dedicated the
first parish church in the American Southwest to St. John the
Baptist and celebrated the first Mass on September 8, the feast
of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary.
“Many people don’t realize the missions in New Mexico
are 120 years older than the missions in San Antonio, Texas,
and 170 years older than the California missions,” says
Msgr. Jerome, a 13th-generation descendant of colonists
who came with Oñate.
The colony was soon embroiled
in dispute, and Governor Pedro de
Peralta moved the capital of the New
Kingdom south in 1610 to found La
Villa Real de la Santa Fé de San Francisco
de Asís (The Royal City of the Holy
Faith of St. Francis of Assisi). That year
La Parróquia, a parish church built of
adobe, was dedicated to Our Lady of the
(The present cathedral would be built
on this exact site 259 years later, but not
before two more adobe churches went
up and the people’s faith had been
tested many times over.)
“A jacál—a hut,” Fray Alonso de
Benavides called La Parróquia when he
arrived from Mexico in 1625 as the
new head of the Franciscan missions.
This was no sanctuary for the exquisite
hand-carved statue of Our Lady that
he had brought from Spain! The jacál was torn down and replaced around
1630 by a more sumptuous adobe
church. At last, Our Lady (or La Conquistadora as she became known) had a
throne worthy of a queen.
In the mid-1600s, La Parróquia changed its name to Our Lady of the
Conception, a change undoubtedly
inspired by Franciscan efforts in Spain
and in its New World possessions to
promote the teaching about the Immaculate
Conception of Mary. Friars in the
New Kingdom even dyed their gray
habits a Marian blue.
Like the Inquisition in Spain, Spanish
colonial rule was often ruthless. Pueblo
Indians were forced to pay tribute in
corn and other products, labor in Spanish
fields and convert to Catholicism.
Pueblo kivas (underground ceremonial
chambers) were destroyed and other
native spiritual practices quashed.
On August 10, 1680, many of the
pueblos banded together and revolted
with a vengeance. They killed 21 Franciscans
and many colonists on outlying
farms before laying siege to Santa Fe.
Fearing for La Conquistadora, sacristana Josefa López Zambrano de Grijalva
dashed into the burning Parróquia and
rescued the 29-inch statue from certain
doom. The colonists retreated
300 miles south to present-day Juárez,
In the summer of 1692, Diego de
Vargas, governor of the exiled colony,
led a small contingent of soldiers and
friars to Santa Fe to retake the villa.
According to tradition, the governor
knelt before La Conquistadora and made
a promesa (promise): If Santa Fe falls
easily, an annual novena of Masses will
be offered in her honor for perpetuity.
The Pueblos agreed to peace and, on
September 14, de Vargas proclaimed a
formal act of possession. The other
colonists returned the following year.
“This is the peaceful re-conquest celebrated
every year as Fiesta de Santa
Fe,” says Msgr. Jerome about the 297-year-old tradition established by proclamation
in 1712. “There was no
separation of Church and State under
Spanish colonial rule, and the Fiesta
today still includes religious and civic
La Conquistadora, the nation’s oldest
Marian statue, reigns from the
nation’s oldest Marian shrine, the
1714 adobe chapel of Santa Fe’s
Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis
of Assisi. But the title La Conquistadora has nothing to do with conquering
“The oldest prayers that were
attributed to her say, ‘Oh, lovely
lady, you conquer us with your
immaculate lovingness,’” explains
Msgr. Jerome. “It’s a spiritual conquest
of hatreds and divisions.”
In the 1980s, former Archbishop
Robert Sánchez gave her an additional title, “Our Lady of Peace,” to
explain her role more aptly.
Carved from a willow tree in Spain, the nearly 400-year-old statue
is a bulto a vestir (a clothed statue). And like a Spanish queen, Our Lady
has crowns and rosaries galore, as well as several hundred gowns,
including a cape made from vestments worn by Archbishop Lamy. Her
gowns and those of the tiny Jesus statue in her arms change with the
liturgical seasons and other special events.
The statue stands in a nicho of a historic reredos (altar screen), crafted
from sections of the original high altar of the 1714 church. Beneath
her is a bulto (wooden statue) of Jesús Nazareno, patron of the Penitentes,
a New Mexico confraternity devoted to the sufferings of Christ.
“Rebuild my church,” Christ told St.
Francis in 1205. Likewise, the friars and
their flock in 1714 began building a
third adobe-brick Parróquia to replace
the church destroyed during the Pueblo
Revolt. Dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi,
the new church boasted a five-foot
wooden statue of its patron in a painted
blue robe. La Conquistadora graced a
chapel in the north transept.
In the late 1700s, the 200-year-old
Franciscan presence in the New Kingdom
began to wane. “The Spanish Franciscans
ceased coming when Spain
began losing its power in the New
World,” explains Father Crispin Butz,
O.F.M., cathedral rector from 1984 to
1994. “In 1797, the bishop of Durango,
Mexico, placed La Parróquia under
The villa would soon change even more. In August 1851, Jean-Baptiste
Lamy, a 37-year-old French native who
had spent a decade ministering in the
Diocese of Cincinnati, arrived as Santa
Fe’s first bishop. He was hardly enchanted.
After a grueling journey by
land, sea and foot, he discovered his
cathedral, La Parróquia. His flock knelt on
mud floors, and when it rained he had
to carry an umbrella—inside the church!
The bishop began dreaming of a
grand stone cathedral worthy of the
city’s name. But where would the faithful
attend Mass while the cathedral was
under construction? Ingenuity struck:
Build the new church over the old Parróquia.
Its roof would serve as scaffolding
for the French Romanesque
cathedral, an architectural anomaly in
this town of adobe buildings.
After 18 years of dreaming, Bishop
Lamy laid the cornerstone in October
1869. Less than a week later, vandals
tore it up and stole the sacred objects
inside. It was a premonition of things
The first architect, an American, was
fired and replaced by two Frenchmen,
Antoine Mouly and his son, Projectus.
In 1874, the elder Mouly went blind
and returned to France. Meanwhile,
the building fund shriveled up and
construction was halted for several
years. In 1875, Bishop Lamy became
archbishop of the Southwestern see,
which then included Arizona, Colorado
and New Mexico.
Before work could resume, Projectus
Mouly died, and in 1879 a third
French architect, François Mallet, was
hired. As in a scene from a Wild West
movie, he became entangled with the
wife of the archbishop’s nephew, who
shot Mallet dead. The nephew pled
temporary insanity and was acquitted.
But the cathedral went on. Clergy
were placed in charge of construction,
and the indefatigable archbishop continued
begging funds, even donating
his carriage to be raffled off at a fiesta.
His home diocese in France took up
collections, and local Jewish merchants
lent him money but later forgave the
debt. There was also the padre who
“gambled on God” and won.
Meanwhile, the cathedral of honey-colored
sandstone kept reaching heavenward.
In 1884, when the new nave
was near completion, the adobe bricks
from the old nave were carted out the
front door of the new church. In 1886,
Archbishop Lamy blessed the unfinished
cathedral (the adobe sanctuary
and transepts would remain intact for
another 80 years).
The first bishop of the Wild West
died in 1888 and was buried under his
dream cathedral. In 1895, the cathedral
was consecrated, 26 years after the cornerstone
Although Jean-Baptiste Lamy is immortalized
in Willa Cather’s 1927 classic,
Death Comes for the Archbishop, the landmark
cathedral remains his greatest
legacy. The truncated bell towers—the
archbishop had envisioned soaring spires
but the coffers dried up—are a sermon
in themselves: God’s work is never done.
"In 1920, Franciscans again assumed responsibility for the cathedral, but this
time the friars were from the Cincinnati
Province of St. John the Baptist,” says
Father Crispin, 86, who came West in
1954 and retired there several years
ago. “In 1985, the Cincinnati friars in
New Mexico and Arizona formed the
Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe.”
The Franciscan revival didn’t stop
there. In 1919, Father Albert Thomas
Daeger, O.F.M., a Cincinnati friar serving
in New Mexico, was named archbishop.
In memory of the Franciscans
killed during the Pueblo Revolt, he
erected the Cross of the Martyrs on a
hill overlooking Santa Fe.
Archbishops came and went; renovations
were made to the cathedral and
then redone by the next shepherd. In
1966, the remaining sections of the
1714 adobe church were demolished,
except for La Conquistadora Chapel.
“We’re so grateful circumstances prevented
Bishop Lamy from finishing the
cathedral,” says Msgr. Jerome, 58. “New
Mexico mission architecture is the only
indigenous church architecture in the
United States, and the chapel is a marvelous
grounding in our Spanish colonial
In the mid-1980s, former Archbishop
Robert Sánchez began restoring the
1,200-seat cathedral to its present glory.
The interior, a blend of adobe, French
Romanesque and modern architecture,
represents the various cultures who
worship here. An estimated 25 percent
of the cathedral’s 1,500 registered families
are descended from La Parróquia’s first parishioners.
In the sanctuary, two large oil paintings
that once graced La Parróquia, The
Agony in the Garden and The Arrest of
Jesus, proclaim Our Lord’s sacrifice. The
works of renowned artist Pascual Pérez,
they date to 1710 and were brought
by oxcart from Mexico in several rolls,
which were stitched back together in
The cathedral also features modern-day
Spanish colonial art, a traditional
form of religious folk art handed down
from generation to generation. In the
Blessed Sacrament Chapel, an exquisite
reredos (altar screen) by Arlene
Cisneros Sena depicts the life of St.
Joseph. In one scene, Joseph is teaching
Jesus carpentry, the nails in Jesus’ hands
foretelling his crucifixion.
Like its name, Santa Fe exudes faith and more faith.
These holy sites also merit a visit.
El Santuario de
Guadalupe, circa 1777,
is the nation’s oldest
shrine to Our Lady of
Guadalupe. A special Mass
is celebrated on the 12th
day of every month at
12:12 p.m. in honor of
Our Lady’s feast day on
The Chapel of San Miguel,
circa 1610, is believed to be
the oldest U.S. church still
in use. Among the sacred
artifacts are a 1798 reredos and rare paintings on
buffalo hides of biblical
The Loretto Chapel is
famous for its “miraculous
staircase.” Around 1878, the
Sisters of Loretto at the Foot
of the Cross realized their
new French Gothic chapel
had no access to the choir
loft. After they prayed to St.
Joseph, a stranger appeared
and erected a spiral staircase.
Many believe the carpenter
was St. Joseph himself.
More Holy Faith
Adorning the nave are retablos (two-dimensional
paintings on wood) of the
Stations of the Cross by Marie Romero
Cash. In Spanish colonial style, the
retablos are edged with painted red curtains
that add even more drama to
In between the Stations are Bishop
Lamy’s French-imported, stained-glass
windows of the apostles. Americanmade
clerestory windows overhead
depict the coats of arms of modern-day
apostles, the archbishops of Santa Fe.
And to celebrate the cuarto centenario,
several old church furnishings have
been “rescued” and restored. Up from
a basement came the throne of Placid
Louis Chapelle, the third archbishop. A
large French-made Crucifixion scene
was resurrected from storage in a bell
tower and placed above the confessionals.
“It’s hard to minimize sins with a
statue of Jesus crucified overhead,” says
Once obliterated with white paint,
the 1908 stencils of the Adoring Angels
from the Book of Revelation have reappeared
over the altar. And if ever doors
talk, it’s here. The enormous front doors
(tall enough for current Archbishop
Michael Sheehan to enter the cathedral
on a horse!) present in 20 bronze
plaques, executed by Santa Fe artist
Donna Quasthoff, the intertwining religious
and civic history of New Mexico.
What other cathedral boldly
proclaims its statehood?
But nothing catches the eye faster
than the sanctuary’s great reredos, the
work of renowned iconographer and
Franciscan Brother Robert Lentz. Titled
Saints of the Americas, the floor-to-ceiling
reredos depicts in Byzantine-inspired
icons 13 saints of North and South America, as well as Our Lady of
Guadalupe. The icons’ 23-karat gold-leaf
background shines as brightly as the
New Mexico sun.
“Not all of the saints were canonized
or even beatified when it was completed
in 1986,” says Father Crispin,
“but we were counting on it!” Mother
Katharine Drexel, who built St. Catherine’s
Indian School in Santa Fe in 1887
and sometimes worshiped at the cathedral,
was canonized in 2000, and
Junípero Serra, founder of the California
missions, was beatified in 1988.
In the middle of the reredos is a nicho (niche) with a blue-robed statue of St.
Francis. After the new cathedral was
built, the ancient statue was given to
San Francisco Church in tiny Golden,
New Mexico. Retrieving that statue
required paying a ransom!
“The priest gave the statue back, but
the right arm was missing,” laughs
Father Crispin, rector at the time. “The
arms are removable, and he wanted
$500 for the right arm!”
Due to a decline in Franciscan clergy,
the cathedral was again assigned to
diocesan priests in 1999. But the spirit
of St. Francis lives on. The cathedral is
located on San Francisco Street, and
the archdiocesan coat of arms depicts
a crucifix rising from the crossed, nailpierced
hands of Christ and St. Francis.
A six-foot-tall replica of the San
Damiano Cross in Assisi dominates the
sanctuary arch; a resplendor (sunburst)
behind the cross draws eyes up to Our
Lord. The Light of Christ preaches the
gospel in the stained-glass windows of
St. Francis and St. Clare, while wood
carvings simulating the cord of a Franciscan
habit decorate the altar, pulpit,
lectern and other furnishings.
When Pope Benedict XVI made the
cathedral a minor basilica in 2005, the
archdiocese took as its motto “Rebuild
My Church,” echoing the words of
Christ to Francis. Even the birds seem
to congregate in greater numbers during
the annual parish celebration on
October 4, the feast of St. Francis!
“¡Todos somos Franciscanos aquí!
Everyone’s a Franciscan here!” says
Msgr. Jerome. “This is the Royal City of
the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi. It’s
been that way for 400 years and hopefully
will be for another 400 years to
Cathedral photos in this article are
from the 400th anniversary calendar
available at www.cbsfa.org/gift.asp or by calling (505) 955-8879. The
cathedral office can be contacted at