The Old Missions of New Mexico— Still Alive After Four Centuries
Franciscan Father Antonio Trujillo, a descendant of early Spanish settlers, stands before the Church of San Esteban del Rey at Acoma, established in 1626.
A bronze panel on the door of St. Francis Cathedral, Santa Fe, depicts Spanish colonists fleeing from the city toward Mexico during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.
Four hundred years ago, Spanish Franciscans
helped bring Christianity to New Mexico. Today evidence abounds
that the faith planted in 1598 amidst great difficulties has
borne good fruit.
Text and photos by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.
"I'M AMAZED that we are still here with our language and culture intact!" says Pueblo Indian Joseph Suina, when asked about the 400th anniversary of the coming of Christianity to New Mexico. "The Pueblos are considered the native people in the United States who are the least changed, though they’ve had the longest running contact with Europeans."
Suina, 54, is governor of Cochiti Pueblo (25 miles southwest of Santa Fe), one of 19 Indian pueblos (towns or mini-nations) scattered about New Mexico today. His ancestors, known for their terraced, apartment-like homes, were established in North America for many centuries before the Spanish colonists, headed by Juan de Oñate, founded the first permanent Spanish settlement there in 1598.
Governor Suina holds a Ph.D. and is a professor of education at the University of New Mexico. He attends Mass at Cochiti’s old mission Church of San Buenaventura, served by Franciscan friars.
Suina returns to the theme of endurance: "If we are celebrating anything, we are celebrating our own survival as an Indian people. We’ve survived three different governments [Spain, Mexico and the United States]—and we’re waiting for the next one to come along!" he says with good-humored pride.
The Pueblo Indians are not the only group in New Mexico that has survived the struggles and hardships of the last 400 years in New Mexico. Other native peoples such as the Navajos and Apaches have also survived. So have the Spanish and, in a sense, so have the Franciscan friars who came with them—along with the Catholic faith they propagated.
The Juan de Oñate Expedition
Early in 1598 Juan de Oñate, whose family had made a fortune from the silver mines of Zacatecas, Mexico, set out on an expedition into present-day New Mexico with 400 soldiers, colonists and Mexican-Indian servants, as well as horses and cattle. Eight Franciscan friars also accompanied Juan de Oñate—a clear sign that Christianizing the native peoples was a leading motive in this push northward.
After an arduous journey up the Rio Grande River to the region above present-day Santa Fe, Juan de Oñate and his colonists finally arrived in July at San Juan Pueblo. Moving to a spot across the Rio Grande, they soon set about building the first Spanish settlement and mission church, naming it San Gabriel. It was still 1598, and San Gabriel became the first capital of New Mexico with Oñate its first governor.
To put these events in historical perspective, the founding of San Gabriel took place nine years before the founding of Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in the United States (1607), and more than 150 years prior to the establishment of the better-known old Spanish missions of California by Fray Junipero Serra. But San Gabriel was not the first permanent Spanish settlement in what is now U.S. territory. That honor goes to St. Augustine, Florida (1565).
Life was not easy at San Gabriel. The winters were severe, the food was scarce and the relationship between the settlers and the native people was not always free of conflict. According to historians, the Spanish settlers sometimes seized food and blankets from the Indians and forced them into labor and into rendering tribute to them. The Spanish authorities and friars were also guilty of religious intolerance and other forms of abuse.
After 12 difficult years at San Gabriel, the capital was moved to Santa Fe (1610), where it has remained to this day. Governor Juan de Oñate had been called back to Mexico City to answer various charges of mismanagement and mistreatment of the Indians. A new governor, Don Pedro de Peralta, was sent to Santa Fe.
The Franciscan missionaries, in the beginning, encountered many problems and enjoyed only mixed success. New missions, however, were being built at various pueblos (nine by 1616) and conversions to Christianity grew.
In 1626, Fray Alonso de Benavides became head of the Franciscan Missions of New Mexico. It was a time of increasing activity. Thirty additional friars were recruited for the territory and Benavides claimed up to 30,000 Baptisms for this period.
The Pueblo Revolt of 1680
As the century wore on, resentment grew amidst the various New Mexico Pueblos. Especially oppressive in the experience of the Pueblos was the forced labor and tribute inflicted upon them by the Spanish colonists. Even more distressing were the attempts on the part of the Spanish government and some friars to condemn their native religious beliefs. In some cases, the Pueblos’ kivas (underground ceremonial rooms) were burned and religious objects destroyed.
Finally, in 1680, the Pueblos had enough. An Indian of San Juan Pueblo by the name of Popé became the leader of the rebellion. He persuaded the majority of the Pueblo communities to participate in the rebellion launched on August 10. Twenty-one of the 33 Franciscan friars serving in the various pueblos were slain along with 400 Spanish colonists.
Meanwhile, Spanish soldiers and colonists in Santa Fe, barricaded in the Palace of the Governors, tried to resist the rebel forces. But after a nine-day siege, during which the rebelling Pueblos cut off their water supply, the remaining Spanish fled southward to the El Paso area and to safety.
Twelve years later, in 1692, under the new governor Diego de Vargas, Spanish soldiers returned in a campaign to reconquer the Pueblos. Finally, by 1696, Spain was back in control. For the next 125 years, New Mexico remained relatively calm under Spanish rule.
New Mexico Comes Under Mexican, Then American Authority
When Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, New Mexico became part of the Republic of Mexico and remained so until the Mexican-American War. In 1846, New Mexico became a territory of the United States, with Santa Fe changing from a Mexican to an American territorial capital.
The disappearance of Spanish and then Mexican rule over New Mexico led to fewer and fewer Spanish friars serving the Catholic parishes and missions of New Mexico.
In 1850, Father John Baptist Lamy, a French priest who had come originally to America to serve in the missions of southern Ohio and northern Kentucky, was appointed to be the first bishop of Santa Fe. One of the primary concerns of Bishop Lamy and his successors was to recruit priests to fill the gaps left by the disappearance of the Franciscan missionaries. Despite some gains, the shortage of priests meant that, in many remote missions and parishes, the faithful might see a priest for Mass and Baptisms only once every year or two.
In 1898, through an interesting twist of history, the Franciscan friars began returning to the area—not from Spain or Mexico this time—but from Cincinnati (the Franciscan friars of the Province of St. John the Baptist). It was, indeed, 100 years ago this month that these American friars first appeared in the Southwest to serve the Navajo people of Arizona and western New Mexico at the request of Mother Katherine Drexel. (See special section, "100 Years of Franciscan Presence Among the Navajos," at the end of this story.)
Gradually, more and more Cincinnati Franciscans came to the region and began serving at the old Pueblo missions, as well as at many Hispanic parishes in New Mexico. In 1985, the contingent of some 100 Cincinnati Franciscan friars serving in New Mexico and Arizona formed the new Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe, with headquarters in Albuquerque.
Visiting the New Mexico Mission Today
Last spring (April 26-May 3), I visited 10 of the old Pueblo missions that still mark the New Mexico landscape. What impresses observers most about these missions is that they are not museums for tourists or curiosity seekers. Rather, they are active Catholic communities, very much alive in our day.
My first stop was at the Laguna Pueblo 45 miles west of Albuquerque off I-40. The Laguna Mission of San José, established in 1699, is actually the last mission built in the early mission period and, by the same token, the best preserved. The Franciscan pastor, Father Antonio Trujillo, O.F.M., of the Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe, is a descendant of the early Spanish settlers who came to New Mexico 400 years ago.
The Mission of San José at Laguna Pueblo, 45 miles west of Albuquerque, was established in 1699. On Sundays and feast days it’s "standing room only!"
"The faith is alive here today among the Laguna Pueblos," says Father Antonio. "The mission churches here and at Acoma Pueblo [where Antonio is also pastor] are filled on Sundays and feast days. It’s standing room only!" Participation by the people is strong, he adds, with many serving in a variety of lay ministries.
Given some of the painful memories of the last 400 years, what value is there in observing the fourth centenary? "The anniversary is a time of remembering our history, both the good and the bad. It is a time for bringing reconciliation to the hurts and for celebrating the gifts of the people, whether Indian, Spanish or Anglo," says Father Antonio. "We need to respect each other’s traditions, so that together we can work to restore a spirit of harmony among all peoples."
Parishioner Victor Sarracino, a longtime staff officer of the Laguna Tribal Council, stands next to the much-admired image of St. Joseph brought to Laguna from Mexico in 1699.
The Pueblo of Acoma
Father Antonio also took me to the Pueblo of Acoma, some 25 miles southwest of Laguna. Known to many tourists as "Sky City," Acoma Pueblo sits dramatically on a massive sandstone mesa rising 367 feet above the desert floor. Atop the mesa sits the huge ancient mission church and convento of San Esteban del Rey (St. Stephen), founded by the Spanish Franciscan missionaries in 1626 (see photo at beginning of article).
After coming down from the mesa, Father Antonio and I went to the Acoma Tribal Council offices a few miles away. There we talked with Ron Garcia, second lieutenant governor of the pueblo. It became clear that, despite painful memories, the Acomas appreciate the values of Christianity.
"We at Acoma have a strong respect for the Catholic Church," Garcia says. "We keep the tradition of the saints and honor the Christian feasts, especially Christmas and Easter." He also indicated that the Catholic liturgy and sacraments and teachings of the gospel are genuinely valued.
While affirming that the Acomas are able to honor this part of the 400th anniversary, Garcia made a qualification: "We object to the 400th celebration insofar as Juan de Oñate is put forward as a central figure." The Acomas, he explained, received "harsh treatment" at the hands of Oñate’s soldiers in January of 1599. Part of the harsh treatment, according to historical records, was the amputations of the right feet of 24 Acoma warriors, ordered by Oñate as a punishment after they were captured in battle.
Yet Garcia spoke of efforts on the part of the Acoma tribal leaders to seek a spirit of reconciliation and peace between Acoma and Spain—efforts that Father Antonio supports. On July 7, a first step toward reconciliation took place when Acoma leaders met with a delegation from Spain in Albuquerque.
My next stop was Zuni Pueblo, another 75 miles or so west of Acoma and near the Arizona border. "Zuni is the largest Indian pueblo in New Mexico," notes Father Dale Jamison, O.F.M., as we chat at St. Anthony Indian Mission where he has been pastor for nine years. A native of Detroit, Father Dale is also in charge of St. Anthony Indian School, as well as pastor of the old Zuni Mission of Our Lady of Guadalupe, founded in 1629.
What does he think about the 400th anniversary? Is there anything to celebrate? "Sure, there are things to celebrate," Father Dale replies, "like the coming of the Franciscans and the Catholic faith. Yes, there were failures, abuse, pride on the part of individuals—just as in the Church today. And we should acknowledge that.
"The early friars," he adds, "did not have the advantage of cross-cultural courses as many have today. Yet, they often learned the culture and the languages of the Pueblos....I’d say the people here are very appreciative of the friars."
A Stop at Franciscan Headquarters
On the southern outskirts of Albuquerque sits San Antonio Provincial Friary, the headquarters of the Franciscan Friars of the Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Today the 80-plus friars of this province serve in many of the Pueblo and Navajo missions of New Mexico and Arizona, as well as in several Hispanic parishes, including the archdiocesan Cathedral Parish of St. Francis in Santa Fe.
For the past eight years, Father Gilbert Schneider, O.F.M., a native of Hamilton, Ohio, has been provincial minister of the Albuquerque-based friars. Before that, he spent some 25 years serving several missions of New Mexico and Arizona.
Father Gilbert Schneider, Franciscan provincial minister, stands in front of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Peña Blanca, New Mexico.
At his office in Albuquerque, Father Gilbert shared his impressions of the early Franciscan missionaries in New Mexico and their successors down the centuries. Historians, he believes, sometimes paint an unfair picture of the Franciscan missionaries, accenting their shortcomings and ignoring their many virtues.
"The Spanish friars, I believe, had a positive relationship with the people in many cases," affirms Father Gilbert. "There were abuses, nobody denies—the friars were people of their age. Yet I personally think some of the first Franciscans had a tremendous respect for the sanctity of the Pueblo culture. My opinion is based on the way the two cultures—Pueblo and Spanish—have combined their rituals over the centuries.
"After celebrating midnight Mass, for example, the Pueblos dance all night long in the plaza and continue dancing for four days. They still do this today.
"In a similar vein, the Pueblo governors are inaugurated on the feast of Epiphany. They bring their canes [ceremonial canes given to them by the governments of Spain, Mexico and the United States as signs of the Pueblos’ sovereignty] and put them on the altar to be blessed by the priest. Such ceremonies show the meshing of Catholicism and their native culture."
San Felipe, Santo Domingo, Cochiti
The Pueblo of San Felipe, located on the banks of the Rio Grande about 25 miles north of Albuquerque, was celebrating the fiesta of its patron saint (St. Philip the Apostle) on the day of my visit. Hundreds of dancers—men, women and children in native dress—filled the main plaza as many hundreds more watched from rooftops of the adobe buildings encircling the plaza.
About 10 miles north of San Felipe lies the Pueblo of Santo Domingo. Santo Domingo, sometimes called the "Heart of the Pueblos," has always held a preeminence among the various Pueblo communities. In early Spanish times, moreover, it was the missionary headquarters of the Franciscans.
At the Pueblo of Cochiti, another 10 miles north of Santo Domingo, I joined one of the Franciscan pastors in celebrating the Eucharist at the mission Church of San Buenaventura. After the Mass, Cochiti Governor Joseph Suina kindly consented to answer some questions.
What is it like to grow up in both the Pueblo and the Catholic traditions? "It’s not very difficult," he replies. "By now, the Catholic calendar more or less coincides with ours—not always, but most of the time. The two systems are really leading to the same goal,...the same one God. Just as we have angels and saints in the Christian tradition, so also in the Indian tradition there are spirits similar to angels and saints."
Governor Suina saw a kinship between the Pueblos’ "respect for creation" and that found in Francis of Assisi. "Like St. Francis," he says, "our Pueblo tradition stresses a wholistic—all-inclusive—view of the world, including plants and animals and air, all things. We stress a natural harmony that is always there and must be maintained, for example, by preventing pollution of the environment."
The governor also spoke of political concerns. "Right now, we are in a struggle to hang on to our sovereignty. Legislation being proposed in Congress would weaken the sovereignty of Indian tribes. We would like to remind the powers that be that we have been given that sovereignty—as symbolized by the canes presented to us by Spain, Mexico and the United States."
Referring to the Pueblo Revolt, Suina pointed out that the Pueblos are "the only Indian group in the United States who successfully ousted a European nation."
Another member of the Cochiti community, Albert Arquero, also shared his thoughts on being Pueblo and Catholic. Two years ago, Arquero, now 65, was ordained a permanent deacon at St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe. Deacon Arquero had for many years served the church as sacristán, a position assigned by the Tribal Council itself.
He finds that now as a deacon he can do still more for the Catholic community at Cochiti. "Now I can conduct funerals, marriages, Baptisms and Communion services....I experience more commitment and responsibility toward the community," he says gently and with devout faith.
Arquero finds it easy "to harmonize the two religious traditions" in which he was raised. "The two traditions do not contradict each other," he says. "The Pueblo tradition takes nothing away from the Catholic tradition, and the Catholic tradition takes nothing away from the Pueblo tradition—they enrich each other. They are like two languages, such as English and Spanish, talking to the same God."
The Franciscan friars who serve at the Pueblos of San Felipe, Santo Domingo and Cochiti live at the friary and parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Peña Blanca, a small Hispanic town located between Santo Domingo and Cochiti. The Franciscan friars came to Peña Blanca in 1900 (from Cincinnati), only 65 years after the last Spanish friar left the same area in 1835.
Observing the Fourth Centenary: From Las Cruces to San Juan Pueblo
The fourth centenary observance began in earnest for New Mexico Catholics on April 30 in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Because of its proximity to the state’s southern border, it was a good site for commemorating the 1598 entry into New Mexico of the Spanish colonists and Franciscan missionaries.
Before dawn, a small group of young runners gathered in front of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Heart of Mary for a three-day, relay-style "400th Run." These runners would be joined along the way by other runners from other parts of the state and would end up—on Sunday morning, May 3—some 280 miles to the north at San Juan Pueblo, the site of the first permanent Spanish settlement in New Mexico.
Each runner received a traditional Indian blessing and a sprinkling with pollen by an Indian mentor. The start-off runners were Indian youth from the Apache community at Mescalero, New Mexico. (Franciscan friars from California have served at Mescalero since 1913.) The runners were reminded by their leaders of the "sacred land" over which they would run as they symbolically carried the cross of Christ across the New Mexico terrain.
A tribal leader raises pollen-covered fingers in a predawn blessing of young Apache women, starters of a relay run from Las Cruces to San Juan Pueblo.
In the evening at the same cathedral, a special Mass was celebrated to commemorate the arrival of the gospel of Christ in New Mexico. Represented at the liturgy were all the major groups who had a role in New Mexico history: Native Americans, Hispanic Americans (including descendants of the early Spanish colonists and visitors from Spain), Anglo-Americans and well over a dozen Franciscan friars from various provinces, some from as far away as Rome.
Readings, prayers, music and rituals were representative of the languages, cultures and traditions present. During his homily, Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan of Santa Fe stressed reconciliation and mutual respect. He also touched on other themes highlighted in his pastoral letter on the fourth centenary (see box below).
Letter on the Fourth Centenary|
Excerpts from "Seeds of Struggle: Harvest of Hope," by Archbishop Michael Sheehan, issued January 1, 1998
"If the Spaniards came to New Mexico thinking that they were going to introduce the native people to the divine, they were mistaken. For the Indian people here had for millennia worshiped the Great Spirit as the sustainer of all life. His will was made manifest to them in the cycles and mysteries of the natural world, of which they were part, not as masters, but reverent caretakers....
"It is clear to us today that there were many failings on the part of the Spanish, including the failings of the Franciscan friars....There was bloodletting on both sides, Spanish and native people. For these failings we seek forgiveness and reconciliation.
"The eminent Pueblo scholar and historian Professor Joe Sando...notes that the Pueblo Indians have fared much better under the Spanish than the Indians on the east coast of the United States. There are no Indian markets in Boston or New York! There Indian culture was pretty well destroyed. Here in New Mexico, Indian culture still flourishes."
On Sunday, May 3, the runners concluded their three-day run at San Juan Pueblo, some 30 miles north of Santa Fe, where Juan de Oñate and his colonists had ended their long journey in 1598.
An outdoor Mass was celebrated on a bluff above the Rio Grande River a short distance from where the first mission and settlement of San Gabriel once stood. Before the Mass, Earl Salazar, governor of San Juan Pueblo, came to the podium next to the altar and welcomed Archbishop Sheehan and others to San Juan Pueblo and the Mass, especially "the youth who participated in the run."
Governor Salazar referred to the significant meeting which had taken place at the pueblo the previous Sunday, attended by the 19 Pueblo nations and a delegation from Spain, headed by the vice president of Spain himself.
The governor explained: "We talked about how the encounter 400 years ago began a period of colonization which brought great suffering and pain among the Pueblo people and Spanish alike. But also how this same encounter achieved the merging of two cultures with mutual benefits in art, agriculture, trading, governance and the introduction to Catholicism."
After the governor’s welcome, the youth who took part in the relay run approached the altar to the beat of Indian drums. A tribal elder blessed them and reminded them that they are "our hope for the future" and that they should be "true Catholics."
Like the Mass in Las Cruces, the Youth Mass at San Juan Pueblo was a blend of the three cultures—Spanish, Native American and Anglo. The respectful interplay of the different cultures in these liturgies helped create a spirit of unity and reconciliation—boding well for the future of the People of God in New Mexico.
Jack Wintz, O.F.M., is senior editor of this publication and editor of Catholic Update. He is also the author of Lights: Revelations of God’s Goodness (St. Anthony Messenger Press), an inspirational book exploring the spirit of St. Francis.
Years of Franciscan Presence Among the Navajos|
By Murray Bodo, O.F.M.
Reverends Juvenal Schnorbus and Anselm Weber and Ven. Bro. Placidus Buerger, O.F.M., left Cincinnati, Ohio, Oct. 3 at 8 A.M. via B & O Railroad to St. Louis, Mo.... From Kansas City, Mo. to Gallup, New Mexico we travelled via Santa Fe Route and arrived at the latter place, Oct. 7, 3:30 A.M.
Having purchased the most necessary kitchen utensils and hired a barouche from Mr. Flahive, proprietor of a livery stable at Gallup, we bid adieu to this New Mexican city to reach St. Michael’s Mission, Arizona, which is situated about 29 miles from [the] above mentioned place.
A more desolate country, which one passes through between Gallup and St. Michael’s Mission, can hardly be imagined, if you except the picturesque rocks, which one meets frequently.
The Reverend Fathers were hence most agreeably surprised when at 4 P.M. we came in sight of a green meadow, and were told that this was St. Michael’s Mission.
Thus begins the house chronicle of Father Juvenal Schnorbus, the first superior of what was to become the Franciscan Missions among the Navajo. The year was 1898, a hundred years ago this October.
Father Juvenal, who found the land "desolate," was to leave the Navajo Nation by 1900. He was replaced by Fathers Berard Haile, the famous Navajo ethnologist and anthropologist, and Leopold Ostermann, who wrote many articles on Navajo anthropology and who championed the cause of the Navajo people with the federal government. Father Anselm Weber, who is known today as the apostle of the Navajo, was appointed the new superior, and Brother Placidus, a good cook with a friendly kitchen and a plethora of home remedies, became a great favorite of the Navajo people.
From these humble beginnings grew a century of Franciscan presence and evangelization among the Dineh, the Navajo people. Missions were erected throughout the Navajo Reservation, in both Arizona and New Mexico, so that, within a relatively short time, place names like Tohatchi, Chinle, Lukachukai, Klagetoh, Tsaile, Kayenta were no longer strange names to the Franciscans of the Cincinnati Province of St. John the Baptist.
The work of the first Franciscans among the Dineh is best summed up in a letter by Father Berard Haile in which he articulated a philosophy of Navajo evangelization:
"It seemed to me that one had to study [Navajo] customs, their outlook on life, on the universe, natural phenomena, their concepts on the origin of man, vegetation and animals, before one could approach them on religious matters. Here were human beings, intelligent, ingenious, industrious, religious, enormously so; why then approach them on a ‘you’re all wrong, listen to me’ basis? Traditions of long standing cannot be uprooted by such matter-of-fact statements as we are accustomed to, owing to our training."
How prophetic, enlightened and Franciscan were Father Berard’s words! Such is the way of St. Francis and his followers and their gift to the Dineh; and such is the gift of the Dineh to the Franciscans—their culture and way of life. These two ways of life have been in dialogue from the very beginning of the Franciscan presence among the Dineh, a thoroughly modern approach to missionary endeavor.
As Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1996 apostolic exhortation, The Consecrated Life, "It should not be forgotten that in many ancient cultures religious expression is so deeply ingrained that religion often represents the transcendent dimension of the culture itself. In this case true inculturation necessarily entails a serious and open religious dialogue, which ‘is not in opposition to the mission ad gentes’ and ‘does not dispense from evangelization’" (#79).
This ongoing dialogue begun by the Cincinnati Province of St. John the Baptist now continues into the 21st century among the Dineh and the Franciscans of the Albuquerque-based Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Murray Bodo, O.F.M., is a native of Gallup, New Mexico. His latest book is Tales of an Endishodi: Father Berard Haile and the Navajos, 1900-1961 (University of New Mexico Press).