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Franciscans: Those who are Less Known

Franciscans: Beyond the Colonial Monuments

Less well-known are the hundreds of Franciscan friars who continued to work, for the most part very quietly, in New Mexico and the Southwest throughout the twentieth century and down to the present.

By Jack Clark Robinson, O.F.M.

Elsewhere on this website, you can find several references to Franciscan friars who had an important part in the early history of New Mexico.  One twentieth-century Franciscan, Fray Angelico Chavez, also has his place here.  But less well-known are the hundreds of Franciscan friars who continued to work, for the most part very quietly, in New Mexico and the Southwest throughout the twentieth century and down to the present.

In 1898, at the behest of Mother Katharine Drexel, the founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, Franciscan friars from Cincinnati, Ohio went to work among the Navajo Indians at St. Michaels, Arizona, about twenty-five miles from Gallup, New Mexico.  Then in 1900, this same group of Franciscans in Cincinnati sent friars to Peña Blanca, a Hispanic village between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, where the friars also began to work among the Cochiti, Santo Domingo and San Felipe Pueblo peoples.  Other missions followed in rapid succession at Jemez Pueblo, in Roswell, Cuba, Farmington, Gallup, Zuni, Acoma and Laguna Pueblos [there is something strange abour the preceeding list].  In 1916, Franciscans from California came to work among the Mescalero Apache Indians.  In 1919, one of the Cincinnati-based Franciscans, Albert Daeger, who was at the time the pastor at Jemez Pueblo, became the Archbishop of Santa Fe. 

In 1935, yet a third group of Franciscan friars, Conventual Franciscans from Indiana, began to work in Carlsbad, and then eventually in Hobbs, Artesia, Lovington and throughout southeastern New Mexico.  In 1940, the Roman Catholic church cut the northwestern part of New Mexico and the northeastern part of Arizona, encompassing both the Navajo Reservation and its surrounding area, away from the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and formed this vast territory into the Diocese of Gallup.  Bernard Espelage, one of the Cincinnati-based Franciscans, became the first Catholic bishop of Gallup.  By the 1950s, there were over one hundred Franciscan friars ministering in New Mexico.

The work that the Franciscans did was as varied as the landscape and people of New Mexico itself.  In Santa Fe, Franciscan friars ministered within the shadow of the State capitol at the Cathedral of St. Francis.  They were also at the Cathedral in Gallup.  They were in the South Valley of Albuquerque, among tenth-generation New Mexicans in little northern New Mexican villages such as Los Ojos and Conjilon, with Anglo settlers as well as arriving immigrants in Clovis, Roswell and throughout the east and southeast of the State, and they were among Native Americans.  Besides serving urban Indians in Gallup and Albuquerque, the Franciscans were missionaries among the Mescalero and Jicarilla Apaches and among the Navajos of Tohatchi, Shiprock, Waterflow and the rest of northwest New Mexico.  They were with the Pueblos of Zuni, Acoma, Laguna, Jemez, Zia, Santa Ana, San Felipe, Santo Domingo, Cochiti, Tesuque, San Ildefonso and Santa Clara.  They ministered the sacraments of their Church; they counseled the troubled, opened schools, served as social service agents and advocates for the poor, gave innumerable rides to travelers in need across vast stretches of New Mexico, and they kept records.  Starting in the early 1900s, the Franciscans at St. Michaels, Arizona and throughout the Navajo Reservation kept a census of the Navajo people, often the only record of who was there.  Likewise in the Native American Pueblos and in rural Hispanic villages, the sacramental records of births, marriages and burials, which the Franciscans kept, remained the primary vital statistics for these communities into the middle of the twentieth century.

In the late 1950s, Franciscans began two new ministries.  In Mesilla Park in 1957, Franciscans from California opened a retreat house, a place for ordinary people to go apart and spend some quiet time in spiritual renewal.  Over the years, Holy Cross Retreat House became a center for not only Catholic retreats but also for ecumenical and community programs of many sorts.  From the arrival of the first Franciscan missionaries among the Navajo in 1898, friars had worked hard to be able to communicate with the people in their native language.  Berard Haile, who arrived in the Southwest in 1900, became a world-renowned scholar of the Navajo language and culture.  With other friars, Haile published dozens of academic and catechetical works, often printed on their own press there at St. Michaels, Arizona, incorporating special letters to represent the particular sounds of the Navajo language which do not occur in English.  Other friar linguists continued the tradition of trying to reach out to the Navajo people in their own language.  On the 8th of May, 1958 , Cormac Antram launched a weekly radio program in the Navajo language, “The Padre’s Hour,” which has continued without interruption for more than fifty years.

As New Mexico went through enormous social and cultural changes in the 1960s and 1970s, so did the Roman Catholic Church.  The Franciscans in New Mexico changed in response to both their surroundings and their Church.  From 1963 through 1965, all of the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church in the world, including Bernard Espelage from Gallup, New Mexico, gathered in a meeting in Rome known as the Second Vatican Council.  As a result of that meeting, a new emphasis was placed on “inculturation” of the Gospel message of the Church that is on the use of the local languages and customs of faithful Catholics as a part of their worship.  The “global” Roman Catholic Church sought over the next several decades to make itself “local” wherever it might be. 

At the same time, the United States underwent a vast transformation in the area civil rights and the recognition of the dignity of diverse minority groups.  A “Navajo Liberation Group” formed in Farmington, New Mexico.  The All Indian Pueblo Council fought for the recognition of Native rights and tribal sovereignty.  New Mexico had its own local take on struggles for Chicano/a Power.  In their own way, the Franciscan friars in New Mexico sought organizational recognition of their unique lives in the Southwest.  In 1976, the approximately twenty Franciscans of southeast New Mexico, who had their roots in Indiana, formed the Custody of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  A “Custody” among Franciscans is a local group, still tied to its parent body but somewhat independent and usually hoping to become completely independent in the not too distant future.  In 1985, the larger group of approximately eighty Franciscans in New Mexico, along with about twenty of their brothers on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, all of whom had their origins with the Franciscans in Cincinnati, formed an independent Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  Over time, the friars of the Custody of Our Lady of Guadalupe rejoined their “mother province” in Indiana, but the Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe has continued into the twenty-first century with their Provincial headquarters in Albuquerque.  The friars from California continued to work in Mescalero and Tularosa into the twenty-first century as well, though they sold the retreat house in Mesilla Park to the Franciscans of the Custody of Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1979.

The influence of Franciscan friars has continued throughout more than four hundred years of New Mexican history.  Even when there were no friars in the State, from 1848 to 1900, their legacy could be found in the presence of Catholicism among Pueblo Native Americans, in names (The complete name of the State capital is “El Villa Real de Santa Fe de San Francisco de Assis.”), in the architecture and in the spirituality which permeates northern New Mexico.  But their legacy is not only that they have been here, but that they remain a part of life in the Land of Enchantment.