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Fray Angelico Chavez
By Suzanne Stamatov
On 10 April 1910 Fabián Chavéz and María Nicolasa Roybal de Chávez welcomed the birth of their first child, Manuel Ezequiel Chávez, in the small northern town of Wagon Mound, New Mexico. The family, which would eventually include ten children, briefly left New Mexico moving to San Diego, California, where Fabián worked as a carpenter for the Panama-California Exposition. While in San Diego, most likely at the exposition itself, Manuel learned of the important role of the Franciscans in the history of the Americas. Upon the family’s return to New Mexico, Manuel attended the local public school in Mora run by the Sisters of Loretto. As early as the fourth or fifth grade, he announced his desire to become a Franciscan. During a mission visit given by the Franciscan Father Jerome Hesse, Manuel expressed his wish to Father Hesse. In later years, Fray Angelico Chavez, referred to it as a bittersweet calling that urged “me as a lad to leave my father’s house and a landscape which was my life, and to forego all future normal contacts with men and women, in order to go into a different world which the Lord would show me.”
Answering the call, in the fall of 1924, the fourteen-year-old Manuel left New Mexico for the Saint Francis Seraphic Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio. For the next thirteen years, Manuel and his fellow students lived a highly regimented life, with set times for classes, homework, eating, exercising, sleeping, and praying. The teachers, who were friar priests, gave the boys a broad education and incorporated participation in plays, skits, and choral and instrumental groups. In this atmosphere, Manuel’s interests in literature and the arts blossomed. The Brown and White, a student-run periodical, served as an outlet for Manuel’s creativity. He made over forty contributions, ranging from lyric poetry and humor to serious examinations of religious themes, and served as the editor in his senior year. He also painted pictures of Saint Francis and Saint Anthony and, with permission, decorated the bare walls of the recently built seminary. It was during this period that the rector of the seminary gave Manuel the name Angélico after the medieval artist Fra Angelico da Fiesole.
In 1937 Manuel Ezequiel Chávez returned to New Mexico to be ordained as the Franciscan friar, Angelico Chavez, in Saint Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe. In his first assignment, the parish of Peña Blanca, Fray Angelico worked as a missionary traveling between the disparate missions, baptizing more than 450 children and presiding over forty weddings. It was during this tenure that the friar worked to renovate the church in Peña Blanca. In order to preserve New Mexico’s visual and material history, he conducted research and did the construction work himself, thus assuring a historically accurate renovation. He also painted murals of the Stations of the Cross, incorporating images of himself, his family, and his parishioners. With this experience, he went on to renovate other churches in Domingo Station and Cerrillos.
After this six-year assignment, Fray Angelico acted as army chaplain from 1943 to 1946, participating in two beach-head landings with troops in the Pacific islands. After the war, he lived at the Saint Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe and acted as a mission band member. He then returned to Peña Blanca in 1948 and stayed until he left for army duty in Europe during the Korean War. Upon return in the summer of 1953, he received an assignment as an associate at Jémez Pueblo. At Jémez, he began a pilgrimage with La Conquistadora, a statue of the Virgin Mary, carrying her to ninety-five churches, preaching eighty-five sermons, and participating in eighty-two processions. Between 1959 and 1964, Fray Angelico acted as the pastor of the parish of Cerrillos. After a brief time at the Holy Family Friary in Albuquerque, Fray Angélico returned to Peña Blanca, where he lived for seven years. In both Albuquerque and Peña Blanca, Chávez worked on writing and research.
In addition to painting, Fray Angelico continued to write poetry throughout his various positions. In 1947, he also turned, once again, to the history of the Franciscans in the Americas and decided to study their unique history in New Mexico. While digging for the golden nuggets of Franciscan history in the archdiocesan archives, he instead came across baptismal, marriage, and death records that revealed much about the families who had settled the region. He wrote: “It was like the case of a miner who sifted a hill of ore for gold, setting aside any silver he encountered; in the end the silver far outweighed the gold. The only thing to do was to render the silver useful.” He compiled the silver and published the Origins of New Mexico Families: A Genealogy of the Spanish Colonial Period in 1954. Genealogists searching for their familial roots have found the book invaluable.
During this same period, Fray Angelico also began a research documentary evidence regarding the history of the statue of La Conquistadora. Revered amongst New Mexicans, the small willow statue purportedly came to New Mexico with don Diego de Vargas. Scholars of the time, however, believed that La Conquistadora’s origins were relatively recent and that much of her history was legend. This doubt about the statue’s authenticity pained Fray Angelico, believing that it implied that New Mexicans had difficulty keeping track of their history and that their religion was stained by myth. As he sifted through the genealogical documents, he also set aside the documentary evidence relating to the statue. In the spring of 1947, he obtained a copy of a document from the Archive of the Indies in Seville, Spain, providing details of the trip of Father Alonso de Benavides who came to New Mexico in 1625 to assume responsibility of the Franciscan missions. The document revealed that Benavides had carried with him a crate containing the Virgin; it also listed the crate’s dimensions. After measuring the statue in the cathedral, Fray Angélico believed that he had solved the mystery of the date of the arrival of La Conquistadora.
Due to his painstaking research of the colonial documents and his various publications, Fray Angelico received attention from prominent historians and struck up a friendship with France V. Scholes, professor of history and dean of the graduate school at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. Scholes, an expert in Spanish paleography and Spanish colonial history, assisted Fray Angelico with his historical endeavors by providing, instruction, books and valuable citations. In the early fifties, Scholes handed Fray Angelico a copy of a manuscript written by Fray Francisco Atanasio Domínguez about his ecclesiastical inspection of the New Mexican missions and churches in the years 1776 to 1777. He suggested that Fray Angélico undertake a translation of the manuscript. Chavez enthusiastically agreed. Scholes, however, had handed the very same document to his research assistant, Eleanor B. Adams, several years earlier. She had been working on the manuscript ever since. Months later, when she found out about Scholes’s blunder, she was furious at him. Graciously, Chavez told her that he would give her all of his work. After the two discussed the issue, however, they decided to work together. The result of their joint endeavor was the publication of the Missions of New Mexico, 1776. The book has become a time-honored source on eighteenth-century New Mexico.
Infused in Chavez’s historical work was the idea that he was uncovering a history of his land and his people that many thought was lost, righting the wrongs of the dominant history of his time and setting straight mysteries like the time line for La Conquistadora. When Chavez was in his late teens, a novelist in Taos, quoted in the local newspaper, said that the Spanish people of New Mexico were “a washed-out race.” In his youthful anger, Chavez wrote a letter to the editor suggesting that the “offending writer [be] tarred and feathered, and then ridden out of the region on a log.” As a historian, however, he had acquired the tools to show how racist writers and historians had marred the history of New Mexico. Early Anglo writers depicted Hispanics, including members of the clergy, as immoral, dishonest, and dishonorable with tendencies to drink, gamble, and engage in immoral sexual behavior. Chavez set out to counter this prevailing view, highlighted in Willa Cather’s novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, by studying the lives of Padre Antonio José Martínez and Padre José Manuel Gallegos. In his study of Martínez, for example, Chavez found that the priest had had enlightened educational views, had operated one of the early printing presses in New Mexico, and had supported “the equal rights of all men without distinction.” Fray Angelico believed that Martínez was a “major genius” of his time and that Hispanics needed to know their true history.
While Fray Angelico Chavez studiously examined the documentary records, he also performed all the duties of a Franciscan friar. The impact of Vatican II on his life as a friar was apparently profound, and he left the Franciscan Order and the priesthood in 1971. Many priests of the time found that Vatican II had raised numerous questions for them about their place in the church. Although Chavez never signed a dispensation from his vows as a Franciscan, the Franciscan Order considered that he was no longer a formal member. During this period, when he had neither formally left the church nor had he physically returned, some in the church hierarchy called for his administrative dismissal. When, in 1974, Robert Sánchez became archbishop, he tried to reintegrate Fray Angelico into the church by naming him the official archivist of the Archdiocese. One observer noted that through his kindness, concern and friendship, Archbishop Sánchez led Fray Angelico to reconciliation with the Church. On several previous occasions, Archbishop Sánchez had encouraged Fray Angelico "to concelebrate with him; to again make whole his person and by the public concelebration repair whatever scandal may have been given by Angelico in divorcing himself from the Church." On Christmas Eve, having reconciled with the Church, Fray Angelico concelebrated Mass.
Years later, Crispin Butz, the head of the local Franciscan community, worked with Chavez to be reinstated as a Franciscan friar. In December 1989, he moved into the Saint Francis Friary, once again a Franciscan friar. Throughout his life, as a poet, historian, and artist, he had endeavored to live by the highest Franciscan ideal: to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Chavez, Fray Angelico. My Penitente Land: Reflection on Spanish New Mexico. Santa Fe, Museum of New Mexico Press, 1993.
Chavez, Fray Angelico.Origins of New Mexico Families: A Genealogy of the Spanish Colonial Period. Santa Fe, Museum of New Mexico Press, 1992.
Chávez, Thomas E. “Memories of Fray Angélico Chávez.” In Fray Angélico Chávez: Poet, Priest, and Artist,ed. Ellen McCracken, 135-142. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000.
García, Mario T. “Fray Angélico Chávez, Religiosity, and New Mexican Oppositional Historical Narrative.” In Fray Angélico Chávez: Poet, Priest, and Artist, ed. Ellen McCracken, 25-36. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000.
McCracken, Ellen. “A Rose for Fray Angélico Chávez: Homage to New Mexico’s Foremost Twentieth-Century Humanist.” In Fray Angélico Chávez: Poet, Priest, and Artist,ed.
Ellen McCracken, 1-7. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000.
Robinson, Jack Clark, O.F.M., “Fray Angélico Chávez: The Roots of Franciscan Priesthood.” In Fray Angélico Chávez: Poet, Priest, and Artist,ed. Ellen McCracken, 111-125. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000.
Simmons, Marc. “Fray Angélico Chávez: The Making of a Maverick Historian.” In Fray Angélico Chávez: Poet, Priest, and Artist, ed. Ellen McCracken, 11-23. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000.