Jean Baptiste Lamy

Born: 1814 - Died: 2-13-1888

By William H. Wroth

Jean Baptiste Lamy (1814-1888) was the first bishop and archbishop of the Diocese of Santa Fe. He was born in Lempdes in Auvergne, a region in southern France in October 1814, one of eleven children of Jean and Marie Dié Lamy. His parents were well-to-do town-dwelling peasants, his father serving at one time as mayor of Lempdes. The family was very pious. Another son (of the four who survived to adulthood) also became a priest and one sister became a nun. The third son married and two of his children also entered the holy orders. At the age of eight Jean Baptiste Lamy began attending a Catholic seminary in the town of Billom, run by the Jesuits. After nine years at this school, at the age of 18 he decided on the vocation of priest and entered first the seminary of Clermont, then the seminary at Mont-Ferrand outside the city of Clermont-Ferrand. This seminary, run by Suplician fathers, was a center for training priests to embark on foreign missions. After six years of study Lamy was ordained a priest in 1838 and assigned to a parish in the small town of Chapdes in the diocese of Clermont.

While at the Mont-Ferrand seminary Lamy became friends with a fellow student, Joseph Machebeuf who was ordained in 1836. Two years older than Lamy, Machebeuf was born in Riom south of Vichy in 1812. After his ordination he also was assigned to a small parish in Clermont. While Lamy and Machebeuf were seminarians, several priests returning from missionary work in America visited Mont-Ferrand, including Father Benedict Joseph Flaget, a former seminarian who had been bishop of Bardstown, Kentucky. Flaget and other returning priests no doubt piqued the interest of the young seminarians in exploring the missionary field.

In 1838, the Bishop of Cincinnati, Ohio, Jean Baptiste Purcell, wrote to the rector of Mont-Ferrand hoping to recruit some young priests to accompany him back to the United States as missionaries. Lamy, Machebeuf, and three other priests jumped at the opportunity. In July 1839 they joined Bishop Purcell’s party (which now included three nuns) in Le Havre for the departure to America. Six weeks later they arrived in New York, traveled to Baltimore to meet Archbishop Samuel Eccleston, and then went on to Cincinnati. Lamy was assigned to the parish of Danville, Ohio where he served for eight years, and Machebeuf went to Tiffin, Ohio. At Danville Lamy initiated and oversaw the construction of several new churches in outlying communities. In 1847 he moved to Covington, Kentucky, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, and then the next spring he went back to France for a visit. He returned with his sister Marguerite, the nun, who came to join the Ursuline Convent in the village of St. Martin, Brown County, Ohio (not Kentucky as some writers have it), which had been established by Bishop Purcell in 1845. With her was their little niece Marie, who lived in the convent and later also became an Ursuline nun.

After the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo gave sovereignty of the territories of New Mexico and Arizona to the United States. New Mexico, as a territory of Spain and then of Mexico, had been since colonial times under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Durango, but after the treaty ecclesiastical authority was transferred to the Catholic Church of the United States. In May 1849 the Provincial Council of the Catholic Church in Baltimore petitioned to Rome for the establishment of a provisional diocese (Vicariate Apostolic) in New Mexico to be headed by Lamy. In July 1850 the Vatican responded and established the Vicariate of New Mexico, naming Lamy as Vicar. In November Lamy was consecrated in Cincinnati, and he appointed Father Machebeuf to be his Vicar-General.

Lamy left immediately for his new post, going by way of New Orleans with his sister and niece whom he left at the Ursuline convent in that city. Lamy continued by ship to Galveston where he met with Bishop Jean Marie Odin who assigned him jurisdiction of three more towns near El Paso: Isleta, Socorro, and San Elizario. Bishop Odin advised Lamy not to proceed to New Mexico but rather to go to France first and bring some young French priests back with him to replace the Hispanic clergy in New Mexico whose moral and pastoral qualities he questioned. While Lamy did not follow the bishop’s advice to go to France, it was the first evidence of a cultural divide between European and native-born clergy that was to arise many times in his career in New Mexico.

Machebeuf caught up with Lamy in San Antonio and they traveled together to El Paso and then to New Mexico. Upon his arrival in New Mexico in June 1851 Lamy appeared at first to receive a warm welcome with a large and enthusiastic turnout of the populace as he made his way north from El Paso to Santa Fe. Reaching Santa Fe in August, he was again warmly greeted, but then the Vicario Foraneo (Rural Dean, in charge of the Santa Fe pastorate), Juan Felipe Ortiz informed Lamy that he (Ortiz) and the New Mexican priests under him did not recognize Lamy as the Bishop of Santa Fe. Ortiz said that the Bishop of Durango, José Antonio Zubiría y Escalante still had jurisdiction over Santa Fe. Ortiz said that he had not received official word from Durango that Zubiría was to be superseded by Lamy. To resolve this ambiguous situation, Lamy in September 1851 left Machebeuf in charge of ecclesiastical affairs in Santa Fe and set out on horseback for Durango, a distance of 800 miles (not 1400 or 1500 as some biographers have it). After a journey of five weeks Lamy reached Durango and was courteously received by Zubiría who had not yet been informed by the Vatican of the change in jurisdiction. Zubiría accepted the documents of appointment which Lamy carried with him and wrote a letter on his behalf to the New Mexico clergy instructing them to recognize and submit to Lamy as their new bishop.

Returning to Santa Fe in 1852, Lamy began a long series of confrontations with the local clergy. One of his chief opponents was the noted Taos priest Father Antonio José Martínez, who became the spokesman for the many complaints registered by the other clergy. One of their first confrontations was over the issue of tithing. Martínez had some 20 years earlier been successful in having tithing abolished in New Mexico due to the poverty of the populace. In December 1852 Lamy among other actions re-instituted tithing and declared that parishioners who did not tithe would be denied the sacraments. He also suspended the popular New Mexico-born priest Father José Manuel Gallegos who was the pastor of the San Felipe Nerí Church in Albuquerque and a former seminary student of Father Martínez. Gallegos was accused by Machebeuf and others of living a too worldly life. Lamy’s action produced a powerful backlash; not only did Martínez come unsuccessfully to Gallegos’s defense but over 900 citizens signed a petition in support of him.

The Vicariate Apostolic of New Mexico was officially made the Diocese of Santa Fe in August 1853. Early in 1854 Lamy went to Paris, then to Rome where he had an audience with Pope Pius IX. Among other subjects discussed with the Pope was the New Mexican confraternity known as the Brotherhood of Our Father Jesus, popularly called the Penitente Brotherhood. This organization was found in nearly every Hispanic community in New Mexico. The Brotherhood was devoted to pious emulation of the suffering of Christ and to charitable activities for the good of the community. The physical penance the brothers voluntarily suffered during Holy Week had deep roots in Catholic tradition but by the mid-1800s had long fallen out of favor among the Church hierarchy in Europe and North America. The Pope recommended that Lamy try to disband the order, but his attempts to do so forced the Penitente Brotherhood to become more secretive in their activities in order to circumvent Lamy’s orders.

In Rome Lamy convinced Spanish priest, Father Damaso Taladrid, to return with him to America and in Paris he found several French priests who were also willing to serve in parishes in New Mexico. Returning to New Mexico in the fall of 1854, Lamy soon came into conflict with Monsignor Juan Felipe Ortiz and suspended him from his priestly duties in Santa Fe. In 1856 he replaced Father Martínez in Taos with the Spanish priest Taladrid, against Martínez’s recommendation to appoint the New Mexican-born Father Ramón Medina. Martínez recommended Medina because, as he wrote to Lamy, “the people are terribly worried about the priesthood that is not native to the country.” Taladrid was not popular in Taos and quickly came into conflict with Martínez. Bishop Zubiría had years earlier given Martínez official responsibility for the Penitente brotherhood in Taos. Martínez was unwilling to cede this responsibility to Taladrid because he knew well that Taladrid, following Lamy’s wishes, would try to disband them. No longer the pastor in the Taos church, Martínez began to celebrate mass in his own family chapel and in others around the Taos valley. This and other issues caused Lamy to institute excommunication proceedings against Martínez and his associate Father Mariano Lucero, the priest at nearby Arroyo Hondo. After being excommunicated in April 1858, Martínez in defiance of Lamy continued to celebrate mass in private chapels. Due to Taladrid’s unpopularity in Taos, Lamy finally replaced him in 1857 with a young New Mexican-born priest José Eulogio Ortiz.

In the spring of 1858 Lamy established the first parish in Colorado in the town of Conejos and in 1860 appointed Machebeuf to be in charge of the parishes in northern Colorado. In 1866 he sent the French priest Jean Baptiste Salpointe, then at the parish in Mora, to Tucson to be in charge of the parishes of Arizona. In 1868 Machebeuf was elevated to Bishop of Colorado and Salpointe to Bishop of Arizona. The next year Lamy began construction of the new cathedral at Santa Fe. His dislike antipathy to New Mexican adobe architecture was expressed in the neo-Romanesque design and stone walls of the new cathedral and in the nearby stone neo-Gothic Loretto Chapel, which was completed in 1886. The cathedral was not finished enough to be consecrated until 1895 (seven years after Lamy’s death), and in fact it never was completely finished. The out-of-proportion three-tiered spires were, thankfully, never added to the structure as planned.

In February 1875 Lamy was elevated by the Vatican to Archbishop of Santa Fe. With the cathedral still far from finished, in 1884 Lamy retired and was succeeded by Salpointe. Archbishop Lamy died in Santa Fe February 13, 1888.

Sources Used:

Chavez, Fray Angelico. But Time and Chance: The Story of Padre Martínez of Taos, 1793-1867. Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 1981.

Horgan, Paul. Lamy of Santa Fe. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.

Kessell, John L. The Missions of New Mexico Since 1776. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1980.

Steele, Thomas J., S. J. Archbishop Lamy: In His Own Words. Albuquerque: LPD Press, 2000.

Warner, Louis H. Archbishop Lamy: An Epoch Maker. Santa Fe: Santa Fe New Mexican Publishing Corp., 1936.