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Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop

Following the conquest of the Southwest by the United States, Archbishop Lamy became the first bishop of Santa Fe. When he arrived in the early 1850s, he found only nine priests in New Mexico. He proceeded to bring a large number of priests from France and other European countries. Apparently unappreciative of Hispanic culture, he quickly came into conflict with the small number of Mexican clergy in his diocese. He eventually excommunicated five Spanish-speaking clergymen, ostensibly for concubinage. He was also vehemently opposed to and eventually led a suppression of the Penitentes. Before the 1850s, Padre Antonio José Martínez de Taos had been the ecclesiastical leader of northern New Mexico. His bishop was in Durango in Mexico, six hundred miles to the south. In Willa Cather's bestseller, Martínez is portrayed as cruel and corrupt, whose mouth was "the very assertion of violent uncurbed passions and tyrannical self-will," a debauched man who fathers numerous illegitimate children, steals the land of peasants, and foments armed rebellion against the Anglos. Recently, Padre Martínez's defenders have depicted the priest in a far more favorable light, as a deeply religious protector of the poor who resisted Bishop Lamy's threat to withhold the sacraments from church members who refused to tithe, giving the church ten percent of their income. In reality, both of these men were of flesh and bone and their stories reveal both good and bad for each of them.