Monday, February 08, 2021

A Little Old-time Religion


Northern New Mexico is overwhelmingly Catholic. But we don’t mean religiously. The Spanish, who came to the New World in the 16th century for “glory, gold and God,” are no longer attempting to forcibly convert everyone to the Catholic religion. But their “primitive” attempts to recreate the religious iconography of their home country have established themselves as THE art of the region.

“Santos” – 2-D “retablos” and 3-D “bultos” portray the Church’s saints. “Ex Voto” paintings tell the stories of their interventions in the lives of everyday people. Crosses made of straw (in lieu of gold), tin (not silver) or hand-carved from wood decorate the walls of both believers and non. A visitor might be hard-pressed to know whether they were in the home of a devoted Catholic, a museum, a chapel or an art collector’s casita.

Catholic churches are the focal points of most northern New Mexico villages. Some are simple buildings maintained for centuries by parishioners, townspeople and historic preservationists – organic-looking structures sculpted from adobe with old-world charm. Religious folk art adorns the walls and altars.

Roadside crosses (descansos) mark the spot on earth where loved ones took their last breath. Calvario crosses of the Penitentes appear randomly on hills – and by design in the paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe.

Hispanics in northern New Mexico still maintain strong family and Catholic ties, and continue to honor traditions associated with both. On holidays there may be religious processions – most notably the pilgrimage to the Santuario de Chimayo, an hour's drive north of Santa Fe. Constructed in 1816, the sanctuary has long been a worshiping site for Catholics who attribute miraculous healing powers to the earth found in the chapel's anteroom. Several days before Easter, fervent believers begin walking the highway headed to Chimayo, some carrying large crosses – others nothing but small bottles of water – most praying for a miracle.

But our recent talk with new Santa Fe friends L & J reminded us that Catholicism is not the only system of faith and worship in our new home state. In fact religion has always been a central, defining element in New Mexico’s history ­beginning with the Pueblo people.

In his novel “Alburquerque,” Rudolfo Anaya has one of his main characters explain the spiritual roots of Santuario de Chimayo. “Before there was the raza [hispanics] here, the Indians used to come to this place. Chimayo is an Indian word; you see, they had named their universe and the sacred places. They used the earth for healing. The Mexicano who built the first chapel saw a saint standing over this spot. The earth is sacred.”

Within the Puebloan cosmos all living creatures are mutually dependent and every relationship, whether with a person, an animal, or a plant, has spiritual significance. A hunter prays before killing a deer, asking the creature to sacrifice itself to the tribe. The harvesting of plants requires prayer, thanks, and ritual.

The Puebloans believe that their ancestors originally lived under the ground – the source of all life. The first people, encouraged by burrowing animals, entered the world of humans – the "fourth" world – through a hole, a sipapu. Rituals and deities vary from tribe to tribe, but most believe this world is enclosed by four sacred mountains, where the sacred colors – coral, black, turquoise, and yellow or white ­– predominate. 

Not surprisingly given the co-mingling of Native religion and Catholicism exemplified by Santuario de Chimayo, many Pueblo Natives will tell you that they practice BOTH their tribal religion AND Catholicism. 

Our research has turned up some (we think) interesting history on three of the other denominations here in New Mexico: United Methodist, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Presbyterian – the subject of our discussion with L and J.

An Area of Degradation and Ignorance

In her historical novel “Not Ordered by Men, the first 100 years of History of First Presbyterian Church of Santa Fe,” T.D. Allen tells the church’s beginning from viewpoint of Jennie St. John Mitchell, wife of the General Robert B. Mitchell, New Mexico’s Territorial Governor from 1866 to 1869. In the novel Mrs. Mitchell writes to the Presbyterian Church’s Board of Domestic Missions imploring them to send a minister to Santa Fe.

“I want above all else to see my church come into this area of degradation and ignorance. It is well known that Presbyterians have ever gone into this country’s frontiers, fostering hand-in-hand both faith and truth, carrying the Bible in one hand and readers and spellers in the other, building...both churches and schools.” 

An actual 1866 letter written by Mrs. Isabella Graham in 1866 paints a more detailed picture. “Children and dogs run the streets all day long, splashing in the odorous puddles where swill collects. There are no schools as you know them, and none but Catholic churches. The Catholics are building a great church...but the saloon keepers have out built everybody. The poor men of Protestant persuasion who are stationed here in the Army are left with no worthwhile diversion...The town is a living example of the filth and degradation to which human beings can sink when they are not enlightened and are left without the uplifting influences of the Church.”

While Mrs. Mitchell’s letter may be fictional, Church records show that she was one of the original members of First Presbyterian Church, and invited the congregation to have its first worship service in the Council Chamber of the governor’s residence. 

Sent by the Board of Domestic Missions, the Rev. David F. McFarland stepped off the stage in Santa Fe on November 22, 1866. He called on Mrs. Mitchell the next day. The first worship service was held two days later with forty persons present, many of them Army wives in their late twenties. Sabbath School was held that afternoon. With a petition signed by twelve persons, McFarland officially organized the church in the Palace of the Governors on January 6, 1867 – at the time the only Protestant church in New Mexico.  In March of that year, the ruins of an unsuccessful Baptist Church were purchased for $5,100. The church remains in that same location, 208 Grant Avenue, today. 

The new parish struggled in its early years. All original trustees were gone – three had moved and two had been murdered. The only person on the rolls in 1874 was the postmaster. By 1881, however the old adobe structure was replaced with a new red brick building and a Victorian style manse was built nearby.  The following photo shows the sanctuary in 1955.

In 1908, Rev. Hugh A. Cooper, a Presbyterian pastor in Albuquerque, founded the Southwest Presbyterian Sanatorium, a facility for the hundreds of indigent tuberculosis victims he often visited since he himself moved from Iowa to ABQ in 1903 as a TB patient. In 1950, with tuberculosis under control, the “San” evolved into The Presbyterian Hospital Center. Today Presbyterian Healthcare Services owns and operates eight hospitals in seven New Mexico communities (one in our part of Santa Fe) as well as the Presbyterian Health Plan. 

The church also operates Ghost Ranch, a 21,000-acre retreat and education center located near the village of Abiquiú in north central New Mexico – former site of the home and studio of Georgia O'Keeffe, as well as the subject of many of her paintings. Originally won in a poker game in 1928 by Roy Pfaffle, it was so-named by his wife Carol Stanley (the legal owner of the property) who constructed guest quarters and created an exclusive dude ranch that was visited by many of the wealthy and creative people of the time – the “Mother of American Modernism” among them. Many of Stanley’s friends moved to New Mexico for its peaceful atmosphere. In 1935 she sold the ranch to one of them, Arthur Newton Pack, writer and editor of Nature Magazine. Pack and his wife Phoebe gave the ranch to the Presbyterian Church in 1955 where it is now open to the public for “the spiritual health and well being of all mankind.”

Hello. My name is Elder Hamblin...”

Along I-25 between Santa Fe and Albuquerque stands The Mormon Battalion Monument – an historic obelisk built in honor of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who served in the United States Army's Mormon Battalion during the Mexican-American War of 1846 -1848, and traversed New Mexico from its northeast to its southwest corner in 1846.

Significant LDS contact in the territory did not occur however until 1876 when Jacob Hamblin and James S. Brown, two members of a group of missionaries assigned to Mexico, found some success proselytizing among the Zuni and Navajo in the western of the territory. That year Mormon missionaries founded the settlement of Savoia, about twenty miles east of the Zuni village, and were joined by LDS converts from the southern states. In 1882 they relocated a few miles south to a village they named Ramah, which continues today as a predominantly LDS community – and was a major focus in a landmark 1941 interdisciplinary Harvard study of the village’s five cultures: 500 Navajo, 40 Spanish-Americans, 300 Mormons, 130 Texans (aka “El Morro People”) and 30 “Southwestern Anglos.” (Today there are 470 residents.) 

“Unlike their brethren in other parts of the Southwest whose ideology and colonization techniques brought relatively good relations with the Navajos, the Ramah Mormons never succeeded to any degree in overcoming the [passive Navajo hostility]… and only a few of the Indians would work for or learn from the Mormon settlers.” An influx of Texas cattle ranchers followed by Anglo farmers eventually took over much of the land. The Indian Service Administration moved the Natives to the south and decreed the sending of their children to Indian Boarding Schools leading to more resentment. Spanish-Americans, mainly sheep herders, moved in and became the dominant group. They were followed and displaced both in numbers and power by more Texans who also overruled the Mormons. By the time of the study, “virtually no Ramah Mormons had nay but bitter word for the “Administration...and any small success against ‘Washington’ was greeted happily.”

Latter-day Saints also settled in northwestern New Mexico along the San Juan River at Fruitland, Kirtland, Waterflow and Bluewater. (For a time Brigham Young, Jr. maintained one of his residences at Fruitland.) Additional LDS congregations were established in western New Mexico at Pleasanton, Socorro County (1882) – and at Virden, Hidalgo County (1915), which was settled by Mormon refugees from south of the border dislodged by the Mexican Revolution. In the first third of the 20th century, congregations were organized at Albuquerque, Gallup, Taos, Silver City, Clovis, Tres Piedras, Pagosa Springs, and Thoreau. In 2000 the first temple in New Mexico was dedicated in Albuquerque. By 2010 there were 67,637 New Mexican Mormons.

The Snowshoe Itinerant

Following the example set by its founder John Wesley in England a century earlier to take the message to where the people were instead of waiting for the people to come to them, hundreds of dedicated circuit riders like “Father” John L Dyer (aka “The Snowshoe Itinerant”) spread Methodism throughout the frontier areas of the United States. (The title was not conferred by the Methodist Church but was bestowed the people as a sign of respect and endearment. The “snowshoes” were actually nine to eleven foot Norwegian skis made of pine or spruce.) Dyer’s itinerant ministry included much of present-day Colorado and New Mexico and lasted almost four decades. It was a difficult life with minimal financial compensation. And preaching often took place in very informal, frequently quite seedy, settings.

Dyer was present when Colonel and Pastor John Chivington, the presiding elder, said of Native Americans, “I am fully satisfied, gentlemen, that to kill them is the only way we will ever have peace and quiet.” Chivington later led a regiment of Colorado Volunteers to the Sand Creek reservation where, true to his word, he slaughtered 200 Cheyenne including women and children – the “Sand Creek Massacre.”

As Dyer began to travel into New Mexico, he noted of the Apache, “If sighted by them it was necessary to outrun them, kill them, or get scalped.” Later he declared it, was “impossible to tame and educate an Indian until he is subdued...We can but desire the Navajo tribe to become enlightened and as perfect in religion as their squaws were in weaving blankets.”

In 1882 W. W. Welsh, the presiding elder of the MEC,S (Methodist Episcopal Church, South) in Colorado, said of the 10,000 Pueblo Indians in New Mexico, saying, “They are feeble in intellect, unable to originate, but can imitate like monkeys.” (An 1844 dispute over the ownership of two slaves by an MEC Bishop led Methodists in the South to break off and form a separate denomination.)

The Women’s Home Missionary Society of the church established schools among the Jicarilla Apache in Dulce and on the Navajo Reservation in the 1880s. In 1891 they helped create the Navajo Mission School, which like other Indian boarding schools operated on the principle of “kill the Indian, save the man.” “Not provided were the love and care you would get from a parent,” recalled one former student. Another was told by his father, “What have you done. You are a Navajo. And your Navajo religion is over here.’”

Methodism came to in Santa Fe in 1850 with the arrival of Reverend E.G. Nicholson. Nineteen years later “Father” Dyer visited to convey his support for a permanent parish. Shortly thereafter an adobe structure with a short steeple was built on San Francisco Street to house the St John’s Methodist-Episcopal Church. Now known as St. John’s United Methodist Church the parish is located on Old Pecos Trail near Museum Hill. 

And we must mention...

In recent years, New Mexico has become known (and ridiculed) for its New Age pilgrims and practitioners – and their alternative churches, healing centers, and healing schools.  "A spiritual mini-mecca for a semi-godless age,” per the New York Times.  The roots of the movement are hard to trace. But many alternative believers seem to have been drawn by the spirituality, beliefs and deeply-felt connection to the land of the Pueblo people.

While others may laugh, we think that the Natives might be grateful to finally have someone who likes them just the way they are.

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