Seeds of Struggle, Harvest of Faith:

Four Hundred Years of Catholicism in New Mexico 

A Pastoral Letter from Michael J. Sheehan, Archbishop of Santa Fe

January 1, 1998


It is with joy in my heart and gratitude to our loving God that I address you, dear brothers and sisters of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. Nineteen hundred ninety-eight marks the 400th anniversary of the establishment of the Catholic Church in New Mexico. In 1598 Don Juan de Oņate, leader of an expedition of Spanish colonists, including eight Franciscan friars, reached the east bank of the Rio Grande near its confluence with the Chama River, close to Espaņola, and established its capital. The seeds of Catholicism were planted, took root and flourished. It is important for us to celebrate this historic moment and to reflect upon God’s goodness to us and to our Church.

The history of the struggles and the accomplishments of the people who came to this remote corner of the Spanish Empire is fascinating. The threads that run through the fabric of 400 years is clearly a strong faith in God that has had such a powerful influence in the lives of the people.


In the 28th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, the Risen Savior gives His disciples the great commission: "Go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." All those that are true followers of Jesus, not merely His admirers, have sought to obey that command. Thus it was with those who sought to bring the Gospel to the deserts, mountains and valleys of our beloved New Mexico 400 years ago.

In the 6th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, there is a debate in the Sanhedrin about what should be done with the new Christian movement. Wise counsel was given when it was declared, "If this endeavor is of human origin, then it will destroy itself. But if it is of God, no one will be able to destroy it, it shall endure." This can be said of the faith first planted in New Mexico; if it had been based on human genius and merit, then we would not be celebrating its 400th anniversary - it would have failed. But since it is God who provides the seed and the harvest, the faith established here four centuries ago has not only endured, but flourished - even in the face of much struggle.


It has often been said that the first Spanish explorers came to the New World for three things: glory, gold and God. This was true also in New Mexico. But if they came for all three, they only stayed for God and his service since they never found glory and gold. However, the Spanish explorers found a large population of native people, whom they believed deserved to hear the Gospel. New Mexico, then, was established as a colony first and foremost as a mission to the Indians.

This missionary effort was begun by the Sons of St. Francis of Assisi, known today simply as Franciscans, whose sandal shod feet carried the Good News to the various tribes. Franciscan spirituality is therefore indelibly imprinted into the soul of New Mexico Catholicism. This is evident in the popular religiosity of the people even today, and in the names given to villages and objects of great natural beauty: the Royal Village of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi (the City of Santa Fe); Holy Cross (the village of Santa Cruz); St. Claire (Santa Clara Pueblo); the Blood of Christ (the Sangre de Cristo Mountains); etc.

If the Spaniards came to New Mexico thinking that they were going to introduce the native peoples to the divine, they were mistaken. For the Indian people here had for millennia worshiped the Great Spirit as the sustainer of all life. His will was made manifest to them in the cycles and mysteries of the natural world, of which they were a part, not as masters, but reverent caretakers. The stability and order in nature was to be emulated in the daily life of the community. In all, their spirituality was a rich one, similar to the revelation given the people of Israel. The Indians’ "Old Testament," was waiting for fulfillment in the Redeemer of all humankind. Their hearts thus provided a receptive soil for the seeds of the Gospel.


An encounter between two vastly different people will inevitably result in bringing out the best and worst in both. This was true in New Mexico as the Spanish and Indians first faced each other four centuries ago. The Spanish felt that they had to make the Indians copies of themselves in order to make them good Christians. Naturally, the Indians resented this, and in their rejection of this "Europeanization," some rejected the evangelization efforts as well. This resulted in a very sad chapter in New Mexico’s history, as the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 pitted one group of God’s children against another.

There was eventually a reconciliation in 1692. As the old Spanish proverb says, No hay mal de que por bien no venga. (There is no evil from which good cannot come). This was true of the understanding reached between the two peoples after they agreed to peacefully coexist. The Spanish returned with a greater humility, still intent on preaching the Gospel, but seeking to do so in a way that respectfully took into account all that was good and holy in the native beliefs. The Indians, for their part, realized that they could not turn the clock back and that much of what the Spanish brought was beneficial, including the Catholic faith whose ritual and symbolism was similar to their beliefs and practices.

It is clear to us today that there were many failings on the part of the Spanish, including the failings of the Franciscan friars. There were incidences of cruelty and mistreatment, lack of respect for the native autonomy, culture and religious values. There was bloodletting on both sides, Spanish and native people. For these failings we seek forgiveness and reconciliation.

Yet despite the failings, so much good has come to all people. Can you imagine the past 400 years without the cattle, horses and mules brought by the Spanish? What would it have been like these 400 years without the sheep and its wool to warm us on cold nights? The horses and the mules? Imagine a land without wheat and the horno in which to bake oven bread! Farm implements, codified laws, the idea of personal property, a written language. All these came with the settlers and enhanced the quality of life for all.

The imminent pueblo scholar and historian Professor Joe Sando has written of these positive accomplishments also. He notes that the Pueblo Indians have fared much better under the Spanish than the Indians on the East Coast of the United States. There are no Indian markets in Boston or New York! Their Indian culture was pretty well destroyed. Here in New Mexico, Indian culture still flourishes.

It is also clear that the Spanish benefitted from the Native American presence. Where would they or any of us be without beans, squash and corn and the tortillas made from the corn? And to live with the Native Americans in this enchanted and beautiful land with majestic snow-covered mountains, deep valleys, dark forests, trout-filled streams and incredible sunsets. We have all benefitted by the Indian's love for the land and care for the environment that God created for all. How powerful and meaningful are their dances, the sound of the drums and the tribal rituals. The Indian's respect for the Great Spirit and their hospitality at the celebration of their feast days is inspiring.

This isn't to say there was no mistreatment of the Indians. But we have to try to see the big picture and to appreciate that we all have sought to live together in peace for many years. But for us Christians, the greatest gift that the Spanish settlers and friars brought was even better than livestock and bread. It was our Catholic tradition, the Gospel message and Jesus in the Eucharist. We can know many things about God from natural religion. But at a certain point, God wanted us to know through the teaching of His Son, Jesus our Savior, to love our enemy, to treat all people regardless of ethnic background or color, young and old, with respect. This is a legacy we cherish, and a Church that guides us through this life to the eternal life of heaven.


What resulted from the first struggles was nothing less than the birth of New Mexican culture and Catholicism that can truly be called indigenous to this land. The reconciliation between the Spanish and Indian people produced a faith capable of adapting to different circumstances, as well as being inclusive of the many different peoples already present and those that would follow. This can be called nothing less than remarkable, for this understanding produced a stable, peaceful situation in New Mexico during the intervening centuries.

Reigning over this humble kingdom of the Lord is our Blessed Mother who has always had a special place in the hearts of the people of New Mexico. Whether under her title as Queen of Peace conquering the divisions among her children, or as Our Lady of Guadalupe championing the poor and forgotten, the Virgin Mary continues to intercede for her children.

The Catholicism New Mexico has produced is truly unique. Its historic churches reflect an architecture truly born of this land - monuments of adobe. The same can be said for the lovely hand carved bultos, santos and retablos, statues and icons of our Lord and saints. The oraciones and alabados are beautiful prayer forms that grace our public expression and devotions. So, too, are the processions and passion plays a result of this New Mexican spirituality. We are truly heirs of a rich legacy of faith.

Just as remarkable, this faith has been sustained through the years by the efforts and devotion of the laity. In this far flung frontier, where priests were often scarce, the folk faith of the common people proved to be the backbone of Catholicism. To these forebears, we owe a great debt.


In 1851, Jean Baptiste Lamy arrived in Santa Fe to head the newly established Vicariate Apostolic. When he arrived he found clergy and people who had kept the faith alive from those early beginnings. This flowering of faith was rewarded by the Vatican when Santa Fe was elevated to a diocese in 1853, and given its first bishop. The Frenchman Jean Baptiste Lamy and his European clergy effected many changes. They built up the institutional church and Lamy brought Jesuits and French priests to help in the on-going missionary endeavor in this vast land. He brought the Christian Brothers and the first women religious, the Sisters of Loretto from Nerinx, Kentucky, one of the first American communities of sisters dedicated to teaching, and the Sisters of Charity from Ohio to staff schools and hospitals. The basic structures of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe as we know them today were due in large part to the efforts of Archbishop Lamy and his co-workers.

The efforts of Archbishop Lamy and those that followed were much needed as New Mexico continued to grow with the influx of newcomers from all neighboring territories and states. Growth caused some tensions with those born here, but diversity added strength.

Today we have a wonderfully diverse faith community of many different languages, cultures and ways of life, truly "catholic" in its universal make up. It is not a melting pot of peoples, but rather a mosaic in which the unique beauty and contribution of each culture is not lost but rather enhancing each other resulting in a more recognizable likeness of God’s creative power.


Building on their diversity, New Mexican Catholics have been able to accomplish much together and for which they can be proud.

- A Christian community older than the establishments at Jamestown or Plymouth Rock

- Spanish missions older by 150 years than the missions of California or Texas

- The oldest image of the Madonna in the New World (La Conquistadora, Our Lady of Peace in Santa Fe)

- The first native born priest, Santiago Roybal ordained in 1732

- The first school system in the State of New Mexico

- The first hospitals in New Mexico

- A proud record of lay involvement in the spread and maintenance of the faith

- The mother diocese of all the other dioceses of the American Southwest

And, this list goes on and on!


The Cuarto Centennial is not just about looking back and celebrating past glories. It is a time for quiet thanksgiving to God who has prospered the work of our hands. It is a time to be comforted by knowing that a loving God, who has guided us safely this far, is not about to abandon us as we face the future. I believe that the best years of Catholicism in New Mexico are ahead of us, not behind us.

In 1998 we stand on the shoulders of countless ancestors in the faith who have handed down to us the priceless treasure of hope that the Kingdom of God is a reality beginning here on earth. Realizing that, we must become aware that succeeding generations of New Mexican Catholics will be standing on our shoulders. The kind of Church we bestow on them is already in our hands; it is in the process of becoming.


The 400th anniversary of the faith in New Mexico is a time of affirming our communion with the Universal Church, and our loyalty to the Holy Father and the bishops. This means to teach the faith, in doctrine and morals, as set forth by the Church; it means to celebrate the faith in the liturgy as the Church celebrates it; and it means to live the faith in solidarity. A time to accept the uniqueness and giftedness of each person. It is a time for building on a sound foundation of 400 years.

For the first 250 years of faith in New Mexico, the family was almost the sole means of transmitting the faith. How admirably these families fulfilled this task. By the noble example of the family elders and the teaching of religion in the home, the faith was wondrously passed down through the centuries. In the past 150 years, Catholic schools and various catechetical programs have assisted the family in their task of passing on the Gospel to the next generation. We rejoice in the heroic efforts of the past and the efforts of today’s Catholic parents to pass on the faith. Yet, today, we are faced with the challenge of whether our Catholic children are as well formed in their faith as they need to be for the challenges of the next millennium.

Parents remain the primary teachers of the faith, and every effort must be made to support them in that task. Yet all too often we witness the breakdown of the family. The challenges of the day demand that the role of the family be supported by effective parish and archdiocesan programs. Every parish needs to provide religious formation for youth of all ages, including those in high school. Parents in turn must see to it that their children receive a Catholic education, not only for First Communion, reconciliation or confirmation, but for all of their formative years. Parents must be examples of a lived faith and authentic practice.


The gospel mandate, "to make disciples of all nations..." is not yet fulfilled. What has been accomplished in New Mexico to date is just a beginning. Our story of evangelization is still being written here and now. God is the author: we are the instruments, the disciples bringing His work to completion. It is never enough for us to just "keep the faith" - we must also "give the faith." This is evangelization: the sharing of the Gospel.

Our RENEW experience prepares us for our efforts of evangelization. This process of spiritual renewal has involved almost all our parishes and thousands of people. I envision many of the faith sharing groups continuing to meet after we complete the last season of RENEW. Prayer and faith sharing are life giving. I hope and pray that faith-filled evangelization teams will be an outgrowth of our RENEW faith sharing groups. Such teams will be critically important in our evangelization efforts and will be a major task of our Archdiocesan Office of Evangelization.

Unfortunately, some Catholics are not active in the Church today. Some were never properly catechized, did not receive positive example from their family or church members or clergy. Others have been seduced by the world and its spirit of indifference to religion and glorification of sin. Still others just got lazy, spiritually. Armed with fervent prayer, unlimited charity, and the power of the word of God, we, as individuals and as a spiritual community, can invite people to a living faith in Christ and His Church, where one can find hope, joy, mercy, and strength. As our ancestors of old, we too need to reach out to all -- the active, the inactive and the unchurched.

One of the most effective ways to evangelize is through good liturgy. This requires making the Sunday celebration of Eucharist top priority, with good music, preaching, hospitality, and planning. People are drawn to parishes with good liturgy, a welcoming spirit, and a vibrant faith community.

Our 400 years is a story of the faith being brought by immigrants. Today, New Mexico welcomes new immigrants, historically Catholic, from Latin American countries. Sadly, some of these Catholic immigrants have been welcomed by other denominations and have left the Catholic Church. We must ask ourselves how welcoming are we? These are our brothers and sisters.

Other immigrants are people moving here from other parts of the world and others parts of the United States attracted by job opportunities or the beauty of New Mexico. They too are seeking to be welcomed in our parishes. Some come with hearts that are in emotional darkness and lives that are in crisis. We must not look upon these people as "outsiders" but as gifts that God sends and who will add to our cultural mosaic.

It is very providential that this 400th anniversary of the faith in our land falls during our time of preparation for the next millennium. Our reflection upon the past gives us our task for the future -- to proclaim the Jesus, the Lord and Savior of all.


As Archbishop of Santa Fe, I invite all of our Catholic people to enter into the celebration of our 400th anniversary. In no other part of the United States can the Catholic Church claim such a long and wonderful history. God’s blessings to us are indeed unique. Determine today to continue through your lived faith the good that was begun 400 years ago when the friars who accompanied the Spaniards lifted high the cross and planted the seeds of faith. Our Cuarto Centennial Committee has worked effectively for three years to prepare a feast of varied celebrations throughout this year. I invite everyone to take part in these well publicized events. Join the bishops of the region and the Apostolic Nuncio representing Pope John Paul II as we celebrate "Seeds of Struggle, Harvest of Faith" at the concluding celebration for the Cuarto Centennial year on December 13 at 3:00 p.m. at the Kiva Auditorium in Albuquerque.

God has brought forth a great harvest through the years despite our struggles and challenges. May God continue to bless us with an abundance of spiritual fruits as we move toward the next millennium remembering seeds of struggle produce a harvest of faith!

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