National Park Service
The Missions of New Mexico Since 1776

Santa Fe


Don Francisco Antonio Marín del Valle, governor between 1756 and 1760, wrecked his predecessor's plan for the defense of New Mexico, provoked the Comanches to war, and alienated nearly everyone else. Yet he is best remembered for his pious acts.

It was Marín who had the remains of two seventeenth-century Franciscans dug up at Tajique and Picurís and enshrined ceremoniously in the Parroquia at Santa Fe. It was he who bought out of his own pocket a prime lot on the south side of the Plaza, opposite the governor's palace, and had erected there, at a reported cost of 8,000 pesos, Santa Fe's newest church. It was he who organized and endowed the new religious confraternity of Nuestra Señora de la Luz, Our Lady of Light, and accepted without protest election as its first hermano mayor. It was he who hired the anonymous Mexican Indian stone carvers who created New Mexico's "most famous Spanish colonial work of ecclesiastical art." Sixteen years after Marín left New Mexico, Father Domínguez wrote of "the glowing and fervent ardor" of the former governor's devotion, and not of his shortcomings. That of course made it all worthwhile. [15]

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43. Title page of the rules and by-laws governing the religious confraternity of Nuestra Señora de la Luz, Our Lady of Light, which administered the Castrense.

The century-long life of Marín's church is unusually well defined. Visiting Bishop Pedro Tamarón of Durango found it under construction and well along in June 1760. He consecrated the altars and thoroughly approved of the massive stone reredos being carved to fill the entire rear wall. But the gala inauguration, a five-day affair attended by the cream of capital society and featuring several comedies, did not take place until May of 1761, after Marín had returned to Mexico. In 1859, Bishop Lamy sold the building, an act of good stewardship, he avowed, not of sacrilege. [16]

Between the acts of Bishops Tamarón and Lamy, Nuestra Señora de la Luz shone for a time as the richest and most fashionable church in the villa. The governor, military officers, and persons of station belonged to its confraternity. Because so many soldiers did, and because the Franciscan who served as military chaplain made it his church, the people dubbed it la capilla castrense, the military chapel. Technically, insisted the bishops of Durango, it was not. Rather it was, like San Miguel and later Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (built between 1795 and c. 1803) and Nuestra Señora del Rosario (1807), an ayuda de parroquia, a public and dependent subsidiary of the growing Santa Fe parish. As for the nice distinctions between military and ordinary ecclesiastical jurisdiction, the people cared less. They called it La Castrense. [17]

In 1788, begging for half a dozen more Franciscans to take up vacancies in New Mexico, Governor Fernando de la Concha told a pitiful tale. While he was out on campaign with Fray Francisco de Hozio, his military chaplain, the priest at the Parroquia, Fray José de Burgos, whom Domínguez had characterized as a notorious drunkard, had died, leaving the entire capital spiritually untended. Now, the governor complained,

the citizenry and the garrison, more than 3,000 souls, are served by the chaplain alone. His church is small in the extreme and its situation so poor that Mass cannot be said outside it. Because not half the people will fit, the rest go without hearing Mass on feast days. In the administration of the sacraments and other obligations, infinite hardships are suffered. [18]

The same chaplain, who entrenched himself at the Castrense for thirty-six years, from 1787 until 1823, wanted funds in 1805 to make "repairs necessary for the decency of divine worship." When no answer came from higher authorities, Governor Joaquín del Real Alencaster reiterated the appeal, citing the urgency of the case. Somehow they made do. When testy Visitor Juan Bautista Guevara tried to inspect Nuestra Señora de la Luz in 1818, he found his way blocked by Chaplain Hozio, whom he labeled the "patriarchal coryphaeus of his brethren and the common people." Eventually the persistent churchman got in. There had been changes since Domínguez's day, particularly, it would appear, out front.

Chapel of Our Lady of Light, called currently the military chapel. It is of adobe, about thirty-five varas long, nine wide, and has transept, board floor, choir, wooden roof, sanctuary laid with hewn flagstones, pulpit, main altar of white stone with fine reliefs. On the altar there are gradins of the same stone and various images. . . . The sacristy, a room eight varas long by four wide. . . . A room or antechamber with good door and a closet, both with keys. This chapel has an open-air cemetery in front to the right and left. Its main door is old but has locks. A second door to the plaza [through the cemetery wall] is broken to pieces. Across its entire facade looking toward the plaza there is a gallery of six sections with columns and a wooden roof; two small adobe towers with wooden tops, all old and falling down. [19]

44. The chapel of Nuestra Señora de la Luz in 1776. Conjectural sketch by Horace T. Pierce based on Father Domínguez's description.

Guevara was deeply saddened by "the ruinous and lamentable state" to which the chapel's confraternity had sunk. Fifteen years later, in 1833, Bishop Zubiría noted that the chapel possessed the most essential items for divine services but that "it was not in the pleasing state in which it ought to have been." Mexican attorney Antonio Barreiro hardly mentioned the Castrense in his Ojeada sobre Nuevo-México, a little book published in 1832. He admitted that altogether Santa Fe had five churches and two public oratories, "but since they are of adobe and several of them are almost abandoned, they present a most disagreeable appearance."

As late as 1840 the military was still spending money on the Castrense. April disbursements included 22 pesos for yeso to whitewash chapel and guardhouse, presumably on the inside, 30 pesos for applying the whitewash to those two buildings and to the portals of the paymaster's office, and 120 pesos for boards to repair the chapel roof. In July one Gaspar Brito collected 80 pesos "for eight days' work on the Castrense." It needed more than patching. Very soon Marín del Valle's monument stood entirely abandoned. [20]

Poking around in the dilapidated building in 1846, Lieutenant Abert was told that it had been in use some "fourteen years" before,

and was the richest church in Santa Fe. It was dedicated to Our Lady of Light. There is some handsome carved work behind the altar, showing a much higher order of taste than now exists. There are two tablets upon it. One bears the date 1761. In the front facade there is a large square slab of free-stone, elaborately carved; it represents Our Lady of Light in the act of rescuing a human being from the jaws of Satan whilst angels are crowning her. On each side of the slab are two columns which have a strong resemblance to Egyptian columns. The whole is executed in basso-relievo. One finds the bones of many persons scattered about the church. These belong to wealthy individuals who could afford to purchase the privilege of being deposited beneath the floor where so many prayers were offered up; but they have not found as quiet a resting place as the poor despised publicans. The roof of this church fell in a few years ago and it has not been used since. [21]

One of Colonel Alexander W. Doniphan's men hunted for souvenirs in the Castrense

which was robbed of all its plate and ornaments some time before we arrived. It is allowed to go to ruin in consequence of this desecration. On each side of the altar is much fine carving, and above, there has been good painting; but the rain has beaten through the roof upon it, and nothing is now left but a head, apparently of an angel, which is beautifully painted. [22]

The army of occupation needed storage space. The Castrense, unused "for many years," with its thick adobe walls, would make a secure warehouse even for munitions. So the Army confiscated it, patched the roof, and moved in a variety of U.S. Government property, all, it would seem, without the least protest by Vicar Juan Felipe Ortiz. Thus it served until August of 1851 when the Army removed the last of its gear to other quarters, leaving the old church vacant. That should hardly have presaged a fight. But it did.

The Honorable Grafton Baker, as it happened, was casting about for chambers to hold a special criminal session of the U.S. District Court. After a fair run-around he secured the defunct Castrense, whereupon the marshal "immediately commenced fitting it up suitably for a court house." The judge had not counted on the sentiments of the local people. "'How can we come into these sacred precincts as litigants or witnesses and try our cases or give testimony, standing upon the graves of our fathers?' said the Mexicans." In a day or two the stern young Bishop Lamy, who had just arrived that month, paid a call on the judge. The building belonged to the Church. He had the papers. The bishop be hanged, boasted the judge later in the company of his drinking buddies.

Doubtless with a certain glee, someone at the Santa Fe Gazette began setting up the headline "Triangular fight between the Military, the Judiciary and the Catholic Church." The issue was explosive, the kind that could embarrass Territorial officials and stir up the populace. While the bishop went round to see the military commandant and the district attorney, the judge proceeded. Court opened Monday morning, August 25. An excited crowd jostled about outside. The judge had to recess while Hispano jurymen, inspired by Donaciano Vigil not to take the oath in a church, were sworn in elsewhere. A petition circulated. Guards stood at the door. Everyone was tense, particularly the judge. Yet the court sat all day. A compromise was reached that evening.

Lamy agreed to refund the cost of improvements. Baker, plainly irritated by the whole bothersome affair, agreed to hold court in the hall of the House of Representatives at the governor's palace. Next morning court convened for the second and last time at the Castrense. All the principals were present. The district attorney moved that the court adjourn to its new chambers. With that, Judge Baker handed the keys to Territorial Governor James S. Calhoun, and he, "under instructions, and by a joint resolution of the Legislative Assembly," presented them to the bishop. Lamy took full advantage of the moment.

I said [a] few words in Spanish and English, and right on the spot I got up a subscription to repair the church in a decent manner. The governor and the chief justice liberally subscribed the first ones and in a short time, we had upwards of [a] thousand dollars. Our list is increasing every day, and we have a good prospect to raise three thousands. The church is in the shape of a cross of a good size, in the finest place of Santa Fe, fronting the middle of the large square plaza. I think by next Christmas, Mr. Machebeuf will have it very handsomely repaired. I hope to say mass in it in three months, when I come back from Durango. [23]

Joséph Priest Machebeuf, Lamy's lean and sprightly right hand, did refurbish the Castrense, inside if not out. According to the newly arrived U.S. attorney for New Mexico, thirty-three-year-old W. W. H. Davis of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Machebeuf might have saved himself the trouble.

We leave the cock-fighters to their amusement and pass on to the chapel, which we enter through a front door opening upon the Plaza. The building is in the form of a cross, about a hundred feet long and nearly as many in width. Two plain towers rise up in front a few feet above the roof, and on the latter are suspended two bells, which are rung by boys ascending the roof and pulling the clappers from side to side. The style of construction differs from the true Gothic cross in that the transept runs north and south instead of east and west. The appearance of the building, inside and out, is primitive and unprepossessing. The altar is in the south transept, and is very plain. The ornaments are few, and not of a costly kind. The wall behind the altar is inlaid with brown stone-work, wrought in the United States, representing scriptural scenes; and a few old Spanish paintings hang upon the walls. The choir is over the north transept, and is reached by ascending an old ladder. A tin chandelier is suspended over the centre of the cross, and engravings of a few saints are seen in various parts of the house. The roof is supported by large unpainted pine beams, ornamented with a kind of bracket where the ends enter the wall. [24]

Flushed with victory in 1851, Bishop Lamy had called the Castrense "the finest chapel we had here . . . in the finest place of Santa Fe." Five years later he asked permission of the Holy See to dispose of it. There was a problem. Because it sat "in the middle of the row of houses just south of the Plaza Publica (now the Park), worshippers entering or leaving its portals were subjected to the ribaldries of disorderly park loungers. These also, with their diabolic conduct and tumult, disrupted the holding of divine services inside." So Lamy closed it. Obviously the structure was better situated for business than for prayer.

The Holy See agreed. When he had arranged for removal of the stone altarpiece and other objects of art and veneration, Bishop Lamy in 1859 sold the Castrense to don Simón Delgado, a well-off parishioner, for $2,000 and a piece of land. The money went for repairs to the Parroquia and the land for St. Michael's College. Delgado in turn razed the church back to the sanctuary, put up a commercial building out front, and incorporated the walls left standing in a two-storied residence at the rear. In the store, said an Anglo trader, Delgado "kept an assorted stock of dry goods, groceries, and liquors, and disposed of them for cash, as he found customers among the poor or needy." [25]

In 1881 Delgado's widow sold to Spiegelberg Brothers next door on the east enough land to straighten the property line and put up a new store. While the foundations did brush the old east wall of the transept and lop off half the sacristy, the Daily New Mexican seemed to think that construction was going on right on top of the old church. Long-time residents remembered that the chapel had been in use as late as 1857 and that part of the lot had served as a cemetery. "Consequently," the newspaper predicted, "the excavation now in progress may bring to light some remains of departed soldiers which have not seen the light for nearly a century perhaps. Mr. Willi Spiegelberg has told Archbishop Lamy that in such case he will have such remains preserved and properly interred. As yet, however, no discoveries have been made."

When the buildings that actually did occupy the site were scheduled for demolition in 1955, John Gaw Meem tipped off the Museum of New Mexico. As a result a photographer was present "as the old walls were first brought to view and then levelled by the wreckers." The Laboratory of Anthropology next excavated the site to check Domínguez's 1776 measurements "and thus assess his reliability as a guide to 18th century New Mexican ecclesiastical architecture in general." All in all, Domínguez came off very well. As for the Castrense, a bronze plaque on Dunlap's department store (formerly J. C. Penney's) is all today that marks the spot. [26]

Governor Marín would not have forgiven the Historic Santa Fe Foundation for excluding his name from the department store plaque. Still, a far grander monument, bearing both his name and that of his wife, even now serves the people of Santa Fe. The finest single piece of Spanish colonial church art produced in New Mexico, model for numerous hand-hewn wooden altar screens, Marín's thirty-foot-high, carved, white-stone reredos has outlived two churches and caused a third to be built.

When Bishop Lamy deconsecrated the Castrense late in the 1850s, he put Father John Baptist Salpointe in charge of moving the monumental altar screen over to the Parroquia piece by piece. Set in place there, it inspired another generation, only to be hidden from view in the mid-1860s by a canvas and then in the mid-1890s by a permanent wall of the new Cathedral. Thus sealed off, the old Parroquia sanctuary became a dim, dirty, and little-attended "museum"-storeroom. Over the next half-century few persons saw the treasure. Some who did objected.

It was criminal, they said, that "the most important piece of ecclesiastical Eighteenth Century sculpture in the United States" be relegated to a room like a mine shaft "where no perspective may be had and where it is impossible to see it as a whole." In 1932, square in the Depression, the Society for the Preservation of New Mexico Mission Churches, Inc., set about raising $10,000 for "a simple adobe chapel" to be built right onto the rear of Lamy's Romanesque Cathedral. Fortunately plans changed, and in 1939 Archbishop Gerken blessed ground on upper Canyon Road for the construction of architect John Meem's massive Cristo Rey church—one hundred and eighty thousand adobes laid up in traditional form, especially to receive the most famous altar screen in New Mexico. [27]

Governor Marín would have liked that.

Copyright © 1980 by the University of New Mexico Press. All rights reserved. Material from this edition published for the Cultural Properties Review Committee by the University of New Mexico Press may not be reproduced in any manner without the written consent of the author and the University of New Mexico Press.

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