Saint Francis Cathedral

Annie Lux | - January 14, 2008

One of Santa Fe's most familiar landmarks is the St. Francis Cathedral (officially the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi) at the eastern end of San Francisco Street. Thousands of visitors flock to the grand stone edifice towering (well, for Santa Fe) over the downtown historic district. Are you wondering why, in a city founded (at least in part) by Franciscan missionaries, such an important building isn't on the Santa Fe Plaza? The answer is that it was-at least, the first two parish churches, built on the same spot, were. In the days before the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, the plaza was much larger, stretching all the way east to where the Cathedral stands today. The first church, a tiny adobe structure, was built in 1610, soon after the Spanish capital was established in Santa Fe. An early Franciscan, Fray Alonzo de Benavides, described this church as a "mud hut" and had a new one built in the 1630. This church, like many others, was destroyed in the Pueblo Revolt. A large adobe parish church (parroquía) was completed in 1717, and served the Catholic population (which was pretty much everybody in those days) for more than 150 years.

Then came Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy. Anyone who's ever read Willa Cather's classic Death Comes for the Archbishop (and if you haven't, you should!) is familiar with the bishop's dream of a grand cathedral like the ones in his French homeland. Lamy was famous for his dislike of churches "made of mud," but it took years to raise the funds to realize his dream. Finally, in 1869, he hired an architect from France, Antoine Mouly, to build a church from the bishops own design, which he based on the Romanesque cathedral in his hometown of Clermont-Ferrand. The new church was built around the existing structure, using it as a support. When the nave was finished, the old adobe church was dismantled and the bricks reused in other buildings in town. Sadly, New Mexico's first archbishop did not live to see his dream completed, though he did bless the near-finished structure in 1886. He died retired in 1885 (you can visit his private chapel at the Bishop's Lodge Resort) and died in 1886. The cathedral was finally completed and formally dedicated by the third archbishop of Santa Fe, Placid Louis Chappelle, in 1895.

The inside of the Cathedral today reflects a blend of the old and the new. The traditional santero artwork of New Mexico (religious folk art made by local artists and craftspeople) that fell out of favor under Bishop Lamy's watch has come home to St. Francis Cathedral thanks to local artists. Marie Romero Cash's beautiful Stations of the Cross (a series of fourteen pictures depicting Jesus's journey to his death) include a fifteenth station illustrating the resurrection of Jesus. The huge altar screen (reredos) in the sanctuary is by Robert Lentz and depicts the Saints of the Americas. The older statute of St. Francis of Assisi in the center of the screen is from the old 1717 parroquía.

Don't miss the Conquistadora Chapel to the left of the altar. The walls of this chapel are all that remains of the old adobe church. Look up at the old wooden vigas (ceiling beams) to get a sense of the centuries. (Outside, you can go around to the north side of the cathedral and see its adobe walls jutting out from the stone walls of the nave.) This chapel contains many treasures, including seventeenth-century oil paintings from Mexico and a small stone casket that holds the bones of two early Franciscans: Fray Asencio de Zárate, the pastor of the first Santa Fe parroquía, and Fray Gerónimo de la Llana, a beloved priest who oversaw the mission at Quarai (now a ruin and part of the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument in the Manzano Mountains southeast of Albuquerque).

The main feature of the chapel is, of course, La Conquistadora herself. She perches, dressed as a Spanish Queen, high in the old reredos from the 1717 church. The oldest representation of the Virgin Mary in the New World was brought to the New World from Spain in early 1600s and carried to Santa Fe by Fray Alonzo de Benavides. When the Pueblo Revolt spelled destruction for most churches and religious objects, La Conquistadora was rescued by the parroquía's caretaker (sacristana), and traveled to El Paso de Norte (El Paso, Texas) with the Spanish who fled the capital city. She returned to Santa Fe with Don Diego de Vargas in 1692.

The statue (also known as Our Lady of the Assumption, Our Lady of the Rosary, and Our Lady of Peace) was carved from a willow root and is "bulto a vestir" - a statue meant to be clothed - with an extensive wardrobe. If you visit the chapel and La Conquistadora is missing, chances are good that she's having her clothes changed. Unless it's the second week of June, when you'll find her at the Rosario Chapel in the cemetery at the north end of Guadalupe Street at Paseo de Peralta. Every year La Conquistadora spends a week here in honor of the 1692 Reconquest (the conquistadors of De Vargas's army spent their first winter near this spot and built the chapel's predecessor to house the statue). If you visit, be sure to be extra respectful of the devout who come to the Rosario Chapel to pray during this period.

Docents are available at the Cathedral and are happy to offer tours and information. There are also pamphlets naming the saints in the altar screen and describing the Cathedral's artworks and history. Be sure to take a walk around the Cathedral's lovely grounds. History buffs will enjoy the plaques describing events in New Mexico's history.

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