Raices

Fighting morada suppression

Penitentes were a ‘cult’ to the Catholic Church, a brotherhood to Taoseños

By Larry Torres
Posted 9/28/18

The period in the mid-1800s was a turbulent time in the history of New Mexico. U.S. President James K. Polk waged war with Mexico in 1846 in an effort to secure sea to shining sea domination of the …

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Raices

Fighting morada suppression

Penitentes were a ‘cult’ to the Catholic Church, a brotherhood to Taoseños

Posted

The period in the mid-1800s was a turbulent time in the history of New Mexico. U.S. President James K. Polk waged war with Mexico in 1846 in an effort to secure sea to shining sea domination of the territory that would become known as the Great American Southwest. The controversy was settled by the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo of 1848, orchestrated by American Diplomat Nicholas Trist. Almost overnight, Mexican-Americans became foreigners on what used to be their own land. 

On July 19, 1850, Pope Pius IX had declared the Southwest region of the United States, exclusive of California and Texas, as the Vicariate Apostolic of New Mexico (a territory of jurisdiction). In 1850, New Mexico became a U.S. territory and the Catholic Council of Baltimore, Maryland proposed the creation of the Diocese of Santa Fe.

Padre Antonio José Martínez had been groomed by Bishop Laureano Zubiría of Durango, Mexico to be the first archbishop of New Mexico. Because the Catholic Church of Mexico did not recognize the Río Grande as the national boundary between the two countries though, the U.S. wanted no Mexican influence in its new territory. Therefore, the See of Baltimore selected a Frenchman named Jean Baptist Lamy to oversee the pulpit of Santa Fe in 1851. His next three subsequent successors were also Frenchmen.

Las moradas

In 1834, the morada (tribal chapels for worship, education and sacrifice) of Taos, known as La Morada de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, was fully established on Taos Pueblo land that was granted to the Penitentes 35 years earlier in 1797 by Pueblo fiscales (those who are in charge of Catholic Church matters). In was occupied until 1977 when the last penitente sold it to the Kit Carson Memorial Foundation. Although some devotional practices have been held within it, to date the Morada de Taos has not been reconsecrated by the archbishop of Santa Fe.

Other moradas had sprouted up all over the valley including La Morada de San Ignacio in Des Montes; La Morada de San Juan Nepomuceno in Valdez; La Morada de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad in Arroyo Seco; La Morada de Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno in Upper Arroyo Hondo; and La Morada de Talpa.

Three years later in 1837, Padre Martínez became spiritual advisor to Los Hermanos Penitentes. He allowed the Penitentes to conduct their blood rites in public at the church of San Cruz de la Cañada. The institutional Catholic Church of Santa Fe saw Los Hermanos Penitentes as a challenge to its own ecclesiastical authority. 

In his ad limina visit to Rome a few years later, the first archbishop of New Mexico reported to Pope Pius IX and to Cardinal Alessandro Barnabo that there was a renegade group of religious zealots known as Los Hermanos Penitentes who thought they were the church of New Mexico. Archbishop Lamy complained to Pope Pius IX that the 63 moradas in New Mexico were practicing medieval rites of self-flagellation and crucifixion. The Pope quietly told Archbishop Lamy to disband of the brotherhood.

Meanwhile, Archbishop Lamy returned to New Mexico and confided the conversation he had with Pope Pius IX to Padre Martínez who was outraged, since he considered himself to be the spiritual head of the Penitente Brotherhood.

Citing The Syllabus of Errors issued by Pope Pius IX, Archbishop Lamy tried to suppress religious cults like Los Hermanos Penitentes. “The Syllabus of Errors” of 1864 condemned all secret cults that had not been expressly established by the institutional Catholic Church. Yet, the practices of the tribal church of the brotherhood persisted despite the arrival of Archbishop Lamy in Santa Fe. The archbishop showed Padre Martínez the Pope’s “Syllabus of Errors.” This served only to drive the Penitentes underground for over 100 years. It would be up to Archbishop Edwin V. Byrne to try to reconcile the Penitentes as a right arm of the Church of Santa Fe in 1962.According to files kept by the Martínez family, in an effort to try to convince the tribal churches to return to the institutional church, Archbishop Lamy stood on the steps of the Cathedral in Santa Fe at sunrise on Easter morning of 1856. He held up a piece of goat cheese proclaiming, “This is the Church of New Mexico.” Then, he hoisted a large knife stating, “This knife represents the Penitente Brotherhood led by Padre Martínez of Taos.”

According to files kept by the Martínez family, in an effort to try to convince the tribal churches to return to the institutional church, Archbishop Lamy stood on the steps of the Cathedral in Santa Fe at sunrise on Easter morning of 1856. He held up a piece of goat cheese proclaiming, “This is the Church of New Mexico.” Then, he hoisted a large knife stating, “This knife represents the Penitente Brotherhood led by Padre Martínez of Taos.”

Records then say the archbishop slit the cheese in twain. He held up one portion proclaiming, “This half of the cheese represents the French church in New Mexico. See how good it is and fit for human consumption? Take this all of you and eat of it — hoc est enim corpus meum (this is my veritable body).” Then he took the second half of cheese and raising it high, he declared, “This is the Spanish church of New Mexico. See how it is vile and corrupt?” As he turned the cheese toward them, it turned black and crawled with worms. Then he laid both pieces on the steps of the Cathedral saying, “Choose, New Mexico! Will you follow the French church or the Spanish church of the Penitentes?”

Although the first rule of the Penitente Brotherhood is allegiance and obedience to Archbishop Lamy and his successors, damage wrought upon the brotherhood forced them to continue to conduct faith practices underground.

History unearthed
In 1997, some men were clearing away the rotted boards from the sanctuary of the Mother Church of La Santísima Trinidad in Arroyo Seco. As they pried a square column away from the right side of the sanctuary, they unearthed a metallic object buried just below the muddied surface.

While inspecting the object, they discovered it was a medallion bearing the image of what they supposed was a saint. The men gave the medallion to the priest and told him where they found it. He immediately recognized the image stamped on it as the face of Pope Pius IX. It turned out to be a copper, gold-plated piece of history. Such artifacts were minted only during the reign of a particular Pope.

The parish priest began to frame the local events within a historical context. He surmised that the parish priest of Taos had come to Arroyo Seco where La Santísima Trinidad was his mission church. Arroyo Seco had been a cornerstone of the Penitente movement. He reported that Padre Martínez had given the medallion a requiem Mass and buried Pope Pius IX in effigy face-down in the mud. A shadow box was crafted by a local parishioner and the papal medallion was encased within, then mounted on the eastern wall of the church sacristy.

Larry Torres is a local historian and foreign language coordinator at the University of New Mexico-Taos. In 2017, he was honored as a Tradiciones Unsung Hero.

Did you know?

• The outhouse privy at La Morada de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe is the only seven-seater in all of New Mexico.

• Georgia O'Keeffe's famous painting titled "Black Cross New Mexico" hanging at the Chicago Institute of Art is really a reverse of the white cross at the end of the Calvario (Stations of the Cross) in Taos.

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