Padre Martínez of Taos (January 16, 1793-July 27, 1867) was the famous Pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish for more than 30 years and was a pivotal political influence during the transition of power from Mexican governance to the United States in the mid-1800s.
He was a gifted and powerfully charismatic individual who, as the appointed priest and spiritual leader of the expansive and far-flung region of the Taos parish and its various mission areas in Northern New Mexico, was the undisputed central religious authority of the vast area.
He was highly educated and literate, and deeply knowledgeable about the secular political and economic systems of the governing Mexican administration and the northern capital of Santa Fe. And, he was prophetic about the impending takeover of Nuevo Méjico by the 'Americanos.'
He was the leading and most influential native-born personality of Northern and indeed all of New Mexico in a traumatic time of earth-shaking changes in the Catholic Church and in the state. Martínez was a personage of tremendous accomplishments, yet he also underwent heartbreaking and ironic tragedy in the last years of his life as the priest of Taos.
His legacy as 'the honor of his country', or 'la honra de su país' persists to this day along with some controversial aspects of his exceptional life as the central figure of his times. A larger-than-life bronze likeness of him is set in the Taos Plaza to commemorate his civic and political works while at the same time he is barely mentioned in the realm he loved the most: the Church from which he was excluded in the last years of his life.
Yet his great works in both church and state are undeniable even in the face of his personal priestly tragedy and his influence in both continues. Here is an outline of his story:
Martínez was born in Abiquiú, the eldest son of Dón Severino Martínez and Doña Maria del Carmel Santisteban. In 1804 the family moved to Taos where their home, La Hacienda de los Martínez, is now a regional cultural center. Antonio José loved learning and studying. He married Maria de la Lúz Martín of Abiquiú in 1812, but she died giving birth to their daughter, also named Maria de la Lúz, who in turn died at age 12.
He decided on the priesthood and entered the Tridentine Seminary of Durango, Mexico where his intellectual brilliance shone. He was ordained a priest on February 10, 1822 at age 29 and celebrated his first Mass on February 19.
Padre Martinez returned to Taos and preached his first sermon on April 20, 1823. He then was sent to Tomé before being appointed as the first secular priest at Abiquiú in 1825. On July 23, 1826, he became the pastor in Taos, and a great history began.
He proved to be a servant-leader of the people and worked zealously to improve their lives in every way by his spiritual inspiration. He opened a co-educational school for the youth, a minor seminary for boys who might be called to the priesthood, and was instrumental in the development of several native-born priests.
He acquired "the first printing press west of the Mississippi", as the saying goes, and published his newspaper "El Crepúsculo" ("The Dawn"), and printed a variety of parish sacramentary forms as well as ministry manuals for use by priests.
He used his political talents effectively as an advocate for all his people, including the Native Pueblos of this region, who he believed were being mistreated by those in power. He served in the Mexican Departmental Assembly for New Mexico, and then after American assumption of administration in 1848, he headed the United States Territorial Assembly.
He was the influential and central personage who sought the best outcome from these mighty and traumatic geopolitical changes and events, but his most unsettling challenge then arrived.
In 1851 Rev. Jean Baptiste Lamy of France was named by the Pope as the Apostolic Vicar of New Mexico, whose ecclesiastical jurisdiction from Santa Fe replaced that from far-away Durango, Mexico. Conflict arose between Padre Martínez and Lamy, soon anointed as Bishop.
Padre Martinez had advocated for his Spanish and native New Mexican people who did not fully grasp the immense changes at hand and as their leader he came into direct conflict with the agents of change, including Bishop Lamy. This opposition generated an action by the Bishop to censure, suspend and excommunicate the priest of Taos in 1856 for alleged faults and writings against the order and discipline of the Church.
The Bishop chose the view that Padre Martínez had ignored his censure, continuing to say Mass and administer the Sacraments and to publish against Lamy's policies, so, he said, he was forced to excommunicate the Padre.
Padre Martínez rejected the validity of the excommunication and continued as a priest until he died on July 27, 1867. This conflict caused deep divisions in the Taos parochial community, which in some ways are evident to this day. He still commands the respect of both sides of the religious issue; however, and his legacy is otherwise secure.
And the fundamental spiritual bedrock of the Taos and northern region is as solid and nurturing now as it was even before the arrival of Padre Martinez.