One of the first times I was awakened to the importance of reading Christian biographies was while perusing Eugene Peterson’s helpful little book of suggested spiritual reading called Take & Read. Peterson advocates that every Christian should read about the lives of other Christians who worked in their professions or vocations, and that this is particularly important for the Christian pastor who often works, to a great extent, alone. By “learning from them [Christian pastors of the past], being rebuked by them, finding hope in my poverty and congregational wasteland by entering through imagination and prayer into what I can learn of their stories. These are the ones who have been of particular help in protecting me from the malign influence of religious celebrities” (p. 62).
This summer I learned about the life and ministry of Bishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy. Lamy was the first Roman Catholic bishop of Santa Fe with a territory at its greatest extent covering present-day New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and part of Utah. In 1975, Paul Horgan published Lamy of Santa Fe, a biography that won the Pulitzer Prize for history, but Lamy was first immortalized in literature by Willa Cather in her novel Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). Cather changed Lamy to Latour, but she portrayed many of the historical details accurately portrayed and, arguably, captured the spirit and power of Bishop Lamy’s ministry. One could think of the biography as a photograph and the novel as an oil portrait. Both are inspiring and edifying.
Lamy was born in 1814 in the Auvergne region of France. Called to the priesthood from a young age, he and a friend decided as young curates to heed to the call as missionaries to North America. In order to circumvent the objections of family, they left secretly for Ohio, where they both served fledgling congregations for about a decade. In 1850, Lamy was appointed bishop of the newly created diocese of Santa Fe.
One of the greatest features of Lamy’s early ministry in New Mexico was confronting the antagonism many of the existing clergy felt toward the new bishop because he was a foreigner. When he arrived in 1851, Lamy was cordially received in Santa Fe by the priests and people, but soon after he was informed that the clergy would not recognize his authority without further word from their previous bishop. Formerly, the episcopal see for all the churches in New Mexico had been 1,500 miles away in Durango, Mexico. Almost immediately, Lamy left alone for Durango across a huge expanse of sparsely traveled roads.
The bishop in Durango recognized Lamy’s new jurisdiction, and Lamy left thinking all would be resolved with his local clergy. For several decades afterward, however, the dispute continued on the question of who was bishop in the present-day area of Las Cruces, New Mexico, and El Paso, Texas, slowly traveling through the machinations of Vatican bureaucracy. In addition, while the clergy in New Mexico formally recognized Lamy’s authority after his visit to Durango, they continued to be antagonistic to his leadership. Fr. Antonio José Martinez, a priest in Taos, openly impugned the bishop’s character in a Santa Fe newspaper, and a priest from Albuquerque spoke before the U.S. Congress about the deficiencies of the new bishop.
Lamy faced an unusually large extent of hostility and antagonism, but from my observation of parish ministry, most clergy experience some level of hostility toward themselves, their ministry, or their families. It is part of the mystery and gift of the priesthood to identify the ways in which this vocation follows the pattern of the Lord’s life and earthly ministry. We’re told by St. John that “he came unto his own and his own received him not.” This often is represented in the life of a priest.
In my opinion, a good deal of disappointment and sadness can be averted in life if expectations are properly adjusted. Perhaps it would be helpful to tell new ordinands and seminarians, if they’re not already being warned, that they will almost without fail face some opposition and antagonism, which may even drive them to the end of their strength, but which should not make them flee or be dismayed because this is part of the calling of the priesthood.
Lamy not only did not flee the conflict he faced in his new diocese, but he went on to spend the next three and a half decades in faithful ministry in that same diocese. He had debated about retiring to France, but when he retired in 1885, he settled at his retreat house a few miles outside of Santa Fe. When he died in 1888, he had been staying at the bishop’s palace in Santa Fe, right in the center of his former diocese. Lamy’s was a model of stability as he cultivated his labor in the Southwest, and continued at it for 35 years.
Today the average tenure of priests in Episcopal congregations is five years, and the tenure of bishops doesn’t seem much longer. If Lamy had only stayed for five years as bishop, would he have had one-seventh of the influence that he ultimately had? It’s obviously an absurd question to the extent that success in the priesthood cannot be measured numerically, but the point is that, at least for Lamy, his ministry was like building a fire—slowly and evenly it grew and expanded. With respect to ministry, Lamy’s example would suggest that we should value endurance over quick and easy triumphs. Fireworks burn fast and hot and are soon over.
The final feature of Lamy’s ministry that bears note is the incomplete status of some of his work. Lamy made huge strides during his tenure. The numbers speak for themselves: when Lamy arrived in Santa Fe, there were 25 churches and 40 chapels under his jurisdiction. When he retired there were 34 churches and 203 chapels. He had nine active clergy when he arrived and 51 when he retired. He was instrumental in founding eight schools and several hospitals and orphanages. He also was widely credited in his work for the broader commonwealth. He took an active role in promoting the railroads coming to New Mexico, was an advocate for public education in the territory, and made friends beyond the church, including the mostly Protestant governors of the territory and Jewish leaders of business in Santa Fe.
But there was one project that never reached completion in his lifetime, and that was the building of a Romanesque cathedral in Santa Fe. Many have pointed out the architectural similarities of the cathedral and of the building styles found in Lamy’s native France. In addition, it was constructed of cut native sandstone, in contrast to the traditional use of adobe bricks that had been used in churches all the way back to the Franciscan missionaries who first came to New Mexico in the 17th century. The problem with adobe is that it requires constant care. The expense of Lamy’s cathedral far exceeded the funds at hand, and so the work progressed very slowly. The Cathedral of St. Francis, which was completed after Lamy’s death, is in my opinion a fitting homage to Lamy’s native country, but it is also not out of place in his adopted homeland—the tan and red sandstone mimics the traditional adobe structures while also reflecting the high desert landscape of native grasses and rocky mesas.
Every ministry is necessarily limited by the finite nature of the instrument through whom the Lord is working. I suppose all Christian vocations confront the problem of work left unfinished; I think of my friend and mentor who died with a beautiful hand-made guitar left unfinished. But this reality of unfinished work is particularly acute with priesthood, not least because it is in part the cure of souls, a work that is hard to measure and only finished when the redeemed sinner finishes the course in faith. Work left unfinished reminds us that we are not the Lord, but rather in our fixed times to live and work, the Lord has providentially placed us in a chain of faithful souls, some of whose work we have continued and others of whom will carry on our good work in the future. In the course of redeemed history, it may belong to several Christians to begin, continue, and end a work, but to God alone belongs the glory.
Lamy presents several motifs in the paradigm of Christian ministry and priesthood. His was a call to face conflict, to put down stable and long-lasting roots, and to see his labor grow but to die with some visions left unfinished. I have omitted many details and simplified some of the nuances that can be gleaned from Cather’s novel and especially Horgan’s biography. Nevertheless, even these few details indicate the extent to which Lamy’s life and ministry is a continuing light of faithful Christian ministry. Lamy was not particularly brilliant; his letters and sermons, though voluminous, were not noted for being particularly eloquent or profound. The best word Lamy spoke was his life and activity, his love for the Lord and for God’s people.