Fe: the shrine of faith
The city of Santa
Fe in New Mexico holds not only some of the oldest, but also some
of the most important religious sites and relics in the United
States. But the little statue of La Conquistadora has a history
that is far more interesting than even the many worshippers of
this lady might realize.
about an hour north of Albuquerque, New Mexico, the city of Santa
Fe is the true navel of religious America. Originally, Santa Fe
was called “the Royal City of the Holy Faith of St Francis
of Assisi”, but like Los Angeles, it shed some of its long
name. Though the name of the city means “Holy Faith”,
for the Native Americans, it was called “Dancing Ground
of the Sun”, revealing that for them, the city was a site
of great religious importance. It is no doubt the main reason
why Christianity felt that Santa Fe’s conversion to the
“new religion” was of primary importance. Indeed,
when it comes to Santa Fe, there are a series of “oldest”
to be applied to many of the monuments that grace this lovely
Today, the best known “miracle” can be found in the
Loretto Chapel, originally known as Our Lady of Light chapel.
The miracle applies to the staircase, which legend has it was
built by a mysterious carpenter who could have been St Joseph,
the father of Jesus, himself!
The Gothic chapel was the creation of Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy,
who had invited a group of nuns to come and create a school. The
Sisters of Loretto arrived in Santa Fe in 1852, seven sisters
strong, running a school that soon counted 300 students. The construction
of the school’s chapel began in 1873 and was the work of
two Parisian architects, Antoine Mouly and his son, Projectus
Mouly, who would also work on the nearby St Francis Cathedral.
Antoine Mouly had been involved in the renovation of the Sainte
Chapelle in Paris and the design of the Loretto Chapel was inspired
by this wonder of Gothic architecture. Of course, such intricate
designs came at a cost, of $30,000, for which the sisters allegedly
pooled their own inheritances so that they could create this marvel.
No expense or hardship was spared, as the stained glass was sent
from Paris; other aspects came from Italy. By 1878, everything
was finished and an oasis of France had been created in the very
heart of Santa Fe, which was largely a collection of adobe-type
As beautiful as the chapel was, Mouly seemed to have designed
it with men in mind: the sisters that had to use the ladder to
reach the choir felt uneasy about this – nor was it the
proper decorum to see a nun’s habits from below. Several
carpenters and architects were invited to resolve the problem,
but most felt that their solution could not be homogenous with
the interior design of the chapel. Another problem was that most
of the order’s funds had been spent on the construction
of the chapel, and so the nun’s prayed to St Joseph to deliver
them out of this conundrum. Then, legend has it, a man showed
up, worked for three months on the staircase, and when it was
completed, he left, without demanding payment.
What he left behind was a staircase that made two complete 360-degree
turns, stands twenty feet tall and has no central support. Its
33 steps were made from an extinct wood species and constructed
with square wooden pegs alone – no nails were used. Originally,
there was no railing, though this was added later. At the same
time, the outer spiral was fastened to an adjacent pillar, for
even though the engineering of the staircase was superb, it left
clearly some people worried that it might collapse.
For some, the staircase defies belief, though in truth it is “only”
a piece of remarkable beauty and executed by someone who was a
carpenter most-extraordinaire, using knowledge not found locally,
which is why it is considered to be such an anomaly. Whether we
have to go as far as invoking the apparition of St Joseph himself
who made this, is probably one step too far, though.
Indeed, for more than a century, there was no clue to the carpenter’s
identity, but it is now believed to have been a French carpenter,
Francois-Jean Rochas. He was an expert carpenter who had emigrated
from France and arrived in Santa Fe at the time the staircase
was built. A death notice in “The New Mexican”, dated
1895, actually does refer to Rochas as the builder of the “handsome
staircase in the Loretto chapel”. But even though Rochas
is the likeliest candidate, there are some inconsistencies with
the legendary account, which speaks of an elderly gray-haired
man creating the staircase, while Rochas was only 27 years old
when the staircase was built.
Chapel is definitely not the only church in Santa Fe. In fact,
Santa Fe boasts the oldest church in the United States, that of
San Miguel Mission, located just one block south of Loretto Chapel.
One of the oldest statues inside the church is that of St Michael
dominating Satan, dating from 1709, which was brought from Mexico.
The statue illustrates how the new ways of Michael conquered the
pagan ways of “Satan”. Missions were the first mixture
between the old ways of the Native Americans and the ways of the
new settlers, who brought Christianity. And it should not come
as a surprise that the site chosen by the Christians, was a Native
American religious center, sacred to the Tlaxcalan Indians. There
is evidence that there was a kiva in existence here from as early
as 1200 AD, its existence confirmed by archaeologists in 1955.
It were the Tlaxcalan Indians, under the direction of Father Alonso
de Benavides, who constructed the mission in the early 1600s.
However, the history of the building reveals that the marriage
of two cultures wasn’t always a peaceful integration; the
Pueblo Indian Rebellion of 1680 burned and destroyed the roof
of the church. The entire town of Santa Fe was actually largely
abandoned, only to be resettled in 1694 under the leadership of
General Diego de Vargas, who made sure a new roof for the mission
church was constructed. During the revolt, the mission church
is believed to have reverted to a place of pagan worship, showing
how the old ways didn’t die easily. In fact, though there
are several churches in Santa Fe, San Miguel always remained the
one most linked with the “Mexican servants” –
the local Native population or those who clearly wanted to worship
in their former sacred sites.
even though San Miguel was the oldest church, it never became
the site of the cathedral. That honour went to St Francis. The
first church to Saint Francis was built in 1610; the present church
dates back to 1886. It is a blend of adobe, French-Romanesque
and modern architectural styles, designed by French architects
on orders of Bishop Lamy, whose crypt is inside the cathedral.
The most interesting feature of the chapel, however, is not architecture,
but a statue in the Conquistadora Chapel, built of adobe in 1714,
and housing “La Conquistadora”, the country’s
oldest Madonna, dating from 1625. Or rather, it should be stated
that she is known to date back to 1625, for the olive wood is
dated to the 15th century – dendrology gives her a date
of 1448 to 1648. It is widely believed and accepted that she was
originally a Madonna in Spain, and that she was brought from Spain
by Christians to New Mexico. But the most interesting story is
this: that she came from Spain via Mexico, while there is one
tradition which says she was also revered by Hernan Cortes and
used as a banner image during his conquest of Mexico! This would
mean that when Cortes conquered Mexico, this statue was with him
every step of the way. It would make this statue even more extraordinary
than she already is.
If we go even further back in time, we find that Ribero-Ortega
claims that she can be traced to the town of Los Palacios, near
Sevilla, especially Villafranca de la Marisma, where there was
a Penitent Chapel where a Nuestra Senora de los Remedios was located.
She had an annual feast, held in October, and Ribero-Ortega proposes
that it was this statue that was taken by Cortes to Mexico.
There is another
tradition that when she was in Mexico, she was placed on the pyramid
site of Cholula, where Juan de Ribas got it from the Mexican chieftain
Acxotecatl, and that it was at that time that the New Mexico adventure
of the statue began. So after aiding the Conquest of Mexico, La
Conquistadora secured victory in New Mexico.
Another series of traditions states that her current pose was
not her original one and that her two slender hands were originally
folded before her breast, while her face was inclined upwards.
Finally, that she might not be an ordinary Madonna, but might
have been a Black Madonna – thus sitting in a series of
statues that can be found throughout Europe, but mostly in Spain
and Southern France, part of a tradition that has led to much
speculation, ranging from whether she depicted Mary Magdalene,
the wife of Jesus, or – more likely – the female aspect
of God, and thus part of a tradition which claimed hat God was
not all male, but a companionship, of male and female… that
God had a wife. Indeed, if she indeed comes from a penitent chapel
near Seville, the notion that this is a Black Madonna, is quite
straightforward. But then the next question that needs to be posed
is whether Cortes was aware of the tradition associated with Black
Madonnas and “needed” a Black Madonna in his conquest
of the New World, or whether it was all one big accident. History,
however, is seldom accidental.
So even though we can look at the architecture of Santa Fe, it
are two statues not at all too prominently advertised that should
be placed centrally. Like the statue of San Miguel, the Conquistadora
was often taken into battle, especially during the Pueblo Revolt,
while she was also depicted on flags. Indeed, La Conquistadora
was proclaimed patroness of New Mexico in 1771 and it might only
be the final step in centuries of distinction giving to her, including
the possibility that this is the statue that accompanied the Conquistadors
and was then placed in the hands of those who were going to continue
the conversion of North America. If so, she is clearly a most
powerful relic, fully deserving to be inside the cathedral that
marks the navel of Christianity in Northern America.
In recent years, a brotherhood has been created that is dedicated
to her and slowly her fame is emerging from the mists of time.
It is a sign that more and more people are beginning to realize
that she has quite a story to tell!