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Santa 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.

Philip Coppens


Located 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 city.
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 buildings.
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.

Loretto 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.

However, 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!