Lamy of Santa Fe
Written by
Donna Bryson
July 2018
Written by
Donna Bryson
July 2018

What I love most about Pulitzer-winning historian Paul Horgan’s biography of the first Catholic archbishop of the American southwest are the cinematographic evocations of the frontier landscape.

The intimate, as in this almost biblical description of the garden Jean Baptiste Lamy grew in Santa Fe:

“Among his shade trees he cultivated elm, maple, cottonwood, locust, and both weeping and osier willows. There were red and white currants, plums as large as hen’s eggs, and flawless Catawba grapes. Every vine leaf, every shrub, was sound, and so were the trees – apple, peach, pear (he espaliered the pears with the help of Louis, his gardener, who was remembered as a ‘wonderful gardener, a little man’).”

The lyrical:

“The valleys showed walls striped like agate. One mountain range after another seemed to deny future escape. Those colossal earth wrinkles from afar made grand statements of beauty in form and atmosphere; but once entered, presented endlessly tortuous ways, caprices of weather, and repeated barriers to progress, all inducing a sense of captivity on a dishuman scale.”

The poignant early days of what is now my hometown, Denver:

“A Colorado immigrant in 1860 after weeks on the plains longed for news, and seeing the Pony Express – he capitalized it – approaching in a thunder of hooves, hoped for a little exchange. But ‘the Pony Express returning from San Francisco … passed us like the wind and we could get not a single word of news.’”

Horgan’s voluminously researched “Lamy of Santa Fe” has a serious subject and ambitions. But I like to amuse myself by calling the tome a historical adventure bromance. It comes most alive in   descriptions of the bond between Lamy and his childhood friend Joseph Priest Machebeuf. In the old photos Horgan includes, Machebeuf looks like Yoda; Lamy, Obi-Wan Kenobi. The two travel to the United States together from their native France and overcome arduous trials. Both are high achievers -- the calm, patient Lamy and the impetuous, energetic Machebeuf, who becomes Denver first bishop.

Horgan is sincerely admiring of how far their faith takes them. I’m moved by their lifetime friendship. Machebeuf dies in 1889 in Denver, a year after Lamy in Santa Fe. Over the decades, they cement their ties with letters and visits that often require journeys that would test Job. Horgan writes of a meeting the two managed late in life:

“The essence of friendship was never to have enough time to exchange all the ideas and references and memories that wanted sharing.

In “Lamy of Santa Fe”, a garden is an apt metaphor for all that the pious immigrants planted in arid territory – schools, a hospital. Lamy is instrumental in helping bring the railroad and all the development that meant.

Horgan writes that Lamy was beloved by his parishioners and loved them in return. But the priest could be condescending. For example, he could never fully reconcile himself to the region’s beautifully suitable adobe architecture. He insisted on a stone European-style cathedral that was ruinously expensive.

Horgan, too, can be condescending. He writes of Native Americans as either childlike or murderous.

For all its breadth and depth, and for all Lamy brought to life, the narrowness of the perspective of “Lamy of Santa Fe” can be jarring. It made me want to hear more of the region from more voices.

I also want to see what has become of Lamy’s bountiful garden.

A book that leaves you wanting more is worth the read.

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