by William H. Wroth
Father Antonio José Martínez (1793-1867) was one of the most important New Mexicans of the nineteenth century, playing a leading role in both religious and political affairs in the Mexican and Territorial periods. He was born in Santa Rosa de Abiquiú January 16, 1793, the first son of Antonio Severino Martín and María del Carmen Santistéban (Father Martínez later added the ez to his name). His grandfather José Martín was the Teniente de Alcalde Mayor of Abiquiú, the chief magistrate and militia head of the community. The Martín and Santistéban families were leading españoles in Abiquiú; that is, in the racial/cultural categories of the day they were considered to be criollos of European origin, in contrast to the majority of citizens of Abiquiú who were genízaros, detribalized Indians who spoke Spanish and had adopted the Catholic faith.
Martínez lived in Abiquiú until the age of 11 when in 1804 his family moved to Taos. He attended schools in both communities, until the age of 19 when he married María de la Luz Martín (no relation to him) of Abiquiú. A year later she died in childbirth, leaving Martínez a widower with an infant daughter. The bereaved Martínez returned to Taos to live with his parents, leaving his daughter with her maternal grandparents in Abiquiú. After four years with his parents, in 1817 he decided upon the vocation of priest and went to the city of Durango in northern Mexico to study at the Tridentine seminary. In 1821 he graduated from the seminary with commendations and praise from his superiors, having also been awarded a royal scholarship in 1820. He was ordained a priest in Durango in February 1822, but returned to Taos because of health problems in January 1823. His stay of nearly five years in Durango coincided with the momentous events of the Mexican independence movement which no doubt led to his later support of the Republic of Mexico and his involvement in political issues.
Spanish New Mexico had since the early colonial period been under the religious administration of the Franciscan friars who had originally come to Christianize the Indians. In the early 1800s most of the priests in New Mexico parishes were friars, but after independence there was a powerful movement within the Catholic Church, supported by the Mexican government, to replace these Franciscans with secular priests. Thus there was a need for young priests like Martínez in the Hispanic communities of New Mexico. Father Martínez began his career in Taos in 1823 as the assistant to the Franciscan Fray Sebastián Álvarez; later that year he moved to Tomé in the Rio Abajo to serve as a temporary replacement for the parish priest, returning to Taos in the spring of 1824. In Taos he also was given the task of serving in Abiquiú; then in 1826 he became the cura encargo, the pastor in charge of the parish of Taos. In 1840 Martínez attended a synod in Durango with the purpose of qualifying as a cura propio, that is, a tenured or irremovable priest. He was finally granted this status in 1842.
Soon after his appointment as cura encargo he opened a school in his home on the plaza next to the church of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, the first of several schools he established in the Taos area. In 1827 his father Antonio Severino Martín died and in 1829 his mother María del Carmen Santistéban also died. Both were buried in the nave of the church of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, due in part to his father having been a large benefactor for the construction of the church in the early 1800s. In the late 1820s Father Martínez’s duties also included visits to satellite churches in the nearby communities such as Ranchos de Taos and even as far away as Picuries Pueblo and Lo de Mora on the eastern side of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. In 1830 he was elected to the first of several terms in New Mexico’s Departmental Assembly.
In 1831 it appears likely that the first of at least three children were born to Father Martínez and a woman who lived next door to him, Teodora Romero. While some historians disagree, the evidence presented by Fray Angelico Chavez is convincing. The first three children of Teodoro Romero were listed by Martínez himself in the baptism records as “legitimate” with the father being Antonio Martínez and the paternal grandparents being Serverino Martín and María del Carmen Santistéban. Severino and María had no other son with the name Antonio which makes it likely that Antonio José Martínez was the father of the children. Also, in each case he did not baptize them, since it was forbidden by canon law for a father to baptize his own children. Instead he turned to close family members, and a fellow priest in one case, to perform the baptisms. Throughout his life the two surviving children and later ones of Teodoro Romero remained close to him.
In 1834 Ramón Abréu brought a printing press from Mexico to Santa Fe. It was the first press to operate in New Mexico, and the next year Father Martínez purchased it and moved it to Taos. Its operator Jesús María Baca also moved to Taos to serve as pressman. Martínez used the press to print school books for the schools he had established, as well as religious and political tracts and even autobiographical works. The first book to be printed in New Mexico – a schoolbook titled Cuaderno de Ortografía -- was done under his direction in1835 before the press was moved from Santa Fe.
In the violent Rebellion of 1837, which was centered in the town of Chimayó, Martínez was accused of playing an organizing role. However, the evidence suggests that he was innocent of any involvement and in fact, was in danger at times from the rebels. Martínez, as a Mexican liberal of the period, was opposed to President Santa Anna and to his appointed New Mexico governor Albino Perez, who was assassinated by the rebels. But the Mexican liberals were, as was Martínez, criollos in origin, and although sympathetic to the plight of the poor, they were seldom supporters of rebellions fomented by Indians and mestizos.
With the change in sovereignty from Mexico to the United States in 1846, Father Martínez was accused of being, on the one hand, too tolerant of the incoming American Protestants and, on the other hand, anti-American and even an organizer of the Taos Rebellion of 1847. Both accusations were not only contradictory but also unfair. Again as a Mexican liberal he believed in religious freedom and admired that principle in the American constitution. Over the years he had maintained good relationships with most of the Anglo-Americans who had settled in Taos. Immediately following the American conquest of 1846 he met with General Stephen Kearny, at the latter’s request and later loaned Kearny without charge his printing press, sending it back down to Santa Fe. During the Taos Rebellion Martínez provided sanctuary for at least one endangered American, and he confronted the mob of rebels, warning them of the futility and wrong of their actions. He also cooperated fully with Colonel Sterling Price who made Martínez’s home his headquarters while he and his troops fought and defeated the rebels. In 1849 Martinez was appointed president of the convention of 19 delegates assembled to prepare a territorial plan of government and in 1850 gave full support to New Mexico’s first territorial constitution.
The arrival of Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy in 1850 brought about a long-lasting conflict between the French clergy under Lamy and the New Mexican-born clergy for whom Martínez often served as the spokesman. In December 1852 Lamy, among other actions, declared that parishioners who did not tithe (pay church fees) would be denied the sacraments, a rather heartless punishment. Martínez had some 20 years earlier been successful in having involuntary tithing abolished in Taos due to the poverty of much of the populace. On behalf of a number of the clergy Martínez took issue with Lamy’s position, and this issue remained a major thorn of contention between them for the rest of Martínez’s life. At the same time Lamy suspended some New Mexico-born clergy from their priestly duties, for living a too worldly life and neglect of their spiritual duties. Among them was the popular Father José Manuel Gallegos, pastor of the San Felipe Nerí Church in Albuquerque and a former seminary student of Father Martínez. Lamy’s action produced a powerful backlash; not only did Martínez come to Gallegos’s defense but over 900 citizens signed a petition in support of him.
In 1856 Martínez requested Bishop Lamy that he be given an assistant in preparation for his eventual retirement. He asked to be assisted by the New Mexican-born Father Ramón Medina. Martínez recommended Medina because, as he wrote to Lamy, “the people are terribly worried about the priesthood that is not native to the country.” Instead, Lamy appointed the Spanish priest Father Damaso Taladrid to replace him. The arrogant Taladrid was not popular in Taos and quickly came into conflict with Martínez. Years earlier Martínez had been given by Bishop Zubiría official responsibility for the Taos chapter of the confraternity known as the Brotherhood of Our Father Jesus, popularly called the Penitente Brotherhood. This function Martínez would not cede to Taladrid because he expected that the latter, following Lamy’s wishes, would try to disband them.
No longer officially the pastor in the Taos church, Martínez began to celebrate mass in his own family chapel and in others around the Taos valley. Due to Taladrid’s unpopularity in Taos, Lamy finally replaced him in 1857 with a young New Mexican-born priest José Eulogio Ortiz. Ortiz, however, was a devoted protégé of Lamy, and he also soon came into conflict with Martínez for playing an active role in the disruption of Penitente chapels and their services. This and other issues caused Lamy to suspend Martínez in 1856 and then, on shaky legal grounds a few years later, to excommunicate him and his associate Father Mariano Lucero, the priest at nearby Arroyo Hondo. Martínez was accused of promoting a schism in Taos, and indeed a schismatic spirit existed there, promoted by people close to him. But he himself, though in disagreement with Lamy on many issues, never actually entered into schism or set himself up as independent from the Catholic Church. After being excommunicated, Martínez, in defiance of Lamy, continued until the end of his life to celebrate mass in private chapels and to officiate at baptisms, marriages, and funerals for his family members and large circle of followers. He died on July 27, 1867. The crowd of over 2000 people at his funeral included 300 members of the Taos chapter of the Penitente brotherhood.
Father Antonio José Martínez must be counted as one of the most important intellectual, spiritual, and political leaders of northern New Mexico in the nineteen century. During and after his life he was castigated and calumniated by his enemies. Reflecting the cultural biases of the day, these undeserved attacks were perpetuated in the early twentieth century by noted authors such as historian Ralph Emerson Twitchell and novelist Willa Cather in her Death Comes to the Archbishop. A refreshing correction to these views finally came from Fray Angelico Chavez in his But Time and Chance.Unfortunately Chavez, although correcting many errors and misconceptions about Martínez, quite unwarrantedly depicted him as suffering from a schizophrenic condition which led to his opposing Lamy. The definitive biography of Father Martínez has yet to be written and only a few of his voluminous writings have ever been reprinted.
Chavez, Fray Angelico. But Time and Chance: The Story of Padre Martínez of Taos, 1793 – 1867. Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 1981.
Horgan, Paul. Lamy of Santa Fe. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.
Mares, E. A. ed. Padre Martinez: New Perspectives from Taos. Taos: Millicent Rogers Museum, 1988.
Steele, Thomas J. Folk and Church in New Mexico. Colorado Springs: Hulbert Center for Southwest Studies, Colorado College, 1993.
Wroth, William. The Chapel of Our Lady of Talpa. Colorado Springs: The Taylor Museum of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 1979.