St. Francis Cathedral
Santa Fe’s showpiece St. Francis Cathedral (131 Cathedral Pl., 505/982-5619, 7 a.m.–6 p.m. daily, free), visible from the plaza at the end of East San Francisco Street, was built over about 15 years in the late 19th century. It represents a bit of a folly for Jean Baptiste Lamy, who initiated the project.
The French priest had been assigned by the church to a newly created post that would formally separate New Mexico’s Catholics from those in Mexico, but when he arrived in 1851 full of fire and zeal to uplift the barbarous population, he promptly alienated much of his would-be flock.
Lamy was not only shocked by the locals’ ways of worship (the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe was already well established, and the Penitente brotherhood was performing public self-flagellation), but he was also horrified by their aesthetics. How could a person possibly reach heaven while praying on a dirt floor inside a building made of mud?
Lamy took one look at the tiny adobe church dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi and decided he could do better. Construction on the Romanesque revival St. Francis Cathedral began in 1869, under the direction of architects and craftsmen from Europe—they used the old church as a frame for the new stone structure and then demolished all of the adobe save for a small side chapel.
Lamy seems to have financed his very expensive project through a loan from one of the city’s wealthiest men, Abraham Staab, one of Santa Fe’s leading Jewish merchants. This is the alleged reason for the Hebrew inscription “Yahweh” over the cathedral’s main doors and the two six-pointed stars in the place: one visible from the pulpit, another in the vestuary. Even so, Lamy ran short of cash—hence the stumpy aspect of the cathedral’s corners, which should be topped with spires.
Inside is all Gothic-inspired light and space and glowing stained-glass windows, but that could never truly replace the local traditions.
The salvaged adobe chapel remains, off to the left of the altar. It is dedicated to the figure of La Conquistadora, a statue brought to Santa Fe from Mexico in 1625, carried away by the retreating Spanish during the Pueblo Revolt, proudly reinstated in 1693, and honored ever since for inspiring the Spanish to stick with their colonizing project. She glows in her purple robes, under a heavy viga ceiling—all of which probably makes Lamy shudder in his crypt in front of the main altar (he died in 1888).
© Zora O'Neill from Moon Santa Fe, Taos & Albuquerque, 2nd edition