The history of the valley and the church
(La Historia del Rio Abajo is a monthly column about Valencia County history written by members of the Valencia County Historical Society.
Francelle Alexander is the author of “Among the Cottonwoods: The Enduring Villages of Peralta and Los Pinos, New Mexico, before 1940,” which won the prestigious Thomas J. Steele, S.J., Western History Award earlier this month. Her book can be purchased at many stores, including Hastings in Los Lunas.
Opinions expressed in this and all columns of La Historia del Rio Abajo are the author’s alone and not necessarily those of the Valencia County Historical Society or any other group or individual.)
After the Americans entered New Mexico in 1846 and the government and the economy of New Mexico began to change, the Catholic Church underwent profound changes after a period of long neglect.
A new diocese was established and Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy and many French priests arrived.
However, even before Bishop Lamy came to New Mexico in 1851, a number of issues related to the Catholic Church were brewing in New Mexico. Most importantly, there was considerable dissatisfaction with the church among the American government and its supporters, who held the belief that certain church officials had been cognizant of the revolutionists before the Taos Rebellion of 1848 and had been active sympathizers.
Also, motivated for various reasons, local officials, particularly in Valencia County, were taking it upon themselves to alter or set aside laws and customs of the church, receiving at least tacit support from the military government in New Mexico.
Much of this difficulty in Valencia County centered around two “wayward priests,” Nicholas Valencia and Benigno Cardenas, who successfully had usurped the appointed priests at Belen and Tomé and had created a schism within their parishes.
The work of these dissidents had the political support of the Otero family, including Judge Antonio José Otero.
Although the Oteros never left the Catholic Church, the support that the Otero family, with their wealth, influence and official positions at the local level, provided ultimately encouraged the introduction of Protestantism in the Peralta area.
In the 1850s, because the Oteros did not ostracize, but rather supported these dissident priests, the groundwork for the Methodists and Baptists in the Peralta/Los Pinos area was laid, and Peralta became a focus for Protestant evangelical efforts in the Rio Abajo.
Cardenas, one of the “wayward priests,” was later described as a “fugitive Franciscan from Mexico City, whose strange career is incredible.”
In 1849, Vicar Juan Felipe Ortiz in Santa Fe had been warned about the suspended priest who could cause difficulty in the Rio Abajo. However, Cardenas won favor with the local magistrate in Valencia, briefly overthrew the priest at Tomé in 1849 and convinced some in Peralta to follow him.
Meanwhile, Valencia, the “wayward priest” in Belen, who sided with Cardenas, had ousted the rightful priest and had remained in what was originally to be a “temporary assignment.”
In the middle of these disputes, the local justice of the peace, Vicente Armijo, a brother-in-law of Judge Otero, attempted to control the affairs of the churches in his precinct. In one situation, Armijo directed Cardenas to go to the parish church of Tomé and receive church property without excuse or protest from the priest, José de Jesus Baca.
After being forced to relinquish certain religious items for Mass, Father Baca was then excluded from performing his duties.
Separation of church and state was a new concept in New Mexico that had not yet taken root. The practice of civil officials being involved in local internal church affairs dated back to the Spanish and Mexican periods.
This practice continued under the American government as Judge Manuel Antonio Otero, the probate judge, and Vicente Armijo, the local justice of the peace, operated under the assumption that civil authorities could interfere in internal church affairs.
Although Donaciano Vigil, the civil governor of New Mexico at the time, and his American military commander had confirmed many of the actions of local officials related to the Catholic Church, they did endeavor to correct the removal of Father Baca.
Probate Judge Otero was ordered to restore Baca to his rights and give back the confiscated church property, but the order was never obeyed. Later, the priest at Tomé, Father Jean Baptiste Ralliere, took steps that ensured the independence of the church at Tomé, i.e., ending the practice of giving the keys to special areas of the church to the local justice of the peace.
In 1850, another attempt was made to install Cardenas as a priest in another church in Valencia County, and again local politics became very much involved.
In Sabinal, the justice of the peace, Jesus Silva, attempted to place Cardenas in the local church; however, the people protested, resulting in the arrest of one hundred of the protesters.
The local people felt that the arrests were politically motivated because it was the day for elections, and all the protesters opposed re-election of the current officials. The protestors were taken to the northern part of Valencia County to be incarcerated.
Don José Chavez, of Los Padillas, one of the most influential men in New Mexico at the time, took the side of those opposing Cardenas and provided bail for the protesters.
Although more than 100 citizens protested to the American military, no action was taken against the justice of peace, the probate judge (Ramon Luna) or the district judges (Joab Houghton and Antonio José Otero). Some of the citizens were arrested again and were held in jail until a new governor was appointed.
Although Vicar Ortiz removed both Valencia and Cardenas from their churches in Belen and Tomé, Judge Antonio José Otero of Peralta ruled in favor of Valencia and Cardenas.
Only through appeals to Washington by a vociferous American, Richard J. Weightman, was the Vicar Ortiz able to remove Cardenas and Valencia, but many marriages and baptisms which the errant priests had performed were invalidated.
In 1850, Bishop Zubiria exposed Cardenas as an imposter and had him excommunicated with edicts read against Cardenas in all the churches. At this point, many friends of Cardenas abandoned him, and Cardenas left New Mexico by way of El Paso, where Bishop Zubria had him ejected again.
Cardenas would be gone from New Mexico for more than two years, and during that time, Protestants made this part of Valencia County a focus of missionary work.
Among the early Baptists who were involved in evangelical work in New Mexico in the 1850s was a missionary couple, the Reverend John Milton Shaw and his wife, Harriet.
The Shaws had arrived in Santa Fe in November of 1851 and then settled in Albuquerque. Soon Henry Connelly convinced them to move to Los Pinos and open a school for some of the young girls in the area.
By February of 1852, the Shaws had relocated to Los Pinos, and Harriet was teaching three young ladies from the Otero and Chavez/Connelly families; meanwhile, her husband performed missionary work as far south as Socorro and west to several of the Indian settlements.
However, the Shaws were not allowed to teach religion in Harriet’s class, and Reverend Shaw was not able to preach at Los Pinos.
The struggle between the well-established Catholic community and the eager Baptist missionaries is evident in a letter written by Mrs. Shaw to her mother in February of 1852:
“Have been here about 3 weeks and like it quite well. It is pleasantest place I have seen in New Mexico and what is very uncommon is surrounded by cottonwood trees which form a very pretty grove. The new bishop and Vicario from the states are very intolerant and are exerting their influence against us and we have succeeded in getting only three of the girls yet as they are so afraid of our Protestantism.
“But the Bishop and Vicario have many enemies and the parents of those we have will not submit to their authority and also many others will rebel and we may possibly work in a little truth by watching an opportunity. This is the greatest opening ever made in New Mexico and we are among a more independent class of people who will not be slaves to the Bishop, but will rebel if crowded and we may possibly do some good by gaining their confidence.
“It is said by all to be the best place in the Territory and if any good could be done anywhere this was the place. The little girls are much pleased to live with us and their parents seem well pleased.”
The Shaws, particularly Mrs. Shaw, were soon disenchanted with Los Pinos, since Connelly apparently did not actively support their missionary efforts.
When Connelly, who reportedly was Catholic, invited the Shaws to Los Pinos, he was probably more interested in the secular education that the missionaries could bring to his 13-year-old stepdaughter than the Protestant cause.
Also, Connelly had promised eight girls, but only three attended. Although Harriet Shaw liked her three pupils, the girls were not always easy. The other two girls that Mrs. Shaw taught were the daughters of Juan and Mercedes Otero, Alta Gracia, who was 11 years old, and Ana Maria, who was 9 years old.
Harriet Shaw sometimes described her life as a harried teacher in letters to her mother:
“Well, mother, my little family has all retired and I will try to finish this letter … We have three very pretty little girls … the youngest, Anna Marie, is such a fun, laughter loving little girl that I have my hands full as she understands no English. One of the girls understands some English and is my interpreter to the others when I can’t make them understand my Spanish.
“This evening I was obliged to send Anna Marie from the room for laughing and chattering so much, but instead of going to her room, she went around to the window of my room and while I was absent a few minutes, called in a loud whisper, ‘Muchachas, Muchachas,’ meaning, ‘Girls, Girls.’ But she dodged on seeing me enter the room. All of them are very much attached to us; Anna Maria especially, she is a very active, intelligent girl and would be an ornament to society if brought up in the States and well educated.
“I’ve gotten nearly worn out with the charge of these wild girls and Milton says I shall not go into this school business any more. He talks some of commencing a free school and will see if he can do anything that way, but I’m not going to fret any more. We have done all we can and all has failed.”
Benigno Cardenas returns
When Benigno Cardenas returned to the area again, he was a sanctioned Methodist minister, but he was again controversial, creating more difficulties for the Catholic Church.
He continued to preach for a few years, but in 1855, the Methodist Church found him “unworthy and false” and allowed his mission to expire.
Within a year, Cardenas experienced a remarkable “reconversion,” and, after a special ceremony, he was allowed to return to the Catholic Church as a priest. He left Valencia County to serve in Havana, Cuba, where he died a few years later.