Padre Martinez – Penitentes

Padre Antonio Jose Martinez (1793-1868) is one of the great heroes of Nineteenth Century New Mexico. He was vilified by many Anglos and by the French Bishop of Santa Fe who excommunicated him. Being a Protestant, I might be more sympathetic of his disobeying his bishop than if I were Catholic; however, the bishop excommunicated him in a secretive and underhanded manner suggesting that the bishop lacked sufficient cause.  He stood up for the rights and customs of the poor people of the Rio Arriba, mountainous Northern New Mexico, against money grasping church officials and land-grabbing Anglos. For speaking out on their behalf, he was twice accused of instigating rebellion – in 1837 against the appointed Mexican governor and in 1847 Taos Uprising against the new American government of Governor Charles Bent. He spoke out but was probably not involved. In 1847, he concealed Anglo fugitives from the angry mob inside his home at great personal risk.

Born into a wealthy family at Abiquiu, he was one of the first New Mexicans to achieve an advanced education and to enter the priesthood. New Mexico under the Spanish mission field of the Franciscan monks. There was only one secular priest between Taos and El Paso at Santa Fe. The monks were sent to the Pueblo Indians, were paid by the Spanish Crown and were only secondarily concerned with the paisanos, the local people. No tithe was collected but the stole fees were correspondingly high. People tended to skip a marriage ceremony and save up for last rites which they were sure would be both necessary and more durable than marriage. When Mexico achieved independence, Spanish monks were no longer trusted and were expelled leaving New Mexico with only two priests. Padre Martinez remedied this by opening the first school open to children other than those of the wealthy. He obtained the first printing press ever in New Mexico and printed the first books. He also served as a leader in both the Mexican and American legislature. By the time New Mexico was severed from the church in Mexico and a new bishop sent out, 19 of 22 priests were former students of the Padre. The new bishop needed money to build a cathedral, thought the stole fees too high and order them lowered, but also instituted the tithe and first fruits and insisted they be up to date before any sacraments could be performed. As Padre Martinez pointed out, successful collection of these fees would have yielded the bishop a treasury larger than that of the territorial legislature. He preformed baptisms without collecting the fees and the bishop was enraged. All of the New Mexican priests were removed and replaced mostly with Frenchmen. It was 100 years before there was another New Mexican priest.

In the religious vacuum that was New Mexico under Spain and Mexico arose a secular religious brotherhood. Los Hermanos de la Fraternidad Piadosa de Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno (Spanish: “The Brothers of the Pious Fraternity of Our Father Jesus the Nazarene”) are also known simply as Penitentes or as the Brotherhood, Hermandad. Their origins are obscure. New Mexicans believe they have been there always having their roots in the medieval practices of the Conquistadors. Their practices may may also arise from the penances of the Third Order of Saint Francis, the lay order. Or both may be true to a degree.

There are indications that after 1830, Padre Martinez, despite their proscription by the church, became their leader. Their symbols appear in the Santuario de Chimayo whose founder was a Penitente.

The Penitentes are a secret society and, while their hooded members march the streets during Holy Week (Easter), their initiations and most of their ceremonies are conducted in private. When seen in public they are hooded and led by the pito, a flute, followed by a member carrying the cross who will be crucified and only brought down, hopefully alive, after hours in agony. Behind him come members flagellating and otherwise torturing themselves. Some drag the rock-laden cart of Dona Sebastiana, Lady Death, whose wheels do not turn making the burden all the heavier. These are the bloody practices the Catholic Church forbids. But this is New Mexico and the Penitentes have both secular and religious power.

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