Juan Romero

As a young priest, Padre Antonio José Martínez, Cura de Taos, objected to the system of tithing that he perceived to be a severe burden on the poor. He formally voiced his opposition since 1829, only three years after he arrived back in Taos as the priest in charge of his boyhood church of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, an extension of the parish church of San Geronimo headquartered at the Taos Pueblo since about 1620.  As a civil legislator for the Departamento de Nuevo Mexico in the still new Republic of Mexico, independent from Spain since 1821, Padre Martínez advocated abolishing tithing.  In a union of church and state, the government was in charge of collecting tithes as income to pay expenses of government including military salaries as well as church expenses including the salary of clergy. Padre Martinez served various times as one of the legislators representing New Mexico within the Assembly of the Republic of Mexico, and also later as a Representative for the USA Territory of New Mexico. As a member of the Asamblea del Departamento de Nuevo Mexico, Padre Martínez campaigned to change the law so that tithing would no longer be mandatory. Without objection from the Bishop of the Diocese of Durango to which Taos and all of New Mexico and beyond then belonged—the northern frontier of the Kingdom of Spain—Padre Martínez successfully advocated for a change in the policy.  Tithes were abolished by the mid 1830s.

With its occupation by Colonel Steven Watts Kearney in August 1846, New Mexico became a part of the United States, but remained for a few years under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Bishop of Durango, Mexico. However in July 1851, Jean Baptiste Lamy arrived at Santa Fe as the new Vicar Apostolic. He came from Ohio where he had served as a missionary from France. Padre Martínez joined other native New Mexican priests, as well as the Spanish Franciscan clergy and laypeople, in welcoming the new prelate who became the first bishop of New Mexico. The Vicariate Apostolic of New Mexico shifted from the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Durango, Mexico to the Bishop of St. Louis, Missouri until Santa Fe became a diocese in its own right in 1853. It became an Archdiocese in 1875. Padre Martinez made overtures to ingratiate himself with Bishop Lamy.  For his part, Lamy initially sought advice from the Padre known for expertise in canon law, and even borrowed money from him who came from a relatively wealthy family.

However, the relationship began to sour and more so with the 1854 promulgation of a Pastoral Letter of the Bishop that reinstituted the policy of tithing.  In his attempt to finance the operation of the new diocese, Bishop Lamy imposed the penalty of denying Christian burial to those who did not contribute to the church their tithe, one tenth of family income. Meanwhile, the public controversy over tithes and the Pastoral Letter of 1854 was heating up.  Bishop Lamy re-introduced tithing to meet new expenses, but also concomitantly imposed a harsh sanction of excluding from the rites of Christian burial those families that did not comply.  Through his writings in the secular newspaper La Gaceta of Santa Fe, Padre Martínez strenuously and publicly objected to this change in policy regarding tithes, and  denounced Bishop Lamy for “huckerism and simony”.

After serving in his beloved Taos for three decades as a busy parish priest, educator, printer, publisher and politician, Padre Martinez was tired and feeling sickly.  He thought it might be a time for a change in his own life, maybe even retirement. He shared his musings with Bishop Lamy who by then had been in charge of the church in New Mexico for five years.  In a letter dated January 28, 1856, Padre Martinez advised Bishop Lamy of his ill health: bladder infection and severe rheumatism that made walking difficult.  He requested help, preferably a native New Mexican priest as an assistant. Martínez specifically asked for Don Ramón Medina whom he had trained in preparatory seminary, and suggested that Padre Medina succeed him. However, Bishop Lamy chose to interpret the letter as a formal “resignation” and countered with the appointment of another priest he put in charge of the Taos parish, effective within three months, by May 1856: Don Dámaso Taladrid. 

Bishop Lamy had met the Basque priest during one of his trips to Rome, recruited him and appointed him to Taos. Father Taladrid had little regard for the ill health of Padre Martínez or for his many years of service at Our Lady of Guadalupe parish and its environs.  Within a short time, friction developed between the two priests. Taladrid made it difficult for Martínez to celebrate Mass in the church, so Martínez began to build a private oratory with its walled cemetery on his own property and at his own expense. Soon, in June, Taladrid reported to Bishop Lamy that Martínez was building the chapel. [AASF Reel 30, pages 529-530] Private chapels of devotion were common among some people of New Mexico, and the custom–less prevalently–continues to this day.

The visions/goals of parish ministry and distinct personalities of Padre Martínez and Father Taladrid clashed. In a letter of October 1, 1856 Padre Martínez advised Bishop Lamy that he was building a chapel next to his home since Father Taladrid did not allow him to use the parish church for weddings and funerals of family members and close friends. The Bishop learned that the wedding of the Padre’s favorite niece (Refugio Martínez to one of his former students Pedro Sanchez) would take place at the Padre’s chapel.

The Bishop’s response to Martínez’ letter was not a letter in kind, but rather a harsh action quickly meted out within a few weeks: suspension. Suspensio a divinis is the ecclesiastical censure by which a cleric, for a breach of discipline or for moral cause, is prohibited from exercising “the divine things” of priestly ministry.  By means of “suspension”, the bishop deprives the suspended priest from his faculties (license) to celebrate Mass, preach, or hear Confessions as well as to give Absolution except in danger of death.  In such a case, through the mercy of God, “ecclesia supplet”, i.e., the church supplies faculties and jurisdiction for a suspended or excommunicated priest to administer last rites of penance-absolution and Last Anointing with the Holy Oils, and to give Holy Communion (Viaticum) to a person in danger of death (in periculo mortis) or in the very process of dying (in articulo mortis).

For Padre Martínez, the much more severe ecclesiastical censure of excommunication was still a couple of years away—April 1858. Bishop Lamy in 1860 came to administer the sacrament of Confirmation at the Taos parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  While signing the Books of Parish Records (Baptisms, Confirmations, Marriages, Funerals) as customary upon coming for an official visit, he noted the excommunication of Padre Martinez in the respective sacramental registries of Confirmations and Funerals. The Bishop noted that the excommunication was because of the priest’s “scandalous writings”, not for any alleged immorality or concubinage.

Msgr. Jerome Martínez, Canon Lawyer and former rector of the St. Francis Cathedral-Basilica of Santa Fe, affirms that the excommunication was invalid in the first instance for lack of the canonically required three previous warnings. If that be so, then no formal process for “lifting an excommunication” would be required as may have been necessary for some excommunicated historical figures such as Galileo who was “strongly suspected” of heresy in 1633 or Joan of Arc who was burned at the stake in 1431 . Joan’s conviction was overturned a quarter of a century after she was condemned, and was ultimately canonized in 1920.

No such happy outcome awaits Padre Martínez. Nevertheless upon his death in 1867, his fellow legislators in the Territorial Assembly of New Mexico, inscribed upon his tombstone as part of an epitaph: “La Honra de Su País”. Shortly before Town of Taos on July 16, 2006 installed the more than life-sized bronze memorial of the Padre within the plaza grounds, the State Legislature of New Mexico unanimously ratified and made present that same encomium, “THE HONOR OF HIS HOMELAND”.