José Antonio [Laureano de Zubiría], Bishop of Durango 

Priests of New Mexico

November 13, 1850

[This item is being posted a few days after January 17, the birthday of Padre Antonio José Martínez of Taos born in 1793. Bishop Zubiría had been a seminary professor of Padre Martínez in Durango where he studied.]



Rev. Juan Romero


  The historical interest and value of this Pastoral Letter lies in the window it offers into the time and space between the civil and ecclesiastical transfer of jurisdiction between the Republic of Mexico and the United States leading up to and for a few years after the US-Mexican War. Only a dozen years after the Republic of Mexico had become independent from “La Madre España”, Bishop Zubiría in 1833 made his first pastoral visit to New Mexico and Colorado, the northern extremity of his immense diocese of Durango. On this occasion, Bishop Zubiría—a former professor of seminarian Antonio José Martínez of Taos–gave Padre Martínez permission to begin a pre-seminary at his home for the formation of young men interested in becoming priests in New Mexico. They had to travel over a thousand miles to the south to continue their theological studies in Durango. 

  The U.S.-Mexican War from 1846 to 1848 marked a most “transcendent epoch” in American civil society, opined historian Benjamin Read in his Illustrated History of New Mexico published in 1912 at the time the territory was becoming a state of the Union. This liminal stage was reflected in the history of the Church which witnessed one of American history’s greatest transitions of episcopal jurisdiction, together with its concomitant drama and confusions.

  The large diocese of Durango in the Republic of Mexico was under the jurisdiction of Bishop José Laureano de Zubiría y Escalante from 1831 until his death in 1863. His diocese came to be cut almost in half on July 19, 1850. Pope Pius IX held the scalpel of ecclesiastical surgery, but the operation had begun four years prior with the march toward fulfillment of Manifest Destiny expressed in the U.S.- Mexican War. Stephen Watts Kearny led the Army of the West from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to Santa Fe in mid-August 1846. The US-Mexican War ended a year and a half later with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in early February 1848. Through spoils of war, the United States came to occupy and then own a large swath of territories north of Mexico that greatly diminished the size of the Bishop’s Mexican Diocese. These lands—not all part of his Diocese–included Texas, New Mexico, California, Utah, Arizona, and slivers of Wyoming and Oklahoma. 

  Civil institutions rather quickly adjusted to the new political reality, but Catholic ecclesiastical structures took more time. The American Bishops at their 1850 Council in Baltimore petitioned Pope Pius IX to transfer ecclesiastical jurisdiction from the northern part of the Diocese of Durango to become a new American Diocese of Santa Fe in New Mexico. In response, the Holy Father created the Apostolic Vicariate of New Mexico—a missionary stage of transition in the process of becoming a diocese in its own right. The new Vicariate Apostolic of (Santa Fe in) New Mexico was to be technically attached to the Archdiocese of St. Louis Missouri, font of the Santa Fe Trail ending in Taos. Father Jean Baptist Lamy, a French missionary serving in Ohio, was chosen to lead the fledgling local church. On November 24, 1850, Bishop Martin Spaulding of Louisville, Kentucky consecrated Lamy as bishop.

  A month before that consecration, in September 1850, Bishop Zubiria began his third and final pastoral visit of almost three months to the northern extremity of his extremely far-flung diocese of Durango that extended to Colorado. Upon returning to his base in Durango in the Mexican Republic, the Bishop wrote his Pastoral Letter to his northern clergy in New Mexico. The Letter was dated November 13, 1850—twelve days before Father Lamy was consecrated a bishop.  Bishop Zubiria was to formally remain as the prelate-in-charge of his whole Diocese of Durango for less than another two weeks—indeed a liminal time– until Jean Baptiste Lamy was ordained Bishop for the Apostolic Vicariate of New Mexico. 

 Almost nine months later but not yet after his face-to-face visit with Bishop Zubiría, Bishop Lamy arrived at his new post in July 1851. However, there still had not been enough time for an appropriate gestation of the new reality. When Bishop Lamy arrived at Santa Fe to begin his new ministry, Juan Felipe Ortiz of Santa Fe–the Episcopal Vicar for Bishop Zubiria, explained that the clergy of New Mexico could not yet accept him as their ordinary—the term for bishop-in-charge–since they had not yet received official notification from Bishop Zubíra about any change in episcopal leadership. 

  Bishop Lamy immediately arranged to make a pilgrimage of over 2,000 miles–over to Durango and back to Santa Fe– for a visit with Bishop Zubiría in order to proffer his Roman credentials as the proper Bishop of New Mexico. In November 1851, a year after his episcopal consecration and after much confusion and several clarifications, Bishop Lamy returned to Santa Fe to finally and fully take charge of his Vicariate Apostolic of New Mexico. By 1853, the Apostolic Vicariate of New Mexico had become a Diocese in its own right, and in 1875 it was elevated to the status of an Archdiocese. Archbishop Lamy died in 1888.


  Bishop Zubiria had been aware of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo that ended the U.S.-Mexican War ceding half of the territory of his Diocese to the United States. He also must have been aware of the 1850 Council of Baltimore promoting the transfer of ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the great swath of territory north from Mexico to episcopal jurisdiction in the United States. However, the date for the transfer of jurisdiction was not clear to Bishop Zubiria because of a bureaucratic mistake made by the Vatican. By oversight, the notification of transfer of jurisdiction was sent to the Bishop of Sonora, Mexico whose diocese was adjacent to Arizona but still part of the Mexican Republic. Bishop Zubiria “did not get the memo” of the transfer of jurisdiction, but the Bishop of Sonora did. The latter must have thought it was a pro-forma notification, a copy meant only for his information. 

  Part of the lack of good communication between Rome and Durango, moreover, was nomenclature–the protracted and unwieldy name of Durango’s Bishop, José Laureano de Zubiría y Escalante, quite confusing to Vatican bureaucrats. The Vatican clerical staff sometimes did not recognize the name or signature of the Durango Bishop who, in correspondence with the Vatican, often signed his name simply as “Laureano”, the surname of his father. Mexican usage highlights a mother’s maiden name (de Zubiría) that, to a non-Mexican, might seem to appear as a paternal surname. In 19th-century Mexican usage, a mother’s maiden name was customarily appended to one’s paternal surname. The somewhat cynical thinking behind that usage is the fact that one can be sure of one’s mother, but not necessarily always of one’s father. Escalante was the name of Bishop Zubiria’s maternal grandmother. All of this was quite confusing to bureaucrats at the Vatican. Bishop Zubiria, i.e. José Laureano, after not having been advised about the transfer of the northern portion of his Diocese, sent a doleful letter of complaint to the Holy Father: “I have always been a loyal son to Your Holiness, yet I was not notified.…” [Paraphrase of a Letter from Bishop Zubiria to Pope Pius IX which, during a sabbatical in the Jubilee Year 2000, I read at the Secret Archives Secunda Secundae of the Vatican Secretariate of State.] 


  Bishop José Lauraeano de Zubiría y Escalante, convinced that the territory of New Mexico was still under his jurisdiction, made his third and final visit there in the fall of 1850. Upon returning home to Durango by mid-November, he wrote his Circular Letter to the Clergy of New Mexico on November 13, 1850. Its focus was to ratify disciplinary actions he wished to implement after his visit. No doubt he was also interested in “cleaning house” before a new administration came into town. His Pastoral Letter was an invitation to Catholics living in concubinage to get their marriages blessed, i.e., con-validated in the Church.

Bishop Zubiría, properly fulfilling his ministry of protecting the faithful from clerics without jurisdiction, decreed that Catholics in that situation need to get their marriages blessed soon and without charge. His Letter was also a call to those who had been invalidly married by a priest without jurisdiction to have their unions canonically con-validated. The letter denounced by name a couple of priests who without proper episcopal jurisdiction were invalidly presiding at so-called con-validations of marriages. Bishop Zubiría correctly stressed that to be validly married, a Catholic couple needed to express their free consent before two witnesses and a priest who had faculties (license from the proper bishop) to minister in his diocese. Bishop Zubiría, in this Pastoral Letter, called out by name two wandering clerics (clerici vagi), Padres Cárdenas and Valencia, who were invalidly presiding at marriages since they did not have faculties from him. They traveled around Rio Abajo (Socorro, Belen, Tomé, y La Isleta) pretending to preside at marriages without having proper delegation (jurisdiction/faculties/license). In the eyes of the Church, such marriages were considered invalid, and such couples who had their unions “blessed” by either of these clerics needed to have their unions properly witnessed by priests with proper jurisdiction and with two witnesses according to prescriptions of the 16th century Council of Trent. 

  Bishop Zubiría decreed invalid marriages needed to be con-validated soon and without charge. Couples failing to do so would be deprived of Holy Communion. In addition, they also could serve as godparents or sponsors for baptism, confirmation, or marriage until their marriage was blessed in church. After con-validation of the marriage, they could once again be restored to the status of good standing within the Church.

  Bishop Zubiria sent the letter to the young Padre José Miguel Gallegos from Abiquiú, the talented pastor of the prestigious parish of San Felipe Parish in Albuquerque. Bishop then charged the priest with the task of making copies of the Pastoral Letter and distributing them to the clergy of New Mexico. However, the Bishop did not clearly realize that his Diocese of Durango was on the brink of immanent momentous change. The priest from Abiquiú had a promising ecclesiastical career. However, because of the vagaries of time and chance, the promise of that career was not to be fulfilled. 

  An English translation of the Letter from Bishop Zubiria follows:


Translated by Rev. Thomas Steele, S.J., Vicente Martínez, Elena Nápoles-Goldfeder, and 

Rev. Juan Romero

(Revised – December 2022)

November 13, 1850

To the priests, gentlemen, addressed in this decree: grace and health in Our Lord Jesus Christ.

  Since coming to this Territory, I have made repeated announcements from its pulpits to the faithful regarding the weddings officiated by the woeful priests, Fray Benigno Cárdenas and Don Nicolás Valencia. My much-beloved sons and brothers, all of you know, as well as I, of their disobedience against their Bishop. With great sadness of my spirit, it caused their suspension on February 25, 1848, and that has been made public in the parish of Belén.

  My Vicar General gently invited those involved in invalid marriages performed by those two priests [Cárdenas and Valencia] to have them con-validated before their own [parish] priests in good standing. Furthermore, these priests should do so free of charge, taking into account the spiritual good of souls. Although many have come forward to have their invalid marriages blessed by the church, there is, nevertheless, no lack of others who persist in their irregular marriages. 

  After three months of waiting and at the time of my leaving the Territory, they still do not pay attention to the pastoral voice of their seventh Diocesan Prelate, but dismiss and disdain that voice, [I declare that] those couples who persevere united in the abyss of such deceitful ties are truly nothing more than–to put it more clearly—in public cohabitation. It is even more criminal when they attempt to cover themselves over with the respectable name of the holy sacrament of matrimony by pretending to appear pure. Because what they call “matrimony” is totally otherwise; they commit an outrageous sacrilege. There cannot be any kind of excuse for this after what they have heard but have not wanted to believe. With impertinence, they are disobeying the voice of their shepherd-bishop. May God clarify this for them, for their guidance and direction in spiritual matters.

  Since this is a very grave evil and one of the most pernicious scandals to souls, may it be held in little regard for its notorious mocking of our sacred Catholic religion that we profess because we are blessed [in our faith]. For these powerful reasons, the blessing of our religion should not be, nor can it be, something pretended. Those who try to pass themselves off as good Catholics cannot be hidden without (medicinal) punishment occasioned by their contumacious behavior. Such punishment is meted out for the purpose of their correction and amendment and for the purpose of reducing disorders as well as for healing the fallout of scandal and evils that such inconsiderate and ungrateful children are causing.

  I commend to you, priests of Socorro, Belén, Tomé, La Isleta and Alburquerque [sic], that upon receipt of this decree, you pass it on to the hands of everyone so that each might investigate the marriages officiated by Fathers Valencia and Cárdenas that may have taken place in your parishes. May you find out which couples are living together without proper con-validation of their impure relationships, and which [of those] couples may be interested in regularizing their marriage. Advise them of the necessity of having their marriages blessed before you, or before the priests to whom you will give delegation. Place clearly before them the importance of [either] having their marriages blessed in the church within a time frame that should not exceed eight to ten days, or of necessarily separating forever. That is sufficient opportunity for those couples living separately to prepare their consciences, cleansing them from impurity, to make a good confession to validate their marriages in a Christian manner.

  I hereby impose on contumacious persons a major penalty of being barred from receiving Holy Communion. This applies to those involved in marriages that have already been identified as invalid. The couple has been notified and openly called upon for the validation of their marriages, but– by disgrace –allow time to pass. Should they dare to continue in their matrimonial situations without having their marriages blessed, that punishment shall last while they persist in their obstinacies. 

  All of you [clergy] shall make this penalty effective by explicitly naming those persons as disbarred from Communion by writing their names on a paper and posting it on the doors of the church. It shall be written in the following manner: NN. was married to N. in an invalid ceremony officiated by Father N. This censure is being imposed because, after being notified of the invalidity of their bond, they have persistently refused to make the decision to marry properly. Having been openly called to con-validate their marriage, they shall be excommunicated by sentence of the Bishop until such time that they shall subject themselves to due obedience. In such a case, they shall be absolved, and the faithful shall be notified of their dutiful consent. The respective priest shall then immediately set a date for the con-validation of the marriage and fix his signature to it.

  So that the validations can be facilitated for the good of souls, I promise that it should be done free of charge, as has been done up until now. The marriage will be regularized without any more expense on the part of the interested parties other than the dowry, and that should be taken care of by the best man and maid of honor. So that they can proceed with their con-validation, I will supply the usual stipend for the Mass. 

  You shall prepare a brief report, even if it is verbal, for the purpose of certifying that there was no diriment impediment whatsoever. Moreover, to whoever suspects that such an impediment may exist, I now declare by this present decree that I have dispensed it —so long as licit pairing does not exceed the second degree of consanguinity or affinity–or even if there be an illicit paring, but that it does not reach the first degree of consanguinity or affinity.

  Finally, so that this decree shall have its necessary execution, I command that a copy of this order be circulated in a flyer, and that another copy be made for the record book [parish marriage register]. Each of the dowries should be used to make another copy of this decree in pamphlet form, and then, with the priest’s signature, hung on the church door. 

  Together with receipt and execution of copies [of this Pastoral Letter] aforementioned, I remit these pages to the pastor of Albuquerque in deference to his position. With his endorsement, and bringing an end to this matter, I now send it to the Vicar to be placed in the archives of Santa Fe.

  Given at the Plaza of San Antonio, with the awareness of the parish of San Miguel del Socorro, November 13, 1850. 

José Antonio [Laureano de Zubiría], Bishop of Durango

By order of Don Luis Rubio, Secretary of Visit,

[Reviewed and endorsed by] 

José Manuel Gallegos, [Pastor of San Felipe in Albuquerque]