Many of you have probably read, or at least know of, the classics of Catholic biography. Among autobiographies, few stand out more than The Confessions of Saint Augustine, the Apologia Pro Vita Sua of Blessed John Henry Newman, or Saint Thérèse of Lisieux’s The Story of a Soul. In the 20th century, the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, wrote his highly influential The Seven Storey Mountain, and the Jesuit missionary, Walter Ciszek, penned With God in Russia after surviving the prisons of Siberia.
In the wider genre of biography, we see less of the subject’s interior life and fewer of his or her own words, but we are sometimes given a broader and more comprehensive picture of the life under consideration. Saint Thomas Aquinas very seldom wrote concerning himself, let alone his interior life, yet Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P.’s two–volume work on Thomas masterfully captures the life and thought of this holy friar in a way that both informs and inspires. Centuries ago (and one hopes today as well), saints wrote about saints. Saint Athanasius gave us the Life of Saint Anthony and Saint Bonaventure the Life of Saint Francis. Millions have benefited from these simple, yet invaluable, accounts of a life.
I would encourage our readers to pick up any of the above titles, but for this summer reading recommendation, I want to put forward a lesser known biography that depicts the life of a French-American missionary and the first bishop of New Mexico: Jean Baptiste Lamy of Lempdes, France. He is best known as the subject of Willa Cather’s 1928 novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop, where he is depicted through the fictional character, Jean Marie Latour. The historical complement to Cather’s work comes from another Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Paul Horgan, who wrote Lamy of Santa Fe in 1975. This 560-page masterpiece, which follows Bishop Lamy from his birth in central France to his death in the Wild West of America, is sure to give any reader a new appreciation for early Catholic history in the United States.
In early 1839, just months after Jean Baptiste Lamy’s ordination, Bishop Purcell of Cincinnati would convince him and his best friend, Father Joseph Machebeuf, to dedicate their lives to missionary work in the United States. By the following summer, they had set sail for America where they would give themselves to preaching the Gospel for the remainder of their lives. Horgan presents the life of this holy missionary by placing it in the context of contemporary events and persons. The French Revolution, Baltimore Councils, American expansion following the Mexican-American war, and then the war that divided a growing nation in the 1860s all find their place in the singular adventure of Lamy’s life. He initially pastored a small flock of Catholics surrounding the tiny settlement in Danville, OH. By life’s end, he would care for thousands of Catholics in New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona from the tiny city of Santa Fe. In 1888, after almost 40 years of labor in establishing churches, schools, and hospitals in the southwest, death came for this archbishop.
Horgan’s biography, with its elegant prose, at times reads like a novel. And because of his thorough research in New Mexican, Maryland, French, and Vatican archives (among other sources), the person of Lamy comes to life with many of his own words quoted and seamlessly incorporated into the narrative. Other first-hand accounts help the reader come to know this holy priest. One Danville parishioner wrote:
“Father Lamy,” was a man “so good that everybody loved him. I was a very young boy when he was pastor here, but had such a high esteem for him I thought that God would not let him die but take him to heaven alive body and soul. … He baptized me and called me Francis Sapp. … I think him the most lovely priest I ever knew …. I have sat upon his knee many times. ….” (60)
Like Fenwick, Neumann, Miles, Baraga, and many other American bishops before him, Lamy “loved the open country [and] was most at home in the saddle” (409). It’s a long journey (the read, that is), with steamboats, Apache raids, desert caravans, and many nights under the stars, but it’s worth persevering and coming to know Santa Fe’s first bishop through the well crafted pages of Paul Horgan’s Pulitzer Prize winning Lamy of Santa Fe—a book I recommend be placed alongside other great Catholic biographies on anyone’s reading list.
Photo from Palace of the Governors Photo Archives