Bishop Crespo’s challenge
Father Benito Crespo, bishop of Durango, made an official inspection in 1730 of churches and missions in New Mexico.
This colonial province was part of his vast diocese, with the city of Durango more than 700 miles from the remote capital of Santa Fe.
The perils of travel on the Camino Real, which included almost waterless deserts and frequent Apache attacks, discouraged some bishops from risking the trip. Bishop Crespo, though, was made of sterner stuff.
Two reports that he addressed to the viceroy in Mexico City described conditions among his flock here, and also some of the problems he faced in dealing with the Franciscan missionaries. Together, the pair of documents offer insights into the religious life of New Mexicans at this early date.
Arriving in Santa Fe, the bishop received a chilly reception by the local head of the Franciscan Order, Fray Andrés Varo. Crespo was informed that the general head of the Order in Mexico City had sent word that the Durango bishop did not have jurisdiction in New Mexico because sole authority belonged to the Franciscans. Therefore, he should be barred from use of Santa Fe’s main church.
“I was surprised to hear that,” wrote Crespo, “because such a thing had never crossed my mind.”
That’s doubtful, because he had come prepared, whipping out a royal decree of the king establishing the superiority of the bishop over rulings of the Franciscans.
Then he challenged Fray Andrés, saying that if the church was not opened for him, he would set up a portable altar outside and conduct a Roman Pontifical mass under the open sky.
Varo surrendered. He unlocked the door and a multitude of Spanish citizens and Indians from the barrio of Analco crowded in and welcomed Bishop Crespo.
Later, his Excellency continued his inspection tour through the rest of New Mexico, missing only the pueblos of Acoma, Laguna and Zuni because of their isolation in the west.
He journeyed as far north as Taos pueblo, visiting the Tewa villages on the way. At the pueblo of Santa Clara, he found that it lacked a missionary, and had for many years, even though it was entitled to one.
The Indians there depended on the priest from the Spanish villa of Santa Cruz on the other side of the Rio Grande and some miles to the east. But he could not minister to them when the river was flooded.
Crespo called the viceroy’s attention to this and other irritants he encountered in the pueblo missions. He came down most firmly on a larger problem which his tour had revealed.
At each place visited, the bishop heard confessions and celebrated confirmations. He also preached vigorously. Having been told that the Indians were not going to confession, he exhorted them to do so, at least once a year as the Church required.
In sermons, he reminded them that the padres, under stern penalties, were forbidden to repeat anything heard in the confessional.
Thus, Crespo was shocked to find out near the end of his stay that while the clergymen were keeping the vow of secrecy, the native interpreters they used were not.
Several Indians let him know that the interpreters “made their sin public,” by gossiping. As the bishop complained to the viceroy, this unforgivable situation could be blamed on the missionaries, for not a single one was able to speak the Indians’ language, even after years living among them.
Bishop Benito Crespo said his last Mass in upper New Mexico at Isleta pueblo and then headed for home. The Franciscans he left behind, having long exercised exclusive rule over New Mexico’s religious affairs, must have breathed a profound sigh of relief to see him go.