Socorro mourns archbishop’s death


Socorroans are mourning the loss of a native son, the much-revered, first New Mexico-born archbishop of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, Rev. Robert Fortune Sanchez, who once played baseball on the dirt grounds of Mt. Carmel Catholic School as Bobby Sanchez.

A simple purple and black wreath on the doors of San Miguel Mission over the weekend reminded parishioners and other passers-by that the former archbishop was very much a respected and beloved member of this community.

His onetime classmates at Mt. Carmel held a vigil last Friday night, after learning of his death earlier that day, gathering in front of the historic mission church, now closed for renovations.

Everyone who talked with El Defensor Chieftain about the former archbishop remembered him as a courteous and gentle individual, and very much a part of the close-knit parish school community.

“He was a very humble person and very prayerful, even as a child,” said Marianne Harriet Porter, a former longtime parish secretary and a classmate of the young Sanchez.

“I remember Bobby as a very gentle person; he was a neighbor, and lived five houses from us,” said Steve Torres Jr., who was a year behind Sanchez at Mt. Carmel.

Back then, Torres said, Mt. Carmel combined two levels of students in one classroom, so he was in seventh grade with Sanchez, an eighth-grader.

“Bobby threw marbles with us and played baseball and basketball – he was very good at sports and also a good sportsman,” Torres said. “If I recall correctly, he was in the local Boy Scouts troop until he went to the seminary.”

Sanchez completed his freshman year at Socorro High School before attending St. Mary’s Boys Catholic High School in Phoenix, Ariz. He then entered Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary in Santa Fe, where he attended and graduated from St. Michael’s College (later known as College of Santa Fe).

Robert Fortune Sanchez was born on March 20, 1934, to Julius C. and Priscilla Fortune Sanchez, the youngest of three brothers.

His siblings are Julius Sanchez Jr., known back then as Buster, who worked as a pharmacist for the VA Hospital in Albuquerque for many years, according to Porter; and Rozier Sanchez, a retired district judge for Bernalillo County.

Julius Sr. was an attorney who specialized in property law, and former classmates of Sanchez recall that his mother was sick for many years, so the three brothers were raised by their maternal aunts: Lucy Green, Teresa Stapleton, Elizabeth Fortune and Mrs. Lyman Raef. Jennie Fortune returned to Socorro later, and there also were two twin sisters – no boys.

Certainly his aunts had a great influence on the young Sanchez, upon whom they doted; and he, in return, was grateful to them for their love and care.

“We were all like one, big family back then,” said Alice Harriet (Caldwell) Duquet. “Even as archbishop, he would come down to Socorro for reunions of the Sisters of Loretto,” she said.

Porter was one of the organizers of the first-ever reunion of Mt. Carmel Catholic School (later Hilton-Mt. Carmel and San Miguel School) on April 19, 1988, along with Nattie Gonzales, Cecilia Montoya and Zella Alderete.

A total of 196 alumni registered for the reunion, including Archbishop Robert F. Sanchez, Class of 1948, who reminisced about his school days, and introduced his fellow basketball teammates and cheerleaders – and very special guests, Sister John Edward and Sister Grace Marie.

Special recognition was given at the reunion to the eldest alumna, Emily Fraissinet D’Agostino, Class of 1927; and Elizabeth Fortune, although no one could remember the exact year she graduated.

No matter the venue or event, the archbishop was the same as he always was – “so polite, so humble, so pious,” said Duquet. “No one was surprised he rose as far as he did in the Church. He was always a gentleman, he and his brothers ― all three were very nice, young, Catholic boys.”

At St. Michael’s, the young Sanchez was singled out to continue his studies at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, Italy, where he earned degrees in philosophy and theology.

He was ordained a priest by Bishop Martin J. O’Connor on Dec. 20, 1959, and was first assigned to Our Lady of the Annunciation Parish in Albuquerque, while holding several positions at St. Pius X High School, including those of teacher, assistant principal and counselor.

Sanchez also earned a teaching certificate from the University of New Mexico in 1964, and later attended Catholic University in Washington, DC for Canon Law studies.

In 1965, he was appointed as the Archdiocesan Director of Extension Lay Volunteers; and in 1968, Sanchez was a representative to the New Mexico Council of Churches Institutional Ministry and Pastoral Care Program.

Also in 1968, he was appointed pastor of San Felipe de Neri Parish in Albuquerque. During this time, he served on the Archdiocesan Personnel Board, as president of the Priest Senate, as Region X representative to the National Federation of Priest Councils, and briefly as the vicar general of the Archdiocese.

Pope Paul VI appointed Sanchez as the 10th Archbishop of Santa Fe, and he was ordained on July 25, 1974, with over 14,000 jubilant and proud people attending the event, a record at that time.

The Socorro native was the first Hispanic bishop in the U.S., and the first native priest to be appointed as a bishop in the southwestern U.S.

As archbishop, Sanchez implemented programs in Hispanic ministry, cultural preservation and the preservation of historic churches, which continue to be models for the country.

Archbishop Sanchez touched on these themes in his keynote speech for an Hispanic Heritage celebration at the Garcia Opera House in September of 1990.

“Our heritage is the richest and most unique of Hispanic cultures in this country,” he said that evening. “We still speak 17th century Spanish,” Sanchez continued, while acknowledging the hybridized “Spanglish.”

Language experts, he said, come to New Mexico to speak with the older people, and are overwhelmed that a culture intermixed with Pueblo Indian traditions has been preserved for over 400 years.

Sanchez grew sentimental when he spoke about following the course of the Rio Grande on his drive from Santa Fe, mesmerized, watching the sky and horizon become one.

He likened the culture of New Mexico to the river, noting that waterways often don’t flow freely, but are impeded by man himself, “which could happen to our culture,” he said.

“We are people of the land, people of the earth; we have built our homes from mud bricks, and have somehow carved a living out of the dry, stubborn earth,” Sanchez said.

He continued:

“We are people of faith, who have built our churches in the smallest of communities. We are people of strength, who overcame adversity.

“We are people who borrowed ideas from other cultures and regions to forge traditions that are unique to New Mexico,” he said.

Long ago, a large bell was rung at the close of recess to call Mt. Carmel students back to class. Listen closely, and the echoes of laughing children, kicking up dust as they race to the school doors, ride the winds of memory.

Bobby Sanchez’s voice is among them.

An entire church community was heartsick when, in 1993, Archbishop Sanchez stepped down from his position in the light of sexual allegations made by several women and sensationalized because of the cause célèbre of pedophile priests at that time.

“We all have friends who influence us for their moral character, although we may not be aware of it at the time,” said Torrres. “I believe Robert Sanchez has had his redemption.”

Perhaps that is the greatest legacy the man could leave: That even the most gentle individual, the most humble, the most spiritual, at the end of the day, is still a human being.

Funeral arrangements
All observances will be held at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, 131 Cathedral Place in Santa Fe.
• 10 a.m., Rite of Reception
of the Body
• 11 a.m., Public visitation until vigil service
• 6 p.m., Rosary-vigil service
• 7 p.m., Public visitation continues

• 10 a.m., Mass of Christian Burial
• Afternoon, private interment