Portraits of a culture
The writings of Fray Angélico Chávez
At the turn of the 20th century, the New Mexico Territory was still fighting to become a state, and a sense of progressive destiny filled the air. Americanos — artists, writers, businessmen, and a developing breed of social scientists (such as anthropologists and archaeologists) — had “discovered” the Southwest and were putting down roots. The old order, characterized by a land-based people and economy, inched toward the new.
Such was the century of Fray Angélico Chávez, whose birth in 1910 and death in 1996 spans a great period of change and purpose. And, as Ellen McCracken’s book The Life and Writing of Fray Angélico Chávez: A New Mexico
Renaissance Man clearly conveys, Chávez was a man for his time. The cigar-smoking priest with the snappy beret was such a facet of local color in Santa Fe that many of us thought we knew him. But McCracken’s book tells a very different story than what we might expect.
As McCracken is a literary scholar, her interest naturally gravitated toward Chávez’s writing, although he was a man of many talents. Her method, to present a chronological survey of his huge body of writing (24 books and more than 600 shorter works), slowly exposes Chávez’s development at each stage of life. So we are given glimpses of history and of real people who inhabit his world — and ours.
Born Manuel Chávez, this Franciscan priest, artist, preservationist, and historian created writings that resonate with New Mexicans because they reflect our own unique experience as a people of the Southwest. His primary motivation in writing, according to McCracken, was to promote and preserve the “New Mexico Hispano ethnicity” as “a crucial element of American history”; he wrote “to explain his specific geospace and culture to a larger audience.” Chávez cared greatly that the Hispano culture that evolved in this region would not be subsumed into the greater Mexican-American experience or into the great American melting pot.
Chávez entered the Franciscan seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, at the age of 14, joining a class of overwhelmingly German-American students. It must have been a shock to Chávez, whose boyhood visions of Franciscan life had been formed by stories of the earliest Spanish colonial settlement in the western United States. Perhaps in order to make himself known — and, more important, understood — the young man began right away to demonstrate a gift for writing and for art, for which he earned the nickname “Angélico,” after the 15th-century painter Fra Angelico da Fiesole. Many of what McCracken calls his “exuberant essays and articles about New Mexico” from his seminary days were published in Catholic periodicals with national distribution, such as St. Anthony Messenger. He would continue to merge art and writing, creating a dual narrative with which to teach the faith and share his values.
During the young man’s infrequent visits home (owing to the expense and time involved), he formed lasting friendships with writers who worked in Santa Fe, particularly poet Witter Bynner, Thornton Wilder, Paul Horgan, and John Gould Fletcher. He found in them kindred spirits who shared a love of the traditional Indian and Hispano cultures of the Southwest (if somewhat over-romanticized versions). The group financed the publication of his first book, Clothed With the Sun.
As a newly ordained priest, in 1937 Chávez was assigned to the friary at Peña Blanca, where his duties extended beyond Our Lady of Guadalupe Church to several nearby pueblo missions. His writings from this period reveal the deleterious work ethic that would drive the remainder of his life. Besides his ministerial duties (and a part-time job as the town’s postmaster!), he undertook preservation of the old churches. Without financial support from his order, he began to restore the failing historic structures himself, using materials he could beg or find, and he hand-painted the murals he used as visual narratives on the church walls. He penned his poems, essays, fictional works, and documentation of preservation efforts deep into the night, getting by on little sleep. By the end of his fifth year at Peña Blanca, his health was failing and his weight had dropped dangerously. In letters to family members, Chávez expressed fear that his work was unappreciated and that he desired to leave the parish.
His exit came with World War II, during which Chávez served as an Army chaplain in the Pacific. Letters and sermons from this period provide a glimpse at the suffering he encountered. Correspondence between Chávez and Arkansas-born poet and fellow soldier John Gould
La Conquistadora procession, Fiesta, circa 1948, with Fray Angélico Chávez on the far left (in sunglasses); photo by Robert H. Martin, from ¡Concha! Concha Ortiz y Pino: Matriarch of a 300-Year-Old New Mexico Legend by Kathryn M. Cordova, file photo