The Path to Zuni, Part I


2014 marks the 75th anniversary of the Diocese of Gallup. To celebrate this occasion, the Voice will be frequently posting histories of the parishes, churches, missions and peoples throughout the Diocese, starting with the oldest and moving forward. Zuni is the second-oldest mission in the Diocese.

by Elizabeth Kelley


The arrival of Christianity at Zuni over 450 years ago has been studied, researched and written about by many scholars over the years, with differing opinions of the events. All seem to agree that Zuni was the entrypoint for the discovery of the indigenous people living in now Northern New Mexico. The location of Zuni on the southwestern edge of the area of the New Mexico pueblos gave it a prominent role in the exploration, colonization and evangelization of the region. The earliest explorers traveling north through Mexico into what is today Arizona followed the major water courses which led them first to Zuni.

When Cabeza de Vaca was completing an epic journey across Texas and Sonora following a shipwreck, he heard from the natives in those places that there were several villages a few days’ march to the north. He was told it was a region of fabulous wealth and that the natives knew of the villages because they traded with the inhabitants for “jewelry of turquoise, clothing of wool (possibly buffalo hair or rabbit fur), and buffalo robes.” They called the buffalo robes ‘cibolos’ from which the name Cibola possibly derived.

Habitation along the Zuni River valley has been ongoing since at least 5000 B.C., when hunters and gatherers periodically occupied the area in their nomadic search for food. When agriculture was introduced about 2000 B.C. with the cultivation of com, the people began limited farming to supplement their gathered diet. After 1 A.D., agriculture became more important and pit-house dwellings and storage structures began to appear, indicating a more sedentary life and reliance on corn.

With the arrival of the Anasazi culture, kivas were developed and living structures gradually grew to include above-ground houses which, in time, became small communities, usually family oriented. Already, trading with other groups was being conducted. By 1250-1300, large communities were developing, frequently in defensible locations, as well as water control features to irrigate their gardens. More influence from the Mogollon culture villages to the south and west became apparent.

Later, most of the population of the then 36 large plaza-oriented pueblos constructed between 1250-1300 re-grouped into fewer large sites and finally into the six villages found by the Spanish explorers in 1540. Zuni pueblo was probably established around I350 and soon developed into a major hub on the north-south, east-west trade routes.


De Vaca returned to Mexico in 1536 with glowing stories about the great wealth to be obtained in the north. In 1538, two priests set out from Mexico attempting a discovery expedition, but turned back because they couldn’t cross a large unnamed river. In 1539,the Viceroy of Mexico instructed Fray Marcos de Niza to assemble a group to look for the cities of gold. He departed in March and as he traveled north, one of his group, a Moor named Esteban, who had been assigned to the expedition to act as a guide, offered to go on ahead to scout the route. When Fray Marcos arrived after him around June 5, he learned that Esteban had reached Zuni and had been killed there.

Different reasons are given for the killing. Esteban had sent couriers ahead to announce his arrival and was informed that the inhabitants were hostile and that he should not enter the area. He did, however, proceed into one of the villages and was met by the chiefs. Esteban claimed to be omnipotent; the Zunis rejected the claim, imprisoned him and took his belongings. The next day he attempted to escape, but was caught and killed. Another version states that warnings of his conduct with women he met on the way had reached Zuni and this was the reason he was killed – to protect their women.

After a journey from Mexico of more than two months, Fray Marcos reached a point overlooking the village where Esteban had been killed. There he built a large mound of stone with a cross on top and dedicated the region to Saint Francis of Assisi. His assignment for the expedition had been to obtain information about the villages and bring it back to Mexico, traveling as safely as possible. Therefore, fearing his own death because of native hostility, he refrained from entering the village. He took formal possession of the region for the king of Spain and returned to Mexico.

Once the presence of villages had been verified, plans were made at once to explore the area to find the Seven Cities of Cibola and to begin colonization to obtain the riches. The first expedition was led by Francisco Vasquez Coronado who traveled north with 300 Spaniards and 800 lndian allies from Mexico. After a four month trip, he arrived at the village of Hawikuh, arriving July 7, 1540. He entered the village and, after a brief battle with the defenders, captured the village. Coronado was wounded and stayed on at Hawikuh to recover. He then continued his exploration journey throughout the southwest and as far east as Kansas.

His group included Franciscan friars who were instrumental in convincing the local population that the Spaniards were there to bring peace and friendship. Coronado wrote to the Viceroy in Mexico reporting that the Seven Cities of Gold were really only six villages, collectively known as Cibola. He returned to Mexico in the spring of 1542, leaving a few Mexican Indians living with the Zunis.

Between the time of Coronado and 1629, little was done to evangelize the people. Several exploratory expeditions traveled through the Zuni area. In 158l, the Rodriguez-Chamuscado group visited the Rio Grande pueblos as well as Acoma and Zuni. One member of the group recorded data about the six Zuni villages they visited. Halona, the site of present-day Zuni, was described as having 43 houses of three and four stories.

In 1582-1583,Antonio de Espejo led another expedition supposedly to rescue two friars who had been left in New Mexico and also to continue the search for the fabled mineral wealth still waiting to be found.


A view from the old village of Zuni looking Southeast.

In 1598 the first colonization expedition was organized under the leadership of Juan de Onate who was named governor of the new territory. As he traveled through New Mexico he received the verbal allegiance of the Pueblo Indians. Franciscan friars were assigned to the pueblos along the route to convert the natives to Christianity.

The Onate expedition arrived at Zuni on All Saints Day, 1598. They were welcomed and fed by the people and found crosses being venerated in all the villages. The Zuni villages were assigned to Fray Andres Corchado, but no missions were established at that time. Onate visited New Mexico again in l605 and stopped at what is now El Morro National Monument, leaving the following inscription: “Passed by here the Governor Don Juan de Onate, from the discovery of the Sea of the South on the l6th of April, 1605.”

A later governor traveling through left a long inscription. He was Governor Eulate and his message was: “I am the Captain General of the Providence of New Mexico for the King of our Lord, passed by here on the return from the pueblos of Zuni on the 29th of July the year 1620, and put them at peace at their humble petition, they asking favor as vassals of his Majesty and promising anew their obedience, all of which he did, with clemency, zeal and prudence, as a most Christian-like (gentleman) extraordinary and gallant soldier of enduring and praised memory.” The word gentleman had been crossed out, probably by someone who disagreed with his effusive self-praise.

In 1629, Governor Francisco Manuel de Silva Nieto also left his message:“Here arrived the Senor and Governor Don Francisco Manuel de Silva Nieto whose indubitable arm and valor have overcome the impossible with the wagons of the King of Our Lord, a thing which he alone put into this effect August 5, l629, that one may well to Zuni pass and carry the faith.” Both men seemed to be taking on their obligations with much enthusiasm and self-confidence.


The ruined church at the site of the ancient village of Hawikuh.
The ruined church at the site of the ancient village of Hawikuh.

In 1629, Fray Roque de Figueredo was assigned to Zuni where he immediately established a mission at Hawikuh and called it La Purisima Concepcion. He also founded a mission at Halona and dedicated it to Nuestra Senora de la Candelaria. He continued his work at Zuni for three years converting many people. His successful work came to an abrupt end when two of his fellow priests were attacked and killed by persons who had become resentful because of cultural repression and harsh treatment by the conquerors.

Fray Francisco Letrado became the first missionary to die for the faith in what is now the Diocese of Gallup. Newly assigned at Zuni, he went out on Quinquagesima Sunday, February 22, 1632, to urge the people to attend Mass. The first group he met were angered by his reprimand and he quickly became aware that they intended to kill him. He immediately dropped to his knees, a small cross in his hands, and pleaded with them to go to the church.

They responded by shooting arrows at him. Just before the death of Fray Francisco, Fray Martin de Arvide had stopped by to visit him at Hawikuh, where he prophesied the martyrdom of Fray Francisco as well as his own. Shortly after, on a visit with Fray Roque at another Zuni village, he again prophetically stated that in a few days he would win the palm of martyrdom. As he left Zuni to continue his journey to his new assignment, he and his small group stopped to camp for the night. There they were attacked and killed. So only five days after the death of Fray Francisco, Fray Martin met his fate on February 27, 1632.

Again the rocks at El Morro were used to record a message, this time of a man named Lujan who noted the purpose of his trip. “They passed on the 23rd of March, 1632, to the avenging of the death of Father Letrado.”

An inscription at El Morro left by Juan de Onate.
An inscription at El Morro left by Juan de Onate.

Missionary work continued at Zuni for many years, and during these years, the Zuni villages were under periodic attack from Apache bands in search of food. In 1672, Fray Pedro de Avila y Ayala was assigned to Hawikuh, then considered a dangerous mission because of its vulnerability to Apache attacks. On October 7, 1672, a group of Apaches attacked Hawikuh where Fray Pedro was alone without the protection of the soldiers. He rushed to the church where he embraced the cross and a statue of the Blessed Mother. The attackers responded by dragging him out of the church. They put him at the foot of a cross in the churchyard and crushed his head with a bell. Following this, they burned the church, destroying the sacred ornaments and statues. The next day a fellow priest went to Hawikuh in search of his body. He found it where it had been left, surrounded by more than 200 arrows and stones. He brought the body to Halona and buried it in the church. Not long after this incident, Hawikuh and its church were to be destroyed and abandoned.


The next great blow to the progress of evangelization was the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. In the years leading up to the revolt, the people were subjected to harsher and harsher treatment at the hands of the Spanish colonists, who continued to put heavy demands on them and tried to suppress all native practices of religion. Frequently, the missionaries were on the side of the Indians, trying to have them treated more humanely, but laws affecting the proper treatment of the people were difficult to enforce because of the great distance from Central Mexico. The use of Indian slave labor was common because the Spaniards rationalized that they could Christianize the people more quickly and easily that way. While enforcing the conversion of the people, the Spanish colonists set poor behavioral examples and the word “Christian” became synonymous with someone who came to kill and plunder them, seize the women and sell them into slavery.

The resentment of the people continued to build and by 1680 the tolerance of the Indians had ended. A revolt was scheduled for August 13, but because the plot was revealed to two friars, the attack began immediately on August 10. It was their plan to kill all the Spaniards and completely erase Christianity from their world. All the pueblos actively participated, routing the conquerors who fled south to Mexico. It was during this revolt that Fray Juan de Val was killed at Zuni as he was standing before the altar at the mission of La Purisima Concepcion at Halona. The mission was burned.

After twelve years of exile, Don Diego de Vargas was appointed to regain control of New Mexico. After re-entering Santa Fe, he began to visit all the pueblos to once more obtain their allegiance to the Spanish crown. He accomplished the submission of Zuni on November 11, 1692.

There he was astonished to find that many of the sacred vessels and much of the property of the friars had not been destroyed. Zuni was the only pueblo noted to preserve any remnants of Christianity. He recorded his trip at El Morro: “Here was the General Don Diego de Vargas, who conquered for our Holy Faith, and for the Royal Crown, all of New Mexico at his own expense, year of 1692.” At the time of the return of the Spanish colonists only one village was left occupied, that of Halona.


Our Lady of Guadalupe, Old Mission Church at Zuni
Our Lady of Guadalupe, Old Mission Church at Zuni

After the reconquest, missionary work began again at Halona and the church was restored. Spanish officials resumed some of their exploitation of the people which severely hampered the progress of evangelization. In 1703, three Spaniards living in the village were causing trouble in several families and were killed by the Zunis.The soldiers stationed there escaped death by fleeing on their horses and the priest, Fray Juan Garaycoechea, was spared because he supported the people in their complaint against the three men. Fray juan died of natural causes in I706 and was buried in the church. Care of the mission was taken over by Fray Antonio Miranda, then the pastor of Laguna and Acoma, and later by Fray Francisco de Irazabal.

Over the years, whenever the church building underwent remodeling or rebuilding, a name change was put into effect. In 1699 the name was changed to Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe. In 1706 it was renamed La Limpia Concepcion, and, in 1754, it again became Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe.

Headquarters for the Franciscans were located in Durango, Mexico. Authorities and bishops from there visited Zuni over the years and two of them left their mark at El Morro in the following messages: “Year of 1716 on the 26th ofAugust passed here Don Feliz Martinez, Governor and Captain General of this realm to the reduction and conquest of the Moqui and (in his company?) the Reverend Father Friar Antonio Camargo, Custodian and Ecclesiastical Judge.” and “The 28th day of September of 1737, arrived here the illustrious Senor Don Martin de Elizacochea, Bishop of Durango, and on the 29th, went on to Zuni.”

In 1776, Fray Francisco Atanasio Dominguez, the Visitador from Mexico City, arrived in New Mexico on an inspection tour of the missions. It has been noted that there were only twenty priests in the territory to minister to l8,26l inhabitants. He was a close friend and religious supervisor of Fray Silvestre Velez de Escalante, then stationed at Zuni. With him, they left Santa Fe in July to find a more or less direct route to the newly established military outpost at Monterey, California. They were also to explore new mission possibilities along the route. An approaching severe winter and many serious mishaps at the Colorado River forced them to abandon the trip and they returned to Santa Fe via Hopi and Zuni. Fray Silvestre documented an attempt at missionary work at Hopi that was firmly rejected. He returned to his parish at Zuni for a short while before returning to Mexico.

For the rest of the century and into the next, the nineteenth, many friars were assigned at Zuni, mostly for short periods. Many of them came from nearby Laguna or Acoma. Response to evangelization had severely declined. Priests complained of the indifference and hostility of the people. Delaney and Jenkins reported that because of Zuni’s location on the extreme fringe of Spanish occupation, Zuni was sometimes a place of exile and even of punishment for dissident priests alleged to be insubordinate to ecclesiastical or civil authorities. By 1799, there was a marked decline in missionary zeal.


Old Mission Church Altar
Old Mission Church Altar

In the early 1800s the influence of Spain in her colonies was lessening, and she was losing control of them. By 1821, there were fewer and fewer priests. Those who died or left were not replaced. Zuni was abandoned as a Franciscan mission. A great threat to the nearly 300 years of work of the dedicated friars occurred when Mexico was able to win independence from Spain in 1821. Anti-clericalism was one of the direct outcomes of their revolution and the missions were secularized and the remaining Franciscans expelled. During the 27 years of Mexican rule, many of the mission churches fell into disrepair and ruin, including Zuni. Many of the sacred vessels, statues, and vestments were taken by loyal families and hidden for protection. Intermittent visits by priests continued, however infrequently, and the Bishop of Durango, Don Jose Antonio Laureano de Zubiria y Escalante visited there three times, in 1833, 1845, and 1850. He indicated great discouragement about the situation of the church in Zuni. Despite these sporadic visits and with little or no religious guidance available to the people, somehow a seed of Christian religious fervor persisted. At the time of the Conquest, Zuni was considered one of the three major trading centers in the Southwest. It continued to be in the l800s and Josiah Gregg, a trader to the southwest along the Santa Fe Trail, visited Zuni on one of his trips during the 1830s. He noted that of all the Pueblo groups “the Pueblo of Zuni has been celebrated for honesty and hospitality. The inhabitants mostly profess the Catholic faith, but have now no curate.”


Zuni Indians and two white men.
Zuni Indians and two white men.


In 1848, the Mexican period ended and New Mexico became a territory of the United States At this point there were only nine active priests in the entire area, there were no Catholic schools, and parishioners were scattered in small villages. Shortly after the American take-over, at the request of the United States bishops a diocese was formed in the area and Bishop john Baptist Lamy arrived in Santa Fe in August, 1851,to take over the crumbling Catholic church. He traveled to Durango, Mexico to present his documents to the bishop there and then set about making plans for building schools and convents and to recruit priests. In the 1852 Catholic Almanac Zuni was listed as having over 2000 population and was being served once a year by a priest from Santa Fe. Zuni church records list visits in 1863, 1865 and 1866. In 1853, Captain Lorenzo Sitgreaves of the U.S. Army Topographic Engineers was sent on an expedition down the Zuni and Colorado rivers to study the geology, botany and zoology along the route. The expedition began in Zuni where they remained for a few days. While there, his lithographer, H. H. Kern, who recorded various scenes of Native American life, depicted two examples of Zuni life showing signs of Christian influence. One, a lithographic of a person weaving, depicts the wall of the room with two crucifixes and a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe hanging there. The other, of women grinding corn, reveals a small statue of Saint Joseph and the Child Jesus on a small platform on the wall.

In 1881, the church at Zuni was photographed and described as being in ruins. The roof was gone and the north wall had fallen in. Some time shortly after that photograph, some faithful Christian Zunis felt that the church should be restored. They rebuilt the north wall, moving it five feet to the south to accommodate the shorter roof beams that they had cut.

The canyon at Blackwater, near the Zuni Pueblo
The canyon at Blackwater, near the Zuni Pueblo

With the completion of the cross-country railroad line in the early 1880s, towns were springing up along its route far from the urban areas of Albuquerque and Santa Fe. One of these was Gallup, the nearest non-Indian community to Zuni. The rich coal fields located there, directly adjacent to the line, provided fuel for the trains. A large number of persons from the Catholic Mediterranean countries had arrived to work in the mines and the only religious resource available to them was the priest at Cebolleta (now Seboyeta), Father Juan B. Brun, who served the entire area from the Rio Puerco of the East to the Grand Canyon. He arrived in 1875 to begin his work and after four years at Cebolleta, changed his residence to San Rafael, making visits to the entire area once or twice yearly, but no visits to Zuni after 1887. In l89I, he was replaced by Father George Juillard who moved back to Cebolleta and in 1893 to Gallup. There he served in the developing town for nearly 18 years, making six visits to Zuni from 1893 to 1902. During the time of these sporadic visits, Mother Katherine Drexel, daughter and heiress of a wealthy family who used their considerable resources to help the needy, arrived on the nearby Navajo reservation to negotiate for land upon which to build a school. After the death of her parents she used her portion of the inheritance to encourage education among the Blacks and Native Americans. She recognized the need for more priests to serve Gallup and the large native population and, in the early l900s, was able to persuade the Franciscan Fathers at Cincinnati to send down missionaries to Saint Michaels, Arizona, to serve the Navajos.

Meanwhile, in Zuni from 1902—1906, there were no visits by priests at all. Father Juillard, whose parish at Gallup included the Zuni mission, felt it impossible to continue attending to Zuni because of the vast size of the Gallup parish. Up until that time the children had been baptized during the visits of the priests. Several of the people expressed regret that no priest had been there during those years to baptize their children and to give them religious instructions and that their children were growing up to be “burros”. For that reason, Most Reverend Peter Bourgade, Archbishop of Santa Fe, made application to the General Chapter of the Franciscan Province of Saint John the Baptist to accept care of the Zuni mission. It was agreed to send priests from Saint Michaels to try it for a year and, if successful, take over the mission.


To introduce the Friars to the Zunis, a meeting was held in December 1906, with Father Juillard and Reverend Berard Haile, O.F.M. At the same time, Reverend Anselm Weber, O.F.M., requested and received permission to begin providing religious instructions to the children at the Government Boarding School in Blackrock. He even made an effort to build a Catholic Boarding School just off the reservation but his plan did not materialize.

There were no living facilities or a chapel available to the priests and Jesus Eraicho, a Mexican married to a Zuni woman and who had once been village governor, sheltered the priests and permitted Mass to be said in his home. Father Anselm quickly began efforts to obtain land for a chapel and living quarters.

Opposition to the establishment of a Catholic presence was instigated by non-Zuni residents of the village. In a letter to the Catholic Bureau of Indian Missions in Washington DC Father Anselm stated that he didn’t think Catholic Zunis who wanted a religious presence should be prevented from that by others and that he was sure the American Constitution provision guaranteeing religious liberty applied to them also. And this in 1907!

He also told the dissidents, “When l am ready, I shall return and I shall stay.” 1n 1909, three Franciscan priests were assigned to the Sacred Heart parish in Gallup replacing Father Juillard who had moved to New York City as Assistant Director of the Propagation of the Faith. Reverend Florentine Meyer was named pastor, with Reverends Robert Kalt and Rembert Kowalski as assistants. Besides his pastoral duties, Father Florentine traveled to Atarque, eighty miles to the south, to San Lorenzo, fifty-five miles to the southeast, to the lumbering towns in the Zuni Mountains and to Zuni, where he relieved Father Anselm of his duties. Father Rembert attended to the many Catholics, mostly Croatian, living in the coal mining towns around Gallup, and Father Robert cared for the people in the far-away Mexican and Indian villages east of Gallup, including San Rafael, San Mateo, Cubero, San Fidel and the many villages of Laguna and Acoma.

Another view of the Zuni Pueblo
Another view of the Zuni Pueblo

The coal and lumbering towns are now abandoned and Father Rembert eventually went on to become Bishop of Wuchang, China, where he was imprisoned for many years by the Chinese Communists. After an internationally noted release, he returned at the invitation of Most Reverend Bernard T. Espelage, O.F.M., then Bishop of Gallup, to live in retirement at Saint Michaels.

Bishop Rembert wrote interesting reminiscences of his early years in Gallup, telling of his travels to Zuni and other places by horseback and buggy and about having to learn how to ride a horse, harness teams, hitch buggies and care for the horses. Trips lasted for several days because of all the places to be visited.

Because of the use of horses for travel from Saint Michaels and Gallup, there was a need to find accommodations for the animals also while in Zuni. This was requested and granted to the Fathers. Several of the visiting priests have written of their adventures and misadventures while making the trip, especially during the rainy season when the local soils turned to a sticky clay. Matters did not improve with the introduction of the automobile.

With the automobile, Zuni could be reached in two hours if the roads weren’t wet. The trip could be two days if the car became mired in the mud. Most Reverend AlbertT. Daeger, O.F.M., Archbishop of Santa Fe, lamented that this convenience didn’t really help the Zuni people. The priest would drive in, say Mass and leave again. With horses and buggy, he had to stay overnight, and was then able to hold evening devotions, hear confessions, instruct the children and couples planning marriage and, in general, communicate more with the people.

In 1916 Father Florentine and Reverend Eligius Kunkel OFM made another unsuccessful attempt to obtain land. It was increasingly difficult to say Mass and to conduct ceremonies without a chapel building. Some assistance with this problem came from the Superintendent of the Zuni Indian Agency, Mr. Robert J. Bauman, who had been assigned to Blackrock at this same time. A devout Catholic, he provided his home for the priests to use for lodging and religious purposes for many Years.

Part II will cover the re-evangelization of Zuni in the 20th century, including the building of a school, St. Anthony’s, which is still in use today.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


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