The Catholic Church has played an important role in education since the Spanish colonial era. As early as 1524, the Catholic Church had established schools in Mexico to teach music, Latin, and other academic subjects to native youth. A school for girls was established as early as 1534. Unfortunately, this extraordinary educational tradition did not transfer well to New Mexico when it was colonized by Juan de Onate in 1598. When the Spanish province of La Nueva Mexico was established, this vast territory was designated as a Franciscan mission for the pueblos of the region. The primary responsibility of the Franciscan friars was to administer to the pueblos, where they taught reading, writing, and various trades, as well as church doctrine. These myriad tasks did not allow the friars to devote much of their time or resources towards instruction of the Spanish settlers.
In the absence of public schools, the responsibility for educating the youth of Spanish colonial New Mexico fell to the parents. Most children were generally tutored at home, although a select few were sent to schools in Mexico and, in later years, to schools in the United States. The Spanish government finally succeeded in establishing a system of public schools in New Mexico in the early 1800s. By the end of the Mexican period (1821-46), the major towns of Santa Fe, Taos, Santa Cruz de la Cañada, Alburquerque, San Miguel del Vado, and Belen were able to boast of being able to maintain a school with regular attendance. Of these, the best known may have been the preparatory school operated by the famous padre of Taos, Antonio José Martinez.
Access to education improved significantly after New Mexico became part of the United States following the Mexican-American War of 1846. The critical need for schools was quickly recognized by Jean Baptiste Lamy when he was named the first bishop of Santa Fe in 1850. One of his first actions was to recruit the Lorentines of Kentucky, whom we commonly recognize as the Sisters of Loretto, to come to Santa Fe. In 1853, a small group of these Sisters opened the Academy of Our Lady of Light, a school we more commonly know as the Loretto School for Girls. This nascent institution of Catholic education in New Mexico remained in operation for more than a century, until changing times forced its closure in 1966.
In 1859, this tradition of Catholic education was reinforced when Bishop Lamy arranged with the Christian Brothers to open a similar school for boys. El Colegio de San Miguel, as it was originally known, eventually evolved to provide post-secondary education at St. Michael’s College. Both of these early institutions continue their mandate as St. Michael’s High School and the College of Santa Fe.
These two institutions began a long tradition of Catholic schools in New Mexico as the Sisters of Loretto and the Christian Brothers opened several more schools throughout the territory. These were joined by several other orders, including the Sisters of Charity, Sisters of Mercy, and Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, and by 1900 at least 15 Catholic schools were operating throughout New Mexico. The influence of these schools is evidenced by the fact that graduates of St. Michael’s made up 20 percent of the delegates at the 1910 Constitutional Convention, which developed New Mexico’s state constitution.
Even after New Mexico established a system of public schools in 1891, Catholic schools retained their importance. Four of the first teacher certificates issued in Albuquerque under this new public school law were to Sisters of Charity. Following the famous Dixon Case in 1951, members of religious orders were prohibited from teaching in public schools, and a number of parishes assumed the responsibility of maintaining New Mexico’s long tradition of Catholic education in their communities by opening parochial schools, several of which are still in operation.
Other orders who have served the youth of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe include the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), St. Casimir Sisters, Sisters of St. Dominic, Canossian Daughters of Charity, Sisters of St. Francis Seraph of the Perpetual Adoration, Franciscan Sisters of Mary Immaculate, the Franciscan Sisters Third Order Regular, Sisters of St. Joseph, Servants of the Immaculate Mary, Sisters of Mercy of the Union, Sisters of the Company of Mary, Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of Notre Dame, Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Mary, Divine Providence Nuns, Sisters of the Society of Mary, Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother, and the Ursuline Nuns of the Congregation of Paris.
The information on this page was excerpted from the book, 400 Years of Faith: 1598-1998, Seeds of Struggle–Harvest of Faith, published by the Archdiocese of Santa Fe to commemorate the cuarto-centennial anniversary of the establishment of the Catholic Church in New Mexico. In 1598, don Juan de Oñate, leader of an expedition of Spanish colonists that included eight Franciscan friars, reached the east bank of the Rio Grande River near its confluence with the Chama River, close to the present site of Española, and established a permanent settlement. This book documents the history of those struggles and the accomplishments of the people who came to this remote corner of the Spanish Empire.