Tuesday, 06 March 2012 05:05

Fray Angelico Chavez

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Few Hispanos in New Mexico’s modern era have done more to preserve the history of the Hispano people of New Mexico than Fray Angelico Chavez, the Franciscan priest, and accomplished writer and artist. Like many Hispanos of the time, Chavez came from humble beginnings. He was born on April 10, 1910 in Wagon Mound, a small community in northeast New Mexico between Las Vegas and Raton. He was the eldest of 10 children born to the home of Fabian Chavez and Maria Nicolasa Roybal de Chavez. His baptismal name was Manuel Ezequiel Chavez, which would later change to Fray Angelico when he was at the Franciscan seminary studying for the Roman Catholic priesthood.


When Chavez was just a child, his family moved to California for a few years to San Diego, where his dad worked for the Panama-California Exposition. While in California, Chavez was exposed to the old Spanish Missions of the area, which inspired him to follow in the footsteps of Padre Junipero Serra, an early Spanish Franciscan priest who established many of the Missions in southern California during the early Spanish era. Chavez’s family eventually returned to New Mexico and he attended the public schools in Mora, which were staffed by the teaching order Sisters of Loretto.

In 1924, at the age of 14, Chavez entered the St. Francis Seminary in Mount Healthy, Ohio, where he studied English, since he spoke mostly Spanish, his first language. While at the seminary Chavez’s talents as a writer and painter blossomed and he was soon writing fiction, essays, and poetry, which were published by Brown and White, the student magazine of which he eventually became editor. Chavez’s abilities as an artist so impressed the priests who ran the seminary that he was allowed to paint the murals of St. Francis and St. Anthony on the interior walls of the newly-built student dormitory. 

On August 15, 1929, Chavez became a novice of the Franciscan Order and received the order’s habit. It was during this time that Chavez’s name was changed, due to his artistic talent, from his baptismal name to his religious name, Frater Angelico, after the Florentine painter Fray Angelico. He then continued his studies at the Duns Scotus College in Detroit, graduating in 1933. He studied for four more years and was ordained in 1933, becoming the first Hispano New Mexican Franciscan priest.

Chavez’s first assignment as a priest was at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Pena Blanca, where he soon began a renovation of the old church. This included Chavez painting the frescoes inside the church himself. He also ministered to the Native Americans at the mission churches at San Felipe, Santo Domingo and Cochiti Pueblos. With the outbreak of World War II, Chavez entered the chaplaincy school at Harvard University and was assigned to the 77th Infantry Division as military chaplain to American troops. He was present during the beach landings at Guam and Leyte. During the Korean Conflict, he continued his military service as chaplain at Fort Bliss, Texas an in Germany.

Following his military service, Chavez returned home to New Mexico and was appointed archivist for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. It was during this time that Chavez carried out his most important work: preserving the Hispano culture and history of New Mexico. As archivist for the Archdiocese, he catalogued and translated the old Spanish archives, which provided new primary sources that allowed for a reevaluation of New Mexico’s Spanish history.

Chavez’s writing also flourished during this time and he wrote several books, including his most important “Origins of New Mexico Families“, a geneology of New Mexico’s Spanish (Hispano) families dating to the colonial times and the first Spanish settlement of the state in 1598. This book is regarded as both a New Mexico state treasure and a treasure to the Hispano people since it traces each of our family trees to when we first arrived here under Don Juan de Onate.

Other famous books by Fray Angelico include: “My Penitente Land: A Reflection of Spanish New Mexico“; “But Time and Chance” regarded as a scholarly and balanced treatment of Padre Martinez of Taos, who was New Mexico’s most important Hispano leader of the 1800s and was spiritual leader of the Hispano people of New Mexico during his lifetime;  and “La Conquistadora, the Autobiography of An Ancient Statue“, a beautiful story written in the first person of the wooden statue of Our Lady, which was made in Spain in the early 1600s and brought to New Mexico by early Spanish settlers to protect them on their long journey from Spain to New Mexico. La Conquistadora is considered the patron saint of New Mexico’s Hispano Catholics and She remains to this day with our people, at the Cathedral of St. Francis in Santa Fe. 

Fray Angelico wrote many other books, short stories and poetry in addition to those mentioned and some consider him a kind of renassaince writer and historian for New Mexico. One novel he wrote, “The Virgin of Port Lligat“  based on Salvador Dali’s The Madonna of Port Lligat, was selected as one of the best books of 1959 by the Catholic Library Association and was praised by T.S. Eliot as “a very commendable achievement.”

In 1971, Chavez left the priesthood during a ”crisis of faith” but returned to the priesthood and the Fransciscan Order prior to his death on March 18, 1996 at the age of 85 in Santa Fe. He is buried at the Rosario Catholic Cemetery near downtown Santa Fe after refusing to be buried at the Cathedral. In recent years, Chavez was honored by the Museum of New Mexico at the Palace of the Governors which named their new history and photographic library after him. It is called the Fray Angelico Chavez History Library and includes a bronze statue of him outside the entrance.

Fray Angelico Chavez most definitely deserves to be considered an Hispano Hero of New Mexico, for this humble man, a son of our people, dedicated his life first and foremost to the service of Almighty God and to the Roman Catholic Church as a priest and also for his great achievement and contribution in preserving the history and culture of the Hispano people of New Mexico. His books, such as ”Origins of New Mexico Families,” along with others, will ensure that the history of our families and our culture will never be forgotten. The Hispanos of New Mexico owe Fray Angelico a debt of gratitude that can only be repayed by each of us continuing his noble work of preserving our history and culture in our own way. Gracias, Fray Angelico, por todo su trabajo para nosotros los Hispanos de Nuevo Mejico, y que descanses en paz con Dios, Nuestra Senora, todos los angeles y los santos y nuestras familias.



Fray Angélico Chávez, 1954.
Photographer Charles Herbert.
Palace of the Governors Photo Archives, Neg. No. 007123

Read 6444 times Last modified on Thursday, 08 March 2012 20:42
Maria Montez-Skolnik


Both sides of my family trace their roots in the Santa Fé area to the 1600s.  In the earlier years they were primarily farmers, builders, craftsmen, artists (wood carvers and weavers), and educators.  I graduated from SFHS & NMSU and received my BA & MA in Speech & Language Pathology. I divide my time between Santa Fé and the San Francisco Bay Area.  


1 comment

  • Comment Link ed Saiz Tuesday, 06 March 2012 22:31 posted by ed Saiz

    To: Maria Montez-Skoinik;

    I really enjoyed the article about Fray Angelico Chavez.

    Having been born and raised most of my life ( execpt for a
    few years) in the small village of Tesuque, New Mexico, I really
    enjoyed. Great Work, thank you very much.

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