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Restoring the Bishops Garden with Lamys Diversity of Forgotten Fruits

I would like to offer some reflections regarding a neglected legacy of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe: the horticultural legacy of Archbishop Lamy on behalf of the poor and hungry in northern New Mexico. And I would like to suggest that it would be a very Franciscan gesture to not only restore but to revitalize that legacy to its rightful place on the grounds of this Basilica—a National Historical Landmark known as Lamy’s Garden. And so, my comments will be brief today, but they include a proposal—if not a challenge—to the Archdiocese. The proposal is to use this year of celebration to conserve Lamy’s nearly-forgotten fruit trees that remain scattered around northern New Mexico, and to return them to the grounds of this sacred place, in keeping with that quintessential Franciscan value of caring for both people and the many other diverse forms of life on this planet.

Briefly, I would like to note that my passion and compassion for Archbioshop’s Lamy’s forgotten fruits comes from two sources: my spiritual vocation as a Secular Franciscan lay brother, dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi’s vision of making a better world for the poorest of our human AND non-human neighbors; and my professional work as a farmer, agricultural historian and conservationist through the Renewing America’s Food Traditions alliance and the Sabores Sin Fronteras Farming and Foodways Alliance. From years of involvement in each of these kinds of work, I have gained tremendous appreciation for Archbishop Lamy’s vision and daily practice. To put it more precisely, I am humbled by the fact that his spirituality was earthly enough to help feed the poor and beautify this city through his talent in making horticultural introductions to benefit his community.

Let us turn to the words of his early biographer, Louis Warner, who in 1939, had these words to say about the Archbishop’s tangible legacy left right here where we gather today, in the heart of Santa Fe:

“The Archbishop had an eye for the practical as well as the spiritual and the beautiful. Evidence of this trait in his make-up may still be seen in and about Santa Fe. Here are English walnut trees which grew from seed he furnished. I passed them recently and saw the nuts were forming. In another place will be a sturdy peach, the origin which dates back to his garden. In still another is an apricot, going back to his time.

These are but a few for which he was responsible [for they came from his garden] near the center of Santa Fe, immediately back of the Cathedral and other church buildings, adjoining the residence of the bishop, [which] was once a beauty spot of six acres or more. To some it became El Jardin del Obispo, to him it was Cuba, to the rest it was the Bishop’s Garden….”

Historian Mark Simmons offers us more detail about the Bishop’s Garden, which was “alongside his adobe residence between St. Francis Cathedral and Alameda Street. By the late 1860s it had become a showplace, and visitors to Santa Fe often mentioned being given a tour. A total of four acres bordering Alameda were enclosed by an adobe wall and transformed into a bountiful oasis. On several trips east, Lamy brought back flowering shrubs and fruit trees, transporting them in cans of water inside ox-drawn wagons. The churchman’s garden was shaded by large ornamental trees such as locust, maple, cottonwood and willow. Then there were fruit trees of several varieties-peach, pear, apple and cherry-plus almond trees.”

“In strolling with a visitor through his tiny paradise, Lamy enjoyed plucking the fruit and presenting it as a gift. His thrifty apples were said to reach 16 ounces, and his prize cherry tree (which he called the Belle of Santa Fe) produced two crops a year. Most famous were the strawberries, huge and plump. Lamy sold them for $1 a box and donated the profits to charity. On one occasion, he exhibited three turnips that weighed a total of 25 pounds.”

“At the upper edge of the bishop’s garden bubbled a natural spring whose flow fed a half-acre pond. Small bridges connected two artificial islands in the water. Lamy stocked the pond with trout, pike and American carp. The Daily New Mexican in 1875 reported that “the fish breed very fast and provide more than is required at the archbishop’s own table.” In fact, he sent surplus trout to St. Michael’s College to be served to the students.”

Mark Simmons’s last point is particularly relevant to why we might wish to consider restoring the Bishop’s Garden to its full diversity and splendor. Even though it was often referred to as Lamy’s personal garden, it fed students, it fed orphans, it fed the sick, and it fed the poor, even in the years immediately after the Archbishop’s Death. Reflect upon the very last paragraph of Paul Horgan’s powerful homage to the Archbishop, Lamy of Santa Fe, published in 1975:

“In the next summertime [after his passing in 1888], the archbishop’s garden yielded fifteen hundred quarts of strawberries, forty gallons of cherries, one thousand of currants, and two hundred of raspberries; while five thousand shrubs, vines, and young trees which were ready for transplanting from the garden were auctioned for charity in the plaza of Santa Fe.”

From my own research and that of others, we now know that some of the fruits which Lamy propagated are not merely of historic value, but were unique in the Southwest. He introduced many varieties to the region, including Catwaba grapes and a black ox heart cherry tree he called Belle of Santa Fe that produced two crops a year. His grapes, apples, and pears still adorn the grounds of the Bishop’s Lodge Resort and Spa just north of town—perhaps 13 decades after they were planted— although the towering tree so beautifully described by Willa Cather in 1927 in her celebrated novel, Death Comes to the Archbishop, has long since died. It is marked by a commemorative plaque in front of its stump, and staff members at the Bishop’s Lodge keep its oral history alive. Lamy’s heirloom apple trees may be nearly a century and a half old, but according to the Lodge’s Managing Director, Mr. Richard Verruni, they are still robust and delicious enough to be featured as a specialty of the house on the resort’s well-regarded menu.

Although many of Lamy’s fruit trees have survived at the Bishop’s Lodge, they have not fared nearly as well on the grounds of the Cathedral. Only a couple mulberry trees remain. Again let us listen to Mark Simmons from the 1980s, for he does not mince his words:

“After Lamy’s death in 1888, his beloved garden gradually was allowed to deteriorate. Anita Gonzales Thomas remembers as a child in 1915 walking by the little lake and watching ducks swim there. In the late 1920s a new dam was built on the upper Santa Fe River, causing lowering of the water table in town, and the drying up of the archbishop’s spring. That spelled the end of what remained of Lamy’s garden, Mrs. Thomas believes.”

“Now that St. Francis School and a large parking lot occupy the site, the only reminder of what once was is a half-dead almond tree and a couple of pear trees on the edge of the property. The garden, a colorful part of old Santa Fe, is gone forever.”

Or is it gone forever? Is it possible that with prayer, community participation, and a bit of good old-fashioned labor, the Bishop’s Garden might be resurrected and celebrated as this community’s expression of its care for creation? Could we not advertise in newspapers and church bulletins to find some other trees which oral histories assert are also part of Lamy’s legacy? Could we take cuttings from them, graft them onto hardy rootstocks, and return them to the Cathedral grounds? Can we imagine seeing behind the National Historic Landmark sign something more than just a postage stamp-sized garden of ornamentals entirely unrelated to Lamy’s own work? Can we make room for the diversity of life on the grounds of a sacred place which honors Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology, instead of seeing paradise permanently replaced by a parking lot?

This Franciscan vision of a horticultural resurrection is not merely imaginable, but doable if the Diocese and the Cathedral’s ground managers deem it a worthy project. The Managing Director of the Bishop’s Lodge, Mr. Richard Verruni, has generously agreed to donate cuttings of Lamy’s surviving fruit trees for propagation, should the leaders of the Diocese agree to make sufficient space for them. The agricultural conservation projects with which I work—Renewing America’s Food Traditions, Sabores Sin Fronteras and the Southwest Regis-Tree— stand ready to do the research and propagation for any of Lamy’s varieties now growing on other sites which people wish to donate for planting on the Cathedral grounds. Professional horticulturists in both Arizona and New Mexico are willing to volunteer to see this resurrection occur in the heart of Santa Fe.

And the day upon which these trees once again bear fruit in the Bishop’s Garden, those first fruits should be blessed and shared with the poor.


Literature Cited

Cather, Willa. 1927. Death Comes to the Archbishop. Vintage Classics, New York.

Horgan, Paul. 1975. Lamy of Santa Fe. Wesleyan University Press, Middletown.

Nabhan, Gary Paul, ed. 2008. Renewing America’s Food Traditions. Chelsea Green Press, Whiteriver Junction.

Simmons, Mark. 1980s. Bishop Lamy’s Garden.

Warner, Louis H. 1939. Archbishop Lamy: Epoch Maker.Santa Fe New Mexdican Publishing Company, Santa Fe.

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