by Don Bullis
New Mexico’s Old Times & Old Timers
The Martyrdom of Padre Juan de Padilla
Padre Juan de Padilla was one four Franciscans, and the only full-fledged priest, to accompany Francisco Vázquez de Coronado on his expedition into New Mexico in 1540. The padre was a native of Andalusia, Spain, but the year of his birth is not known nor is the date of his arrival in the New World. There is documentation showing that he was present in Mexico by 1529.
After Coronado’s company spent the winter of 1541-42 near what is now the town of Bernalillo, New Mexico, the decision was made to return to Mexico. The purpose of the expedition had been to discover riches like those found by Cortez in Mexico and Pizzaro in Peru and no wealth had been found. Padre Padilla, however, decided that he would stay behind and do what he could to convert the natives to his Church. Remaining with him were Fray Juan de la Cruz and a Portuguese soldier named Andres del Campo, along with two slaves.
Padre Padilla, del Campo, and the slaves, set off for Quivara, believed to have been in central Kansas. While en route, the group encountered a force of unfriendly Indians, perhaps Pawnee or Kansa, and Padre Padilla told his companions to flee for safety while he knelt and prayed as he awaited arrival of the hostiles. Stories vary, but all agree that the priest was killed immediately. Del Campo, according to one version, was captured, but allowed to bury Padilla. Del Campo later escaped and after an arduous trek, he and the slaves returned to Mexico and reported the martyrdom of Padre Padilla. (Historian Miguel Encinias reported that the fate of de la Cruz is unknown.)
There is some question about when the martyrdom occurred. One source says that Padilla’s party spent two years in Kansas before he was killed, and thus he lived until 1544. Others believe that he was killed almost immediately upon his entry into Kansas in 1542. And that is not the only problem.
Where, in fact, did it happen?
Texans believe that Padre Padilla was actually in Texas when he was killed. According to The Handbook of Texas Online, “he had been revered by Texans as the first Christian martyr of Texas, and possibly of the United States.” A monument to Padilla was dedicated in Amarillo in 1936.
According to Kansas Historical Collections, though, the incident of Padilla’s death occurred near the present-day Council Grove in east central Kansas. “I became convinced that there is no other reasonable hypothesis,” wrote Kansas historian George P. Morehouse. There is a monument there, too.
And so is there a monument to Padre Padilla in Rice County in central Kansas. It declares that the padre died there in 1542.
But New Mexico can make its own claim to the padre’s remains. Here is a paraphrased version of the legend as told by Elizabeth Willis De Huff in Say the Bells of Old Missions.
When the Spanish retreated south as a result of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, many Isleta Pueblo people went with them because their relationship with the Spanish had been good. While they were there, Texas Indians told the Isletas about the killing of Padre Padilla. His body, they said, was deposited in a cave where it had become mummified by the dryness of the air. One of the Texas Indians claimed to have seen the body, and he promised to show it to the Isleta people. Before he could, though, Don Diego de Vargas marched north to recapture New Mexico in 1692, and some of the Isleta people followed him back to their homes in the middle Rio Grande Valley.
They found, though, that the ground would not produce crops. “The corn will not grow because we did not go to find the body of Fray Padilla,” one said. “If his body is still lying in that cave, his spirit is still walking on this earth. He is angry because we have left him among his enemies.”
And so a group of Isleta men returned to Texas and retrieved the padre’s body. They took it to Isleta where it was placed in a coffin fashioned from a hollowed out cottonwood log fitted with a lid. He was laid to rest before the altar in the mission church. The corn began to grow and life returned to normal. Padre Padilla was all but forgotten.
But some years later sickness beset the Pueblo and many died. As people prayed in the church for relief, they were startled to note that the lid of Fray Padilla’s coffin appeared above the surface of the dirt floor. A cacique lifted the lid to find the body of the priest just it had been at the time of the original burial. People approached the body and touched it in order to be blessed. The grave was re-dug to a considerable depth and the martyr reburied. All of the sick were healed.
The reappearance of Fray Padilla’s coffin occurred several times when tribulation visited the village. In 1889, the coffin rose again, some thought because dancing had been done in the church and the spirit of Padre Padilla objected. Again it was deeply reburied.
In 1895, Santa Fe Archbishop Placid Louis Chapelle investigated. Even though the coffin had been reburied deeply only six years before, it was near floor level. It was again buried, “deep enough to cover a man standing upright.”
Fray Padilla’s coffin is said to have last appeared in 1914 when the people again danced in the church. The coffin was yet again reburied. Some believe that when it is necessary, Fray Padilla’s coffin will appear again. And maybe it will.
(Note: The story as told here is legendary. Some believe that the Padre Padilla who came north with Coronado is confused with another Padre Padilla who served in New Mexico many years later, and it was he who was buried in the church at Isleta.)