Old Times and Old Timers

by Don Bullis

A Brief History of Education in New Mexico

A memorial from the New Mexico Territorial Legislature to the United States Congress in 1853 read, “that in no part of the United States are the means of education so deficient as in New Mexico.” And twenty years later, with more than 40,000 illiterate citizens, it appeared that not much had been done to correct the situation.

Much of the problem had to do with who would control the educational process. Jean Baptiste Lamy, who became Archbishop of Santa Fe in 1852, encouraged development of a network of parochial schools, all staffed by members of the Catholic clergy. Where public schools existed — and they were few and far between — Lamy encouraged priests to serve as schoolteachers. The result was that virtually all education in New Mexico was conducted in Spanish and was Roman Catholic in orientation. As far as the church was concerned, this arrangement was worth fighting for.

When the Territorial Assembly was presented with a school bill during its 1875-76 legislative session, it was strongly supported by Territorial Secretary W. G. Ritch. Ritch was a strong Protestant and very distrustful of the Catholic Church hierarchy which held great sway over the populace. The bill provided that no public funds could be used in parochial schools and that priests would not be allowed to teach in public schools.

Church leaders took the threat so seriously that Archbishop Lamy summoned Ritch for a conference to see if a compromise could be worked out. That effort failed.

Then Jesuit Father Donato Gasparri of Las Vegas, the editor of a church periodical called Revista Catholica, took up the cause. The purpose of his publication, established in 1875, was “maintaining and encouraging the faith and piety of the Mexican [emphasis added] population, safeguarding them from dangers of Protestantism.” Gasparri wrote of the public education bill, “[it is a] cancer which corrodes and consumes the societies of the United States.” Supporters of the bill noted that Father Gasparri’s printing press also published most text books used in New Mexico schools. Father Gasparri had enough influence that when the bill was debated in the legislature, he was seated beside the Speaker of the House of Representatives. The result was that the bill died.

Ritch was outraged. He called Gasparri “that carpetbagger from Naples.” Ritch wrote scathing letters to the Santa Fe New Mexican; letters so scurrilous (according to the newspaper) that they refused to print them. Never a shrinking violet, Ritch adopted the practice of posting his news items on bulletin boards in Santa Fe saloons by about 5:00 in the afternoon so that those who frequented such places could have the benefit of his opinions.

The education bill was not immediately revived, but in the 1878 legislative session, Father Gasparri led an effort to incorporate New Mexico Jesuits under territorial laws. The stated purpose was to create a college. But it was payback time. Gasparri successfully guided the bill through passage in both houses of the territorial legislature and it was sent to Governor Samuel B. Axtell. Axtell, according to one source, hated Gasparri more than Ritch did. He promptly vetoed the bill. Gasparri then flexed his political muscle and the legislature overrode the veto and the so-call Jesuit Act was signed into law. But that was not the end of it. Gasparri’s influence did not extend beyond New Mexico’s boundaries while Ritch and Axtell were both well connected in Washington, D. C. They convinced the territorial delegate to Congress, Vicente Romero, that the law should be annulled, and at his behest, Congress did so.

Father Gerald McKevitt, a Jesuit historian, quoted historian Dianna Everett regarding the issue of priests staffing public schools: “[It] left behind a legacy of bitterness that seriously retarded the growth of the public school system in New Mexico for many years.”

Even though enabling legislation establishing the University of New Mexico passed in 1889, it was not until the following year that a meaningful public education bill was enacted. Even then the Church remained firmly opposed to it in spite of the fact that by then more than half of New Mexico’s population of about 110,000 were illiterate.

Archbishop J. B. Salpointe, Lamy’s successor, wrote that nonsectarian education “[is] in reality sectarian, non-religious, godless or agnostic.” The United States Congress passed the Ferguson Act in 1898 and that firmly established a public school system in New Mexico Territory. At that late date, fifty-two years after United States Occupation of New Mexico, the issue of public education had much more to do with meeting the minimum standards for statehood than it did with the welfare of territorial youth.

It is noteworthy, too, that the debate over public funding of Catholic schools was not resolved until the Dixon Case was settled in 1950. It at last removed Catholic priests and nuns from New Mexico’s public school classrooms.


Sources: Jacobo Baca, “The Dixon Case, 1947-1951: The End of the Catholic Era in New Mexico Public Education,” La Crónica de Nuevo México, July 2005

Don Bullis, “The Problem of Education in Territorial New Mexico,” Rio Rancho Observer, May 20, 2004

Keleher. The Fabulous Frontier

Lamar. The Far Southwest 1846-1912

Gerald McKevitt, S. J., “Italian Jesuits in New Mexico: A Report by Donato M. Gasparri, 1867-1869,” New Mexico Historical Review, October 1992

Mondragón & Stapleton, Public Education in New Mexico

Simmons. New Mexico: An Interpretive History