Last Monday evening a storm came roaring through as we were intently watching an episode of Walander (subtitled). It arrived suddenly and with only a few moments of warning. The power popped off and on three times before my house settled into a permanent darkness. Since I am not on city water, this means I was also without water which is the more difficult of the two. . . no water = no bathrooms! This condition lasted for 3 days!
With all of this time on my hands, what could I do? A two drawer file cabinet that had a hodge-podge of genealogy records and photos called to me. I did not need water or electricity to sort and organize and the room had two large windows for light. Piled haphazardly inside were a few forgotten photos, a college scrapbook, newspaper clippings, and lots of letters from my high school and college years. Buried in the middle of all this was a letter written in 1936 by Anna McDonnell to my mother when she was twelve years old. Anna was always known as “Auntie” and I have written about her before here, and here. In the letter, Auntie recounts an experience that she had sixteen years earlier while o vacation in New Mexico.
Warning! This letter is quite lengthy and the opinions, characterizations, and terminology are strictly those of my long dead great aunt and the 1920 time period she lived in.
Written from memory at the
Request of my Niece-
Dear Gloria you asked me to write an account of the “Legend of Isleta” an Indian Village about thirteen miles from Albuquerque, New Mexico.
In the summer of 1920 I was visiting at Mountain View Ranch, the beautiful home of some former Chicago friends. My hostess, Mrs. Booth, told me that about a month before my arrival in Albuquerque, there had been an official investigation made, regarding the body of a Missionary Priest (do not remember his name) who has been murdered by a hostile tribe of Indians, some three hundred and fifty years ago, and whose body kept coming to the surface of the earth, as if in supplication for some one to take notice and give him a decent Christian burial.
The last time his body came to the surface was in the Spring of 1920, the year I was there, so the little French Priest who was pastor of the church at Isleta called the Indians together and asked the oldest one of them, who was supposed to be around a 115 years if he could remember any other time the body had come to the surface. He said he remembered well – said that it was about 80 years before, adding that the was one of the Indians who helped bury the body at that time, and could show them right where it had been placed. It was this legend that prompted the little priest to conduct the investigation which took place shortly before my arrival there.
My friends at the Mountain View Ranch, being non-Catholic, thought it would be of interest to me to drive out to Isleta and see the church where the phenomenon took place. Accordingly one bright day we drove out the old Indian trail to Isleta – we followed a mud road for 13 miles, as there were no paved ones leading there. Once we struck a rut in the road and were given such a jar that I had the back of my head injured, and it was about two years before I got over the effects of that bump.
When we arrived at the Old Mission Church, we saw a sight I shall never forget – there were about 100 Indiana women and girls engaged in building an Adobe mud fence, about four feet high, around the church yard. They were dressed in their native costume, with Red Plaid Shawls and White felt wrappings around their legs. A few men were standing around overseeing the job, one of whom was their Governor. He was a tall stately Indian, who made the laws for the village and ho was responsible to the state of New Mexico for seeing that the laws were kept.
When we got out of the machine, the Indians eyed us critically – so I approached the Governor and asked permission to go into the church – upon assuring him I was a Catholic he allowed us to pass through the gate. It was a surprise to me to find no pews in the church – however, I was told that the Indian custom is to sit on the floor and listen to the “White Father” during the service. The walls of the church were decorated very fantastically, and it would be a strange place indeed if it were not for the Sanctuary Lanm burning before the Tabernacle, warning all comers that the Divine Savior was present there.
After a hurried inspection of the church my companions went back to the car to wait while I made a visit to the pastor. On crossing the church yard I encountered a young Indian girl, so I asked her if the Padre was home – she told me he was and she showed me to a door that opened through a high board wall and bade me enter. The wall was about 8 foot high and painted white and hid from view the pastor’s home on the other side. The church yard was a desert sand, without a blade of grass anywhere – the Indians used the church yard for their burial ground and many are the dead Indians beneath that burning sand. You can imagine my surprise, upon passing through that door to find on the other side a beautiful Oasis – there were trellises covered with roses and the White Magil, or Wood Dove was flitting about from place to place. There was a long veranda the full length of the house, and walking up and down the veranda, with his arms folded was a young Indian as if keeping guard. The house, which I presume was originally built for a fort, was but one story high, and the narrow horizontal windows were located near the roof, to afford a safe lookout, if any enemies were near.
I asked the young man if he would please notify the Padre that I would like to speak to him – he lead me into a comfortable room with a large fire place and andirons that were indeed antique. A warm Navajo rug was spread in front of the fire place – the furniture was plain, but good, and the place had all the appearance of comfort and refinement, such a contrast to the Indians on the other side of the wall, in their native costume.
When the pastor came into the room I introduced myself, telling him I was from Chicago, and that I would like to learn something definite about the occurance that took place when the priest’s body was reburied in his church. He was very courteous and after asking me to be seated told me of the “Legend of Isleta”
Some 350 years ago the Mission Fathers of the Catholic Church worked very hard to advance civilization among the Indians. Father (blank) was a favorite with a tribe he had converted, but while they were traveling overland, near Santa Fe, they were attacked by a hostile tribe and their beloved Padre was struck by a poisoned arrow, causing his death. After the battle the survivors carried the body of the dead priest along with them a distance of 60 or 70 mes – they settled at the place now known as Isleta a short distance from the Rio Grande river. They cut down a huge cottonwood tree, hewed out the center and placed the body of the martyred priest inside. They then buried him beneath the sands where they formed their village.
Because of the 4 page length of the letter, I will post the last two pages tomorrow. See you then . . . .