A Distinctive American Clan of New Mexico

      Marc Simmons
      He has been called a renaissance man and New Mexico's foremost twentieth-century humanist by biographer Ellen McCracken. Any way you measure his career, Fray Angélico Chávez was an unexpected phenomenon in the wide and sunlit land of the American Southwest.
      His life, which began at Wagon Mound, New Mexico in 1910, was filled with vigorous physical and intellectual activity. Above all, Fray Angélico was an independent and original thinker, traits not usually associated with someone in a religious order who takes a vow of humility.
      In the decades following his ordination as a Franciscan priest in 1937, Chávez performed the difficult duties of an isolated backcountry pastor. His assignments included Hispanic villages and Indian pueblos. As an army chaplain in World War II, he accompanied troops in bloody landings on Pacific islands, claiming afterwards that because of his small stature, Japanese bullets always missed him.
      In time despite heavy clerical duties, Fray Angélico managed to become an author of note, as well as something of an artist and muralist. Upon all of his endeavors, one finds, understandably, the imprint of his religious perspective. During nearly seventy years of writing, he published almost two dozen books. Among them were novels, essays, poetry, biographies, and histories. Sunstone Press is now bringing back into print some of the rare titles.
      Upon his death in 1996, Chávez left his huge collection of documents and personal papers to Santa Fe's Palace of the Governor's History Library, one of the region's major research institutions. In that year, it was renamed the Fray Angélico Chávez Library and Photographic Archives.
      Today, a handsome life-size statue of the padre in his Franciscan robe stands in front of the building on Washington Avenue. During the first severe winter after its unveiling, a good Samaritan placed a stocking cap on the head of the statue.
      Throughout his life, Fray Angélico remained a confirmed Hispanophile. In the 1960s and 1970s, that stance won him the enmity of Chicano Activists, who rejected the Spanish side of their heritage. But Fray Angélico had spent too many years documenting the colonial record of New Mexicans' achievements on this far-flung frontier to succumb to the blandishments of anti-Spanish ideologues.
      Indeed, of the many accolades he received in his lifetime, none pleased him more than the one bestowed upon him by Spain's King Juan Carlos: membership in the knightly Order of Isabel la Católica, granted in recognition of his contributions to learning and the arts.
      All true aficionado's of the American Southwest's history and culture will profit by collecting and reading the significant body of work left to us by the remarkable Fray Angé1ico Chávez.