THE PASTOR OF NEW MEXICO
Peter Küppers’s Memoirs
“Born in 1885 in western Germany and the first of fourteen children to devout Catholic parents, Peter Küppers was recruited as a missionary priest to New Mexico in 1911, even though he did not speak Spanish and knew nothing about the rural Hispanic culture. This book is Küppers’s own story written in the 1930s as an unsuccessful publication venture primarily concerning his struggle to adjust to life as a pastor and his often turbulent experiences in rural villages and towns in northern New Mexico. After more than a year in Santa Fe, where he worked feverishly to gain command of Spanish, Küppers was assigned to the isolated Hispanic parish of Chaparito in the Canadian River country east of Las Vegas near the present-day Conchas Dam. He also served at and built or repaired mission chapels in several neighboring parish settlements until he landed at the Peñasco-Dixon parish in 1920. Later, in the 1950s, the well-known Dixon court case revealed the influence Küppers exerted in promoting public funding for schools with Catholic nuns and priests as teachers. The New Mexico Supreme Court held that the school system used at Dixon violated the constitutional separation of church and state doctrine.
“Covering the widespread Chaparito parish was no simple matter. Since Küppers could not afford an automobile, he had to make long, tiring trips by buggy or on horseback. In addition Küppers has been described as a ‘stubborn Westfalian German’ who was often at odds with his superiors and fellow priests (p. 10). Accused of issuing church funds and having affairs with his housekeepers, he was excommunicated, although briefly.
“The concluding chapter and the chapter pertaining to the Penitentes may be the most interesting and important sections of this book. This historic offshoot of Catholicism was recognized for its charitable activities, but was best known for the practice of self-flagellation. Fascinated by the Penitentes, Küppers studied their organizational structure and religious practices. ‘This writer worked for years in areas of New Mexico with many Penitentes,’ Küppers declared, ‘and he admitted that the Penitentes are among his best friends, but more importantly, the same Penitentes listen to his concerns and follow his advice.’ He quickly added, however, that he wished the Penitentes followed more closely ‘the rules and regulations of the Church’ (p. 138).
“Although this book provides valuable primary source material, its title claims too much. Küppers was a pastor in one relatively small part of New Mexico, but hardly of the entire state. Also, coverage of his most important contributions are poorly skewed, with the first 73 pages of his story devoted to his early life and brief stay in Santa Fe, and only 65 pages allowed for his work in the Hispanic villages. The editor compensates for this last shortcoming with a good introduction, and his interpretive article on the life and historical importance of Küppers in an appendix.”
—David H. Stratton, Washington State University, New Mexico Historical Review