TAOS, N.M. — Antonio Jose Martinez, the legendary 19th-Century priest vilified by novelist Willa Cather in "Death Comes for the Archbishop," is finally finding his proper place in history.
In Cather's 1927 novel, Martinez is portrayed as a womanizing priest who had illegitimate children and presided over "the old order," resisting change to the point of armed rebellion. Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy--called Latour in the book--is cast, contrastingly, as a great reformer.
While it's accepted today that Martinez did have children--descendants still live in his home just off Taos Plaza--modern historians believe Martinez was ahead of his time. He established Taos schools that produced a new generation of New Mexico clergy, which the current Roman Catholic archbishop, Michael Sheehan, acknowledges in praising Martinez.
The padre also owned one of New Mexico's first printing presses. He was a proponent of land reform and American democracy and was the first president of the upper house of New Mexico's first U.S. territorial legislature.
"He was very much an intellectual. He lived through Spain, he lived through Mexico and through the United States," says great-great-grandson Vicente Martinez, who is acting chief curator at the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos. "The constitutional form of government was something he clearly understood.
"I think Willa Cather was tremendously unfair to him, and I think the church was unfair to him, but I think history has proven him to be truly a great leader and a man way beyond his time."
About Cather, he says, "She had to have a villain."
Vicente's son, the padre's namesake, Antonio Jose Martinez, 18, is proud of the heritage.
"I definitely think he was a hero," says young Martinez, a freshman at Amherst College in Massachusetts. "It's like being related to any great historical figure. Every time I sign my name I think of him."
Lamy, the first archbishop of New Mexico, was long believed to have excommunicated Martinez, but current church authorities say the prelate never formalized it.
This year, the Rev. Edmund Savilla, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church here, held a Mass commemorating the church's first 160 years and honoring Martinez.
Born in 1793 in Abiquiu, N.M., Martinez grew up in his father's Taos hacienda, now a museum.
Padre Martinez had been married as a young man, but his wife died before he sought to join the priesthood. His only child of that union died at 12.
Martinez was ordained in Durango, Mexico, in 1823 and was a strong influence in northern New Mexico for more than 50 years afterward, despite his conflicts with Lamy, who came to Santa Fe in 1850.
Those disputes centered on the archbishop's tithing demands, which threatened in some cases to withhold sacraments from church members who did not pay 10% of income, as well as on Martinez's support for the Penitente Brotherhood, a sect that practiced self-scourging.
The youngest Martinez has never doubted he's a direct descendant of the priest.
The lineage is accepted by the Martinez family, the community and historians. Padre Martinez's will instructs Santiago Valdez to take the Martinez name because, the padre acknowledged cautiously, "he has not recognized any other father and mother but me."
The Rev. Juan Romero of Los Angeles, who this year completed a translation of Padre Martinez's autobiography, says too much has been made of the illegitimate children.
"Nobody claims him as a patron saint," Romero says. "The guy functioned effectively as a parish priest for a long time. He was astute and in no way wanted to be public. . . . He did not flaunt, did not fly in the face of conventional public morality."
Romero has been in the vanguard of a modern movement to recognize Martinez's achievements.
"What I would like to see," he says, "is a promotion of a consciousness that Padre Martinez did a lot more not only for Catholics but all people of the Southwest, that his contribution was more long-lasting. He was a great person in terms of a priest, of culture, protector of the poor, a deeply religious man who did a lot in establishing a native clergy."