In 1852 Jean Baptist Lamy, the first Bishop of the newly created Archdiocese of Santa Fe, traveled through Kentucky where he convinced six nuns to join him in New Mexico. Led by Sister Magdalen Hayden, the sisters from the order of The Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross, later known as the Sisters of Loretto, traveled down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to Independence, Missouri where they began the arduous overland wagon trip on the Santa Fe Trail, thus becoming some of the earliest women to travel on the trail.
One of the sisters died and was buried on the trail giving us one of the most poignant photographs of the trail. Bishop Lamy and a couple of her brethren are depicted walking away from her new gravesite. A second sister became incapacitated and had to return, leaving Mother Hayden and three others to continue to Santa Fe. There they encountered a place and people unlike anything they had experienced but they began their work.
From the humble seeds of four nuns with the leadership of Mother Hayden and the encouragement of Bishop Lamy, the Sisters of Loretto established education for women in the Territory of New Mexico at a time when public education did not exist. They also became the first teachers in the Territory to receive certification to teach in public schools, which they did. They opened Our Lady of Light Academy, simply known as Loretto, in Santa Fe and that was followed by a chapel, one novitiate, and ten additional branch houses that were opened throughout New Mexico.
The chapel of Loretto in Santa Fe was built on the campus of Loretto Academy and is the most visible structure standing today that is attributable to the Sisters of Loretto. The chapel with its “miraculous” staircase is a landmark and has been the subject of legends, research, and a movie.
The work of the Sisters of Loretto is less visible today but had a more profound effect on New Mexico. In 1853, an astounding 44% of the young women attending school were receiving their education at the Loretto Academy. Over the next fifty years—though some would argue longer—no other single organization positively affected the of women in New Mexico in such great numbers. It is not without reason that a disproportionate number of the women nominated and approved by the New Mexico Women Forum’s roadside marker program received their early education from the Sisters of Loretto.
Loretto, the Sisters and their Chapel by Mary Straw Cook, Museum of New Mexico Press, 2002.
Historical Sketch of the Catholic Church in New Mexico by James Defouri
Beyond the Adobe Wall by Sister Patricia J. Manion Ph.D. Independence, MO: Two Trails Publishing, 2001
Light In Yucca Land. By Sister Richard Marie Barbour, S.L.