Sometime during the night of Sunday, March 18, 1973, La Conquistadora, the willow-wood Madonna which was Santa Fe, New Mexico’s beloved patron saint, was stolen from her altar in the locked cathedral, no clue but a set of footprints left behind. The town was shocked. Bereft. Grown men and women, said the front-page news reports, wept when they heard. It was a horrifying crime, an act of sagrilege, a sign of the incalculable times. And far more personal, besides. A loss much closer to the bone than any ordinary theft. As if appealing for the safe return of an abducted child, Santa Fe mayor Joseph E. Valdes vowed to "do anything in my power to be sure that La Conquistadora is found."
Lucy was only sixteen at the time, busy with boys and poetry and chess, and not especially interested in religion. She didn’t see that it had much of anything to do with her. But she sensed even then, in all her innocence, that the event was pivotal for Santa Fe—and for them all. Began to understand, before it was over (though it never was, not really) that her whole life had somehow led up to that moment on the empty altar, and would, years after, however many thousand miles away, keep coming back to it, using it as reference. That nothing from then on would ever be the same.
The theft of faith, she’d write one day.
The cathedral, St. Francis de Assisi, was downtown in what seemed in that high desert country a vast and deeply shady park of elms and box elders, though looking back at it later, from the broader perspective of places like Rome’s Borghese Gardens or New York’s Central Park, it must have been no more than a smallish city block. Behind the park was St. Vincent’s Hospital, where Lucy had been born—and where, almost exactly twenty years after the theft, the night after she started a new job in Palo Alto, California (an odd coincidence), the writer Wallace Stegner was to die, after a car crash there in Santa Fe during a trip to give a lecture.
Catty-corner from the cathedral on the east, the side closest to the Santa Fe River (dry most of the year, except for carrying snow melt in early May, when there was watercress growing in it above the reservoir, on Upper Canyon Road, the Prep School campus, once a compound of low-roofed science labs, where Lucy would spend three blissful school-years from seventh to ninth grades), was La Fonda, the inn at the end of the Santa Fe Trail. You could stop on snowy days to warm yourself at the huge open fireplace there in the lobby with the polished flagstones and the worn leather settees, breathing the fragrance of the piñon wood crackling with sap and then left smoldering all day; and check the newsstand for the latest paperback by local writers Tony Hillerman or Donald Hamilton (whose daughter went to Lucy’s school—and, she discovered one morning, stricken with awe, kept homing pigeons in palacial cages in their exclusive patio with high adobe walls). Where, Ernie Pyle the journalist from World War II wrote, “You could go … any time of day and see a few artists in the bar … a goateed gentleman from Austria or a maharajah from India or a New York broker … You never met anyone anywhere except at La Fonda.” Where you could write bad, heartsick poems in a spiral notebook while consoling yourself with crèpes of sweet apricot jam and frothy cinnamon-speckled café au lait in the French Pastry Shop around the side, across from Packard’s Trading Post, with its green-hearted copper kettles and cozily steamed windows, pretending that you were (as you would some years after that day be, remembering) in Paris, writing your bad poems in French instead.
On the opposite corner, across Cathedral Place, was the old post-office, which would in the early 90s become a museum of contemporary American Indian arts, where the young Hopi, Cliff Nequatewa, would (Lucy would decide in a story) hang his first juried painting, of a ceremonial mask, the colors of the sacred Landers Blue turquoise his father set in heavy silver pendants, and of the earth in the canyon behind the dance plaza at home.
Across Palace Avenue was Sena Plaza, named for the Palace of the Governors and for the Sena family, respectively—the museum that had the old carriages and the letterpress, and the stern goateed forefathers and black-lace-mantillaed grandmothers of José Sena, who Lucy’s father worked for at the Abstract and Title company. Uncle Joe, who had a cat named Saturday, who ate a fried egg on his enchilada, who gave her the garnet-red enameled jewelry box with the tutued ballerina twirling among velvet and mirrors, and dozens of Portuguese stamps with old sailing ships and Arabian stallions in cool dusty colors for her stamp collection; and who, among the musty ledgers of Spanish land grant records, taught her to use chopsticks (though the only place in town you could use them, in those days, was at the New Canton Café, whose waitress was Mabel, who’d come from St. Louis, widowed young; where Lucy loved the egg foo young with crispy bean sprouts, and the glossy cherry pie).
Sena Plaza had been the family’s hacienda, dating back to 1692—seventy years after the arrival of La Conquistadora. The compound was made up of a series of uneven brick-paved patios and rickety dark wooden staircases climbing up out of the twining summertime embrace of honeysuckle to long narrow wooden balconies, worthy of Spanish Juliets, where there were appraisers and a dentist, a used-book shop, a soap merchant, the shop that wove the striped ponchos that Lucy and the other volunteer ushers would wear at the Santa Fe Opera that coming summer, her last summer before going away. And in the middle was The Shed, everyone’s favorite restaurant. The Shed had opened first in Burro Alley—where the donkeys of the firewood vendors used to be tethered—the year before Lucy’s parents moved to Santa Fe. In 1973 (and still now, more than thirty years later), you could buy your firewood from Jesus, as her father loved to say. At the wood yard of Jesus Rios, up where Camino del Monte Sol comes into Canyon Road, around the corner from the low-roofed studio where Lucy took ballet with Jacques Cartier, who did the fire dance each year for thirty years at the burning of Zozobra—he was the figure in red moving inexorably up the steps at Fort Marcy to set fire, at last, after an agonizing long approach, to the enormous groaning paper effigy, lighting the fuse that would eventually set off a fit of fireworks from its massive frowning thrashing head.
Old Man Gloom burned, the legend went, and with him all the town’s cares burnt too, for another year. But maybe not that year, or since. The repercussions of the theft were maybe more than even Old Man Gloom could take away.
At night, especially in the winter months, downtown is pretty well deserted. Despite the many businesses around, no one saw anything at all that might lead the police to the thief or thieves of La Conquistadora. The cathedral sacristan, Della Garcia, had at 9:15 carefully locked the heavy outer doors with their sixteen carved panels (the arthritis in her hands, worsened by the icy March wind, making it an act of love, one has to imagine), and they had remained locked until just before 6:00 a.m. the following morning, when they were opened again for mass. When Father Miguel Baca, in whose care the souls of tens of thousands were, surely sank groaning to his knees on the cold stones before the uncommunicative altar, sending a prayer of desperation heavenward. Wondering how he could tell them, his trusting flock. Her confraternity. The women who dress her. Those who knew well and others who would learn, in the papers, about the 130 dresses and valuable jewels in the Madonna’s wardrobe. The accounts that would in retrospect amaze Lucy. “One dress, made by Cochití Pueblo artist Dorothy Trujillo, is of Native American design and includes small silver bracelets and a miniature squash blossom necklace.”
Speculations flew. Leads were pursued. The police wondered if the crime were related to thefts over the past two years of other religious objects from churches and Penitente moradas around the state. On July 5 the year before, a valuable statue of San Miguel had been stolen from Santa Fe’s San Miguel Mission, the oldest church in the United States, along with other statues and paintings. A handwritten note received by the Archdiocese office the week after the empty altar was discovered suggested that La Conquistadora had gone off in search of the lost San Miguel, because he’d been gone so long and clearly needed help finding his way back home.
Lucy went on blithely untouched. That Sunday she was written up in The New Mexican herself. An oddity, a girl who played chess (to the death, she’d say)—and most often won. She travelled with the others on the chess team to Santa Fe High, Las Vegas, Los Alamos. Took boys unaware, beating them easily. (A kind of mating game, she’d write ironically one day.) She checked the mail for answers to her applications to far colleges—Wellesley, the University of Victoria, Santa Barbara; it didn’t matter where. She felt the end coming. Despaired. Was nostalgic for her past before it was even over. Saw herself as an old, old lady, looking back. Finding a bit of brittle chamisa (what they called “Rabbitbrush”) among her effects. A few Portuguese stamps. Her wistful poems which that spring began winning student awards.
She would have sworn later that the search for the missing statue went on for the better part of a year. She would be surprised to learn it had been just a month. The time it took for the grape hyacinths to bloom. For tumbleweeds to collect on chain link fences around town, in the fitful early spring winds. For the crowded kitchen at The Shed to go through seven thousand gallons of red chili sauce. For her heart to be broken three times. For the boys at school to grow away from her, go where she couldn’t imagine going, talking as they sometimes did of breaking into people’s houses, standing scarcely breathing in a track of moonlight on the threshhold of a bedroom like a strange new skin; falling for Swedish chorus members or Chilean clarinetists come for the opera; dropping out (the supermarket heir) to get married and move into abandoned houses in the ghost town, Madrid, south of town, where there had once been silver mines.
On Saturday, April 7, things started moving, fast. Father Baca received a ransom note enclosing as proof of possession a cross from La Conquistadora's crown. The note stated in poor Italian that the Madonna would be returned unharmed in exchange for $150,000 and a promise from the Governor that those involved would not face criminal prosecution. If church leaders agreed to these terms, Father Baca was instructed to ring the cathedral's bells exactly 10 times at 4:45 p.m. on Wednesday, April 11. If the bells were rung at the designated time, the kidnappers would deliver additional instructions by phone the following day.
And then on Saturday, the 14th, giant headlines. La Conquistadora had been found!
“Montoya, Baca, Santa Fe police chief Felix Lujan and police captain Alfred
Lucero accompanied the 17-year-old to La Conquistadora's location in the cold
early morning hours of Saturday, April 14.
The minor, whose name was withheld because of his age, led police to the
foothills of the Manzano Mountains, east of Los Lunas. The small group hiked
about three miles, and, after crossing a stream, approached a remote, abandoned
Using only two flashlights, the men followed the youth about 200 yards
into the mine. There the police finally found La Conquistadora, safely wrapped
in foam padding and secured in a large plastic bag. Other stolen works of art
were also discovered, including valuable missing artifacts from the San Miguel
Word got around town like summer lightning, despite the disclaimer. The minor was the son of the Lieutenant Governor. The other boy involved had been in Lucy’s class, the year before. A newcomer from out of town or state, a loner, someone who kept to himself, she’d thought.
She never did find out if the others stories she heard were true. If there was someone else involved. Someone she’d loved for a few mortal hours over a chessboard. Whose hand lingered on hers one spring day in the sun-drenched library on Upper Canyon Road when they hadn’t yet left it, before taking her knight. Who after algebra put the violets she’d used as a bookmark behind his ear, flaming against his tawny hair.
“Tell her when she comes to town again to call me,” he told a friend of hers a year or two later, when he was said to be studying medieval French, and Greek, at St. John’s College, where her elderly friend the Brigadier General lived as housemaster with a hummingbird feeder and mah jong tiles, where her father had taken her to see Japanese ghost stories on film, stories that haunted her strangely. But long since gone beyond those days in Santa Fe, beyond recall, she thought about it with an ache of loss or something like, but never got around to calling. Like the chance that he had been there in the dark that night in the cathedral (fifty-fifty?), the chance that something might have come again between them was left untested. She didn’t want to know for sure, she told herself, one way or the other. She’d learned too much and lost too much already. There were things best let lie in the realm of possibility, vaulted like the cathedrals of green dappled light made by the lofty cottonwoods on Alameda in the time of love and lilacs, long lost now, the trees planted by the French archbishop along the momentary, snowmelt-swollen river
The theft of faith, she’d call it. Knowing, too late, how smugly innocent she’d been. How little of it all she’d ever understood. Remembering that night in March that last spring after which nothing in Santa Fe, or anywhere she was to look, after, was ever again the same.