If you're planning to visit Santa Fe, be sure to take along a copy of Willa Cather's novel Death Comes for the Archbishop.

It's the best preparation you could have to understand the silences and simplicity of the Southwestern desert.

Cather tells the tale of Bishop Jean Latour and Father Joseph Machebeut (based on the lives of Bishop Jean Baptiste L'Amy and Father Joseph Vaillant) as they struggle in the 1850s to set up a new Catholic diocese among the Mexican, Hopi and Navajo inhabitants.

How well the real pair succeeded is evidenced by the town's original name — “The Royal Town of the Holy Faith [Santa Fe ] of St. Francis” — and by the numerous shrines and churches in the area. Indeed, the first thing that greets you in the city center is a statue of St. Francis of Assisi, the city's patron, and one of Bishop L'Amy in front of St. Francis Cathedral. The cathedral houses the oldest Marian shrine in the United States, that of Our Lady of Conquering Love (Conquistadores) brought here by Spanish conquerors in 1626.

This fascinating city of only 60,000, the capital of New Mexico, is the oldest capital city in the country. It sits at an elevation of 7,000 feet above sea level in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) mountains. Of the 19 Native American communities in the state, eight are near Santa Fe — Pueblo Indian tribes living in settlements called pueblos. There are simple parish churches in most pueblos. Each has its own patron saint and holds colorful festivals on the appropriate feast day. Visitors can tour the pueblos but must stick to a protocol that respects the culture and life of its inhabitants.

The decor and design of church architecture also reflects the strong Mexican-Spanish culture of the original colonizers. The Church's pervasive influence is seen in as simple a thing as the visor on the local tour bus, unabashedly displaying pictures of the Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Guadalupe. Even the hotel in which I stayed, the pueblo-style Inn of the Anasazi, was blessed by the Franciscans on the day it opened in 1990.

In my room, a guest booklet explained the presence, and asked guests to be respectful, of the crosses and religious motifs used in the hotel as decorations.

St. Joseph Was Here?

A world-famous religious phenomenon exists in Santa Fe. In 1873 the Sisters of Loretto, brought here as teachers in 1852 by Bishop L'Amy, wanted to build a chapel. Today that chapel is a museum surrounded by The Inn at Loretto (the convent was converted into a hotel). Modeled on Sainte Chapelle in Paris, it was the first Gothic building west of the Mississippi. Inside the its walls rises a miracle — a circular staircase 24 feet high with 33 steps winding in two complete, 360-degree turns with no supporting pole down its center. Architects and engineers from around the world have examined the staircase and can find no explanation as to how it got there or how it manages to stay there — with its entire weight on its base and no center or side supports

The Sisters of Loretto think there's a perfectly reasonable explanation. After the chapel was built, they realized there was no passageway connecting the choir loft to the church. Because the loft was so high, carpenters said the only solution was to use a ladder or rebuild the balcony. The sisters prayed to St. Joseph, the master carpenter, for a solution. On the last day of a novena in 1878, an elderly man on a donkey appeared at the door asking to help. Aided only by a saw, T-square and hammer, he built this complex staircase using only wooden pegs and no nails. The staircase is made of a hardwood unknown in that section of the United States. It is spliced in seven places on the inside and nine on the outside, each piece forming part of a perfect curve.

As suddenly as he appeared, the man left after his task was done. He never asked to be paid and no one ever found out his name. To this day, the sisters are convinced the nameless carpenter was St. Joseph.

Other unique chapels and shrines are to be found just outside Santa Fe. El Sanctuario de Chimayo, the “Lourdes of America,” is known as a place to experience peace and restfulness. The village of Chimayo, where one finds many weaving galleries and craft shops, possesses a marked Spanish flair.

One visitor described the sanctuary here as “a church built as graceful as a flower swaying in the summer breeze, nested in a valley protected by wild berry trees.” The land is painted in tones of muted pinks, blues, grays and sand which so inspired artist Georgia O'Keeffe. The shrine was built in 1816 after a local man found a crucifix — Our Lord of Esquipulas — in the ground.

After he dug up the cross, the man contacted a local priest, who took it to his existing church. The next morning, the crucifix had disappeared; soon it was discovered buried in its original location. Twice more it was moved and mysteriously reappeared next morning in the ground. The message was clear. It was to remain where it was found, and a chapel was built in that spot. The chapel, privately owned until 1929, was eventually turned it over to the archdiocese. By then, it had become known as the Lourdes of America because of the 300,000-plus people who visit each year seeking to be healed.

Wall of Wonder

The interior of the shrine contains five colorful panels of sacred art, one of which is the reredos around the altar. A wooden carving of a man on horseback represents the beloved saint of the Spanish, St. James, or Santiago. If you visit, be sure get here by midafternoon since they close precisely at the stroke of closing time (4 p.m. in the winter and 6 p.m. in the summer).

At Rancho de Taos, another religious “mystery” exists. In the adobe-style parish hall of San Francisco de Asis hangs a painting, The Shadow of the Cross , by Henri Ault. Painted in 1896, several years before radium was discovered, it depicts Jesus standing barefoot on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

First, visitors see the painting in a lit room. Then the lights are turned out. I watched in wonder as, astonishingly, after the painting had been sitting in darkness for about 10 minutes, the figure changed posture. As well, a cross appeared over the right shoulder of Our Lord which was not visible in daylight. The sea and the sky behind him took on a glow that suggested moonlight. The light didn't remain constant, but varied in color from light blue to green. The attendant told me it gets brightest around midnight.

The artist, when questioned, stated that he has no idea why the painting does this, since there's never been a luminous paint developed that will not darken and oxidize within a short time. The painting has been subjected to extensive tests (floodlights to try to induce florescence, Geiger counters) by famous scientists as it traveled on exhibition for over 50 years — including the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904 — before finding a permanent home in New Mexico, yet no natural explanation can be found.

These are but a few of the wonderful works of faith found in Santa Fe and its environs. In addition, the numerous galleries for which the city is famous display many paintings and sculptures that are Catholic in content and theme. The impressive Palace of the Governors museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, which also contain some religious art, are both free to visitors on Fridays.

Santa Fe has been likened to a “Georgia O'Keeffe painting set to prose.” I believe that's an apt description of a city named after the faith of a great saint who was so in tune with the beauty of God's creation — a city that constantly proclaims the handiwork of its creator.

Lorraine Williams is based in Markham, Ontario.