This June, a novena in honor of the oldest statue of the Blessed Mother in public use in the United States will take place in Sante Fe, N.M. The Novena de La Conquistadora takes place Sunday, June 26, to Sunday, July 3, at the small Rosario Chapel located in Rosario Catholic Cemetery, located next to the Santa Fe National Cemetery, operated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The hallowed ground for the national cemetery was donated to the United States in 1870 by the then Catholic Diocese (now Archdiocese) of Santa Fe. Yes, the statue is called “La Conquistadora” and, yes, there is controversy about that title, since it is tied with the conquest of the Indigenous people in the New Mexico region in the 17th century. However, this is not the only name for the little 29-inch-tall statue. Neither is it its oldest name, nor its newest.
The origins of the small wooden statue are uncertain. Tree ring dating shows the image is at least 400, perhaps 600, years old. She is carved in the “Assumption style” and that was the first name the statue was known by when it arrived from Mexico in 1626: Nuestra Señora de La Asunción (Our Lady of the Assumption). This was her first official name.
Carved from a combination of willow and olive wood, the statue came from Mexico City by wagon train in 1626, brought by Fray Alonso de Benavides, a Franciscan missionary. The statue was placed in an adobe church near the site of the present cathedral. The Cathedral of St. Francis of Assisi contains the Capilla de La Conquistadora, where the statue resides for most of the year.
In 1680, there was a revolt — called the Pueblo Revolt — by the Indigenous people against the Spanish settlers. Much of Sante Fe was burned, including the church, and 21 priests died. The statue was saved and taken to Juarez, Mexico.
When Don Diego de Vargas was named governor of New Spain in 1693, he was determined to bring Mary’s statue back to Sante Fe de Nuevo Mexico and hoped to do so in a bloodless fashion. However, he did have several Indigenous men taken prisoner and executed. De Vargas remains a figure of controversy and, in June 2020, a statue of him was removed from Sante Fe’s Cathedral Park.
In 1693, de Vargas rebuilt the original church and had it dedicated in honor “Nuestra Señora de la Conquista” (Our Lady of the Conquest). He also established the Fiesta de Santa Fe, which continues to this day and includes a procession with the statue from Rosario Chapel to the cathedral. This procession is said to be the oldest, continuous Marian procession in the United States. This year, the fiesta will be held Sept. 3-11.
The statue from 1626 was permanently installed in the Sante Fe cathedral in 1717.
In 1771 La Conquistadora was proclaimed patroness of Nuevo México and “Queen of Heaven.” The Confradia del Rosario, which claims to have been formed in the 1650s in Spain, now cares for the statue. Anyone can join the confraternity (cbsfa.org). Their website notes that the correct title of the statue is “Our Lady of the Rosary, La Conquistadora.”
Small as it is, the statue is known for its attire. Today, it is estimated that the little wooden figurine has at least 300 outfits that are changed regularly — it has movable arms. There are also wigs, mantels and a jewelry collection that includes strings of pearls, sapphires and several crowns. It is considered a sign of devotion to donate an outfit to her or to the small Christ Child she holds. (The small statue of the infant is not of the same age or the same wood as the statue of Mary and it is not known how the two came to be matched.) There are outfits for the child statue as well. Each August, Santa Fe’s annual Indian Market (Aug. 20-21, 2022) is held and the statue is dressed with Native American clothing.
In 1933, a duplicate Mary statue called La Peregrina (“The Pilgrim”) was created by artist Gustave Baumann. This statue is used as a stand-in for the original when it needs to be taken out of the chapel. In 1960, the original statue received a papal coronation, timed with the 350th anniversary of the founding of Santa Fe.
In 1973, one of the statues was stolen and later recovered from an old mine, along with a statue of St. Michael. Two teenagers were arrested.
As mentioned, the title and history of the statue are not without controversy. In 1992, then-Archbishop Robert Sánchez gave La Conquistadora a new title: “Our Lady of Peace.” In a hybrid of the two names, she is also known today as “Our Lady of Conquering Love.”