Visitors to Santa Fe who enter the cathedral dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi pass under an oddity that has become the stuff of legend: the four-letter Hebrew name of the God of the Israelites enclosed in a triangle. It’s not large and it’s often in shadow, so it’s easy to miss. But those who have noticed it can’t help but wonder what it is doing there. And for every one who asks, there are 10 who will answer—differently.
The story begins in 1869 when Jean-Baptiste Lamy, Santa Fe’s first archbishop, laid the cornerstone of the cathedral. But money was tight, and the archbishop struggled to finance the construction. Lamy had well-heeled Jewish friends, merchants who had immigrated from Germany. The French-born Lamy felt a cultural affinity with these former Europeans and they became good friends; he even sent them fruit and flowers on the high holidays, says tour guide Stefanie Beninato.
One version of the story is that Lamy attended the merchants’ weekly poker game, though, as archbishop, he did not participate. And when, at one of these games, he mentioned his financial troubles, the players offered to help out. In gratitude, Lamy put their name for God above the entrance to the church. It symbolized harmony between Catholics and Jews. “And it was a good PR move,” Beninato says.
Other stories are even better. One is that Abraham Staab, the merchant whose home was just a couple of blocks from the cathedral (and which is today the core of the luxurious La Posada Resort and Spa), lent Lamy a large sum of money and said he would destroy the promissory notes if the archbishop allowed him to add a detail to the exterior without revealing in advance what it would be.
The many stories intrigued Floyd S. Fierman, a historian who was rabbi of Temple Mount Sinai in El Paso, Texas, between 1949 and 1979. Fierman’s research, the results of which he published in several places, led him to question the differing accounts. According to Fierman, Abraham Staab’s son, Edward, said that his father did lend the archbishop money and also destroyed the security notes, but that he never agreed to tear up the notes if the archbishop would allow him to have a hand in the design of the cathedral.
Fierman found an 1869 newspaper account of the main donors to the cathedral. Prominent among them were the Spiegelbergs, also leading German-Jewish merchants (one of whom built his home across the street from Staab’s), who contributed $500, a very large sum at the time. Surely Lamy was grateful for that.
But when Fierman sought an explanation from church officials, he received the following response from Fray Angelico Chavez, who had compiled a catalogue of the archives of the archdiocese between 1678 and 1900: “It is to be noted that the Tetragrammaton is enclosed in a triangle. In Europe, this was a common Christian symbol, denoting the One god of Moses and Abraham revealed in their New Covenant, as Three Divine Persons in one God . . . hence the Graeco-Latin term ‘Trinity.’ The symbol was carved in the Gothic and Romanesque churches of northern Europe, painted on sacred furnishings, embroidered in liturgical vestments. (I found one Chasuble or Mass vestment, imported from France by Lamy or his successor, with this same emblem embroidered with gold thread on the back of the most prominent part.)”
Fierman then tracked down the chasuble and photographed it to show the similarity between the symbol embroidered on it and that carved on the church exterior.
“It is of credit to the Franciscan priest, Fray Angelico Chavez,” Fierman concluded, “that for some time he has known that this was a legend, but because it augured friendship and not antipathy, he chose to leave it rest.”
Photos and text copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. Neither the photos nor the text may be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Esther Hecht.