Robert Sanchez 1934-2012:

El Defensor Chieftain
January 25, 2012

The Rev. Robert Fortune Sanchez became a state hero in 1974 when he was ordained as the first New Mexico-born Archbishop of Santa Fe and the first Hispanic in the nation to hold the post.

He resigned in disgrace in 1993 as part of a sex scandal that took a heavy toll on the church.

The ordination of Sanchez, then 40, as the nation's youngest archbishop drew 14,000 jubilant New Mexicans to the Pit at the University of New Mexico.

"The place was packed, and it was electric," the Rev. Monsignor Lambert Luna recalled of the ordination. Mariachi musicians and a huge choir performed, he said.

"We were happy to be Catholic and glad for the moment that we were experiencing there," Luna said. "It was a huge celebration of faith and culture."

Sanchez, who died Friday at the age of 77, disappeared from public life for the past two decades, resigning after admitting having had sexual relations with several young women from prominent New Mexico families. At the time, the archdiocese was embroiled in a growing scandal over sexual abuse by priests.

People compared Sanchez's resignation to "a death without a funeral," Luna said.

"It was like a loss at sea," he said. "One day he was our bishop, and the next day he was gone."

Roman Catholics in New Mexico had been especially proud that a Socorro-born pastor at San Felipe de Neri Church in Old Town had stepped directly to the office of archbishop, he said.

Sanchez served as the 10th Archbishop of Santa Fe from 1974-1993.

He died shortly after noon Friday after a long battle with Alzheimer's, friends said.

Sanchez spent his last years living among fellow Franciscans at Our Lady of Guadalupe Province, a Franciscan monastery on Albuquerque's West Side.

From early 2011, Sanchez lived in a private facility for the care of Alzheimer's patients in Albuquerque, friends and church leaders said.

Sanchez presided over the archdiocese at a turbulent time in the Roman Catholic Church, both nationally and in New Mexico.

In March 1993, Sanchez resigned as archbishop after acknowledging to church officials that he'd had sexual relations with at least five young women in the 1970s and 1980s.

The circumstances of those relationships were revealed nationally when interviews with three of the women aired on CBS-TV's "60 Minutes" on March 21, 1993.

Sanchez also drew fire for failing to do enough to discipline priests accused of sexual misconduct.

The 1990s brought a torrent of claims of sexual abuse by priests assigned to New Mexico parishes. Nearly 150 claims, including lawsuits, had been settled by the archdiocese by 1996, according to news reports.

Sanchez's resignation caused a profound sense of loss among the same New Mexico Catholics who had celebrated his ordination, friends said.

"The manner in which he left was, well, it was disturbing to all of us," said the Rev. Msgr. Jerome Martinez y Alire, pastor of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe.

Parishioners of the archdiocese "didn't have a chance to say goodbye and didn't have a chance to thank him for all he had done," Martinez y Alire said.

"So I think people still feel that loss," he said. "I imagine now his death will only compound that loss."

Bells tolled for Sanchez at the Cathedral Basilica throughout the afternoon Friday. He will be interred in the Cathedral crypt on Thursday.

During his years as archbishop, Sanchez reached out to groups such as Native Americans and the Penitente Brotherhood, who will pray the rosary at Sanchez's vigil service on Wednesday.

In 1992, Sanchez renamed New Mexico's statue of the Virgin Mary "Our Lady of Peace," replacing the former name, "La Conquitadora," which had angered many Native Americans.

Sanchez was the first archbishop to offer an apology to local Native American people and established an office for Native American Ministry in the archdiocese.

He also established the first Archdiocesan Youth Conference and the first Native American liturgy at the Cathedral of Santa Fe. He formed eight new parishes in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

Sanchez was born and raised in Socorro, where he attended Mount Carmel Catholic School and Socorro High School. He attended Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary in Santa Fe and later graduated from St. Michael's College, now called the College of Santa Fe.

He was ordained as a priest in 1959 after studying at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.

Nationally, Sanchez served on the bishops' committee for Hispanic affairs and was appointed by Pope John Paul II to the Vatican's Commission on Immigration Affairs, the archdiocese said.

"Archbishop Sanchez was much loved as a native son by the people of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe," Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan, who succeeded Sanchez in 1993, said in a written statement issued Friday.

"He was respected by his brother bishops and looked up to by his priests," Sheehan said. "We continue to acknowledge the good he did during his Episcopacy, are well aware of his human failings, and mourn his death today."


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