The U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops purchased the Montezuma property in 1937, and a Catholic seminary was established at the site for the education and religious training of Mexican seminarians, under the direction of a Mexican order of Jesuit priests.
It is common knowledge that for many years Montezuma served as a Catholic seminary, but seldom do historical or other accounts explain why a Mexican seminary came to be located in the United States, five miles north of Las Vegas. We will provide that explanation in this column.
For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church exerted enormous influence in all aspects of Mexican life. In 1917, as a result of the Mexican Revolution, a new constitution was adopted by the Republic of Mexico, which severely curtailed the role of the Church. The new constitution provided for a secular government, and prohibited any role or influence by the Catholic Church.
But the Church continued to be a dominant presence in Mexico, and in the 1920s a strong anti-clerical movement spread through the country, supported by the government, which imposed harsh restrictions on the Church and its clergy. This resulted in La Revolución (Christian Revolution), a period of widespread civil unrest and rebellion against the government, in support of the Church.
During this tumultuous era in Mexican history, hundreds of priests were killed or disappeared, many more fled the country, and the Catholic Church was banned throughout Mexico. It was during this period of religious persecution, which continued into the 1940s, that the Catholic hierarchies of both the United States and Mexico, established Montezuma as a seminary in exile.
Thus it was that in 1937, Montezuma acquired its fourth life. What had previously been a luxurious resort, a facility for the YMCA, and a Baptist college, became a refuge for thousands of young Mexican men seeking the priesthood. For the next 35 years, above the halls of Montezuma, an enormous cross was conspicuously mounted atop the front center steeple of the castle.
The Mexican seminarians occupied the entirety of the Montezuma compound, utilizing the original stone hotel as a dormitory. The castle too was used for housing, and for the seminary’s classrooms and administrative offices, and meals were served in its spacious dining hall.
In any given year, two or three hundred seminarians were enrolled at the Montezuma seminary, and locals who worked there remember that in some years the number was as high as 330.
The seminarians were from throughout Mexico, most in their early and mid-20s. The young clerics were cloistered from the Las Vegas community, although senior priests often celebrated Mass at both Las Vegas parishes, and in several of the outlying placitas.
While there was little interaction between the community and the seminarians, they could be seen from afar walking throughout the Montezuma grounds, and up and down the far reaching steps between the dormitories and the castle. In the winter months, many seminarians expertly skated at the Montezuma skating pond, but never visited there on weekends, when the Las Vegas public was in attendance.
During most of the years in which the seminarians were at Montezuma, they were assisted by an order of Catholic nuns from Germany and Switzerland. The nuns spoke German and Spanish, and did the cooking and laundry, assisted by some laypeople from the area. (There were as many as 16 nuns, who were renowned for their freshly baked bread, which they sometimes offered for sale.)
Supervisory priests were always cordial and courteous with the community, and even allowed an occasional limited tour of the facilities, but the seminarians were entirely cloistered from the public. One exception was Christmas Eve, when townspeople were allowed to attend midnight mass at the seminarians’ chapel in the large white frame building next to the castle. During the mass, their masterful choir enchanted all in attendance, each seminarian wearing white vestments hand-sewn by their families in Mexico.
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By the late 1960s the seminary began to scale down, and in the following years the number of seminarians gradually diminished. The enormous expense of maintaining the castle and its surrounding buildings and grounds was becoming a financial hardship for the Mexican clergy, as it had been for the Baptists in the 1920s. By 1971 only a handful of Jesuit priests remained at Montezuma, and in 1972 the seminary in exile closed it doors, no longer requiring asylum in the United States.
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The writer thanks Shirley Bennett and her son David for sharing their memories of the seminary. They are natives and lifelong residents of Montezuma, and few people are more knowledgeable of that area, where Shirley’s parents settled in the 1920s.
Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.