The Hermit Juan Maria Agostiniani

“One of the most mysterious and at the same time pathetic figures that ever appeared upon the Santa Fe Trail was a gentle, saintly, self-sacrificing priest, familiarly known as “El Solitario”, who for several years lived in a cave in the Rincon range of mountains. N. M. [New Mexico] and in his honor the Mexicans have christened the highest peak “El Cumbre del Solitario” –the hermit’s mountain.
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He was always reticent about himself and seldom spoke of his past life, but allowed it to be known that his exile and self-denial were not involuntary, and that his sacrifices for his fellow men were to expiate some great crime. He was of Italian birth and his name was Father Matteo. Many romantic tales of his early life were in circulation. Most of them were inventions or speculations to account for his presence in the mountains. It was generally understood among the frontiersmen that he had fought with Garibaldi and had fled from Italy under the curse of the pope. He was also the hero of a romantic love story, and his tragic death was attributed to the brother of a girl in Naples. But whatever his former life may have been there was no doubt of his penitence and he lived like a saint, administering consolation and suffering hope to the unhappy, binding up wounds and healing the sick in body as well as in soul.
The fact that he maintained no relations with other priests and was never known to communicate with Bishop Lamy at Santa Fe, who was himself a conspicuous and picturesque character of long experience upon the frontier was accepted as evidence that Padre Matteo had been deposed and perhaps excommunicated. But that made no difference with his ministrations, and even increased his popularity. His profound sorrow, his unremitting zeal, his complete sincerity were enough to satisfy the rough hunters and herdsmen to whom he ministered and the suspicion that the church had refused him absolution aroused sympathy for a fellow sinner.
Father Matteo was highly educated. He spoke all languages. He had a knowledge of all literature. No foreigner ever came into the Rincon country but the priest could talk to him of his home in his own language. Besides his prayer book and his rosary, the only article that seemed to be associated with his past life was a much battered mandolin, upon which he played both secular and religious airs, to the great enjoyment of his parishioners. He was a master of the instrument, and it was the only diversion this gentle man of sorrow ever indulged in.
His familiar and beloved form had been missed from its usual haunts for a week or ten days when a party of miners found his lifeless body lying on the rugged trail that led to his cave. A poisoned dagger of unusual design and evidently of Italian manufacture had been driven between his shoulders into his heart. The assassin had attacked him from behind, and apparently had escaped without meeting his eyes. His rosary, that always hung about his neck, was firmly clasped in his fingers, and the expression upon his face was one of holy resignation. No trace of the assassin was ever found, but it was the general impression that the murder was committed by one of a large gang of Italian railroad hands, and was the result of a vendetta.
On the walls of his cave, the miners carved an inscription which read: Matteo Boccalina. Jesu Maria.
The humble Mexican herders, who idolized the priest, erected a semi-cycle of crosses before the entrance, twelve in number, typical of the twelve apostles whom he so faithfully served. On the anniversary of St Matthew, who was his patron saint, the natives always visit the cave, and for the lack of any other methods of expressing their regret and remembrance build a big fire. The Indians and the miners also reverence his memory. He was well known along the Santa Fe trail from the Missouri river to the Rio Grande.” —Wm. E. Curtis in the Chicago Record
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An account of the Hermit is found in “Legends of a Hermit” by Elba Cabeza de Baca y Gallegos (1918-2010) (for whom see ), Los Vegas NM, author, n.d. The book is a collection of local legends of the Italian hermit Giovanni Maria Agostiniani who inhabited Hermit’s Peak (El Cerro) near Las Vegas, New Mexico from 1863 to 1868.


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