Francisco Sisneros came from a large family of seven children in the little village of Abó Viejo. The Sisneros family was so poor that for many years it had no electricity or running water. When anyone took pictures of the Sisneros kids with their California cousins, it was easy to spot Francisco and his siblings. They were the ones without shoes.
Francisco began elementary school in the little school in Abó, but it was soon evident that he was so bright that he needed a more challenging educational experience. By the third grade, he lived with his grandmother in Mountainair, where he excelled in school despite his grandmother’s belief that he would go blind from reading so much.
Reading his treasured Weekly Reader and nearly every book in Mountainair’s public library, Francisco proved his grandmother wrong.
By the time Francisco was ready for high school, he faced a dilemma. Most of the students who took college prep courses at Mountainair High School were Anglos. Hispanic kids usually took vocational courses with no hope of going on to college. Annie Chavez, who did take advanced college prep classes, graduated at the top of her class but received none of the available scholarships from the American Legion or the Daughters of the American Revolution. The only recognition Annie received was for her perfect attendance in all 12 years of school.
Father John, the priest at Mountainair’s St. Alice’s Catholic Church, and Raymond Sisneros, the principal at Mountainair’s junior high, came to the rescue by sponsoring Francisco’s entrance into the Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary on the eastern outskirts of Santa Fe. Francisco was not sure if he wanted to be a priest, but the seminary offered the best education that he could receive in all of New Mexico.
Passing the entrance exam and the required physical, Francisco looked forward to a new opportunity in his young life.
Adjusting to life in a seminary
Adjusting to life in a seminary was difficult for any young boy. It was especially hard for a boy like Francisco who had enjoyed so much freedom to play in Abó Viejo and its surrounding mesas and hills. Suddenly he faced an environment that was nothing like he had ever known.
Arriving at the seminary in August 1962, Francisco was joined by about 50 students in his first year of high school. Francisco’s classmates came from all parts of New Mexico and eastern Arizona. Although no one seemed to notice or care, about half of the boys were Hispanic and half were Anglo. All were top-rate students.
Seminary students lived in large dormitories during their first two years of high school. In their third and fourth years, they lived in dorms with two to four students in each room. Francisco had to adjust not only to the dorms, but also to simple things like wearing pajamas to bed.
He had never heard of pajamas, no less worn anything but underwear to sleep in. Not comfortable sleeping in pajamas, but required to wear them, Francisco put them on to go to bed, but removed them under the covers, slept well and put them back on just before he got up each morning.
He was also not used to brushing his teeth with store-bought toothpaste. The nine members of his family had just used baking soda to brush their teeth each day.
Francisco received few letters, but all student letters, coming and going, were censored by the school’s dean of students. Francisco always noticed that the seals on envelopes had been broken when he received mail. He’s still not sure what the priests were looking for when they censored student letters.
Students were not allowed to use phones, listen to radios, hear music on record players or watch TV. Francisco remembers only two times when the rector pulled out an old black and white 12-inch wide TV so the entire student body could watch important events.
The first time was in November 1963 when Francisco and his fellow students were at chapel and someone came in to tell them that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. They continued to say their prayers while the chapel bells tolled. Later, they watched several hours of live TV, including the president’s funeral procession and burial.
The second time that Francisco remembers watching TV with his fellow seminarians (and 73 million other viewers) was when the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964. No one at the Immaculate Heart of Mary sang along. The student body only got to sing when the boys sang Gregorian chants, accompanied by an organist sent from St. Francis Cathedral; Francisco still has his copy of the Liber Usualis, the official Gregorian chant book.
Otherwise, with the exception of brief moments after meals, strict silence was enforced at all times. Belonging to a band of silent brothers, Francisco knew little about his classmates and less about popular culture beyond the Beatles.
An excellent education
Despite the challenges of living in alien surroundings, Francisco and his fellow students received what most had come for — an excellent education. Although strict and demanding, all their teachers were superior. They knew their subjects well and taught them expertly.
But some priests favored certain students and gave them special attention. For example, only a few boys from Francisco’s music appreciation class got to go on a field trip to Los Alamos to hear a concert. Francisco was not among the chosen.
Favored students were also invited to be on the school’s Model United Nations team that competed against other schools. Francisco was not asked to join the team, but was “selected out of the blue” to debate a student from a private school that was well known for its debating skills. Francisco was terrified that he would make a fool of himself. He doesn’t remember the debate topic, doing any research on it or actually debating. All he remembers is that the judges declared that he was the winner.
Impressed by his teachers, Francisco remembers only a few stressful incidents. At least one priest, a Hispanic, made fun of Francisco’s English pronunciation, always asking him, “Did you just get off the banana boat?”
Francisco received an excellent education not only because he had good teachers, but also because he had an opportunity to take many more advanced subjects than he would have in most public high schools. These classes included anatomy and physiology, and four years of Latin.
Curiously, no religion courses were given. But typing was taught by a nun at Loretto Academy once the female students at the school had gone home for the day. Francisco needed 18 courses to graduate. With so many advanced courses available, he finished with 24.
Daily life in a seminary was rigid and demanding. Students jumped out of bed at 6:30 a.m., said their prayers, went to Mass and had breakfast. They returned to their rooms, made their beds and, with a break for lunch, spent most of the day attending classes. After dinner, they studied in quiet and went to bed by lights out at 9 p.m. Each day was much the same as all others.
Four German nuns prepared the boys’ meals. The nuns had previously served at the seminary in Montezuma outside Las Vegas, N.M., but came to Santa Fe when Montezuma was closed. Francisco says the nuns were good cooks, often using government commodities the school received for free.
Francisco was especially fond of the cornbread and syrup the nuns served for breakfast. He also enjoyed the nuns’ homemade bread, sliced by a slicing machine he had never seen before. The nuns served a lot of beans and rice, but never used any German or Mexican recipes. Each meal began with a reading from the Bible.
Francisco admired the German nuns for their hard work in preparing three meals a day, seven days a week for so many boys and their teachers. The nuns spent much of their time between meals saying their required daily prayers. They lived somewhere on campus, although Francisco never knew exactly where.
There were no physical education classes, although there was a basketball team that Francisco describes as “not very exciting and not very good.” The team’s schedule included B or C teams from the New Mexico School for the Deaf, St. Catherine’s Indian School and a small private school on Canyon Road.
Students were organized in groups under student leaders. There were five student crews, with each crew led by a second-year student. A chosen prefect (monitor) oversaw all crews and their leaders.
By his second year, Francisco had the task of assigning jobs for his classmates to do throughout the week. Saturdays were reserved for cleaning everything from the dorms, the classrooms, the chapel and the only street on campus. Once completed, Francisco and the dean of students inspected the work.
Francisco wore white gloves to check for dust and even ran a hanger over each bed to make sure the bed was made completely flat. The boys washed their own clothes, ironing not only the cassocks they wore, but also the shirts and black pants they wore beneath their black cassocks.
Weekends, holidays and travel
Students received visitors on one Sunday afternoon a month. Francisco remembers having very few visitors. Given the distance from their home in Abó Viejo and the cost of gasoline, his parents seldom visited him. An aunt from California visited once. Only a few other boys, including the seminarians from eastern Arizona, had so few visitors.
Francisco only went home to visit on the Christmas and Easter holidays. Francisco’s sisters still kid him that they never missed him while he was gone because he teased them so relentlessly when he was home. During the summers, he worked at a job cleaning churches so he could earn enough money to return to school the following academic year.
Fr. John drove Francisco from one parish to the next, with stops in towns as scattered as Tucumcari, Carrizozo, Vaughn and Santa Fe. As they drove, Fr. John helped Francisco practice his English pronunciation by having him repeat phrases such as, “How now brown cow?” With enough practice, Francisco improved his diction considerably; the priest back at the seminary finally stopped asking Francisco, “Did you just get off the banana boat?”
One summer, Sister Ernestina told Francisco that she needed him to drive her and her fellow German nuns to their Sister House in Amarillo, Texas. Francisco was only 14, but he had learned to drive back home when he and his siblings drove their family’s truck to gather wood or do other chores. One of the nuns could drive their small car, but she was quite timid and afraid to drive long distances.
Francisco drove while Sister Ernestina, a large woman, sat in the passenger’s seat beside him. Francisco remembers that the sister’s habit draped over the car’s gear shift, making it difficult for him to shift gears. The other three nuns squeezed into the back seat and spent most of the trip praying in German.
Their prayers were answered when they made it safely to Amarillo and back. Francisco’s adventure was an odd version of “Driving Miss Daisy,” with Francisco playing the role of Hoke Colburn and Sister Ernestina starring in the role of Miss Daisy. Their trip to Texas would have made a great movie!
As normal teenage boys, even seminary students got into a little bit of trouble. A mischievous act for Francisco and his friends was walking into Santa Fe and back just to see if they could get away with it.
On one particularly daring day, Francisco and two or three other boys noticed that a visiting priest named Fr. Santillanes had parked his small Renault car along the street. Someone thought it would be clever to pick up the car and carry it into the study hall or a classroom in the school building. Their scheme worked until they found the school building was locked and they had no access to it. They had at least carried the car, left it at the school building’s door and made the priest go looking for it when it was time for him to leave.
About 50 years later, Francisco happened to meet Fr. Santillanes at the Good Samaritan Village in Socorro. When the priest told the story of his disappearing car, Francisco confessed that he was part of the “gang” that had hijacked the vehicle. Francisco was happy to report that he was never caught or at least the priests did not “press charges” and might even have had a good laugh about it, although Francisco doubts it.
Another daring seminary student decided to hang a pair of women’s pantyhose in his dorm room closet with a sign that read, “Santa, please fill these for Christmas!” The dorm prefect found out about the teenage wish and had the pantyhose and sign removed. Francisco swears that he was not the culprit that time.
Of course, panty raids were impossible in an all-boys school, but Francisco’s friends managed to have one anyway. Once when Francisco and some of his friends were hiking to Sun Mountain, they passed St. John’s College, then under construction. Apparently, the college dorms’ laundry room had not been completed and the students had to dry their clothes on an outside clothes line. Spotting female unmentionables on the line, two boys ran to the line and returned with their “trophies.” Again, Francisco denies being either of the culprits, although we might be suspicious since he was present for all three pranks.
Students received demerits if they were caught breaking rules or engaging in pranks — and getting caught. Francisco says the priests handed out demerits arbitrarily; their favorite students never received one. If a boy “racked up” too many demerits, the priests called his parents and instructed them to pick up their wayward son the following day.
The priests had deemed the student unable to adjust to the seminary’s institutionalization in preparation for a life of the cloth. Other students left because they did not measure up academically. But most boys who left school early were simply homesick, missing their families, friends, and the world they had left behind.
Graduation day, May 1966
Graduation day was hardly elaborate or traditional in any way. There were no speeches or parties or tossing of mortarboards into the air. In fact, all Francisco remembers about graduation is taking his final exam.
When done, a priest came by his desk, graded his exam and, having found that he had passed, handed Francisco his diploma. That was all there was after more than four years of so much work and sacrifice.
A priest did meet with Francisco to discuss his future, or at least inform him that it had been decided he lacked a calling to become a priest and continue his studies in the seminary’s college department. But that was alright.
Francisco had never decided whether he wanted to become a priest and, in his words, “I may have been relieved that I didn’t have to make that decision.” All he knew was that he had gotten a superior education and was well prepared to enter college somewhere else.
Of the 50 students who had started their seminary years with Francisco in 1962, only 11 remained to graduate with him in 1966. Of these graduates, only two went on to become priests. Francisco’s other fellow graduates have become deacons, doctors, lawyers, judges, law school deans, political activists, presidents of universities and even an expert on the history of rock and roll, including the Beatles.
One has become a leader of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Capt. Martin Flanning died in a helicopter crash in Vietnam. About five of Francisco’s fellow graduates joined him for their 50th class “reunion” at Teofilo’s in 2016.
And what became of the shoeless boy from Abó Viejo? Francisco went on to graduate from the University of New Mexico, volunteer for the Peace Corps in Latin America, earn degrees in Latin American Studies, education and educational administration and serve as a school administrator with the Socorro public schools for 20 years, 1981-2001.
He also became the foremost expert on Hispanic genealogy in the state. Now retired, he spends much of his time writing wonderful poems and short stories about his childhood in Abó Viejo. And sometimes he recalls his years at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary, acknowledging the ways that long-ago challenge has helped him through the many challenges of life.
(La Historia del Rio Abajo is a regular column about Valencia County history written by members of the Valencia County Historical Society since 1998. Opinions expressed in this and all columns of La Historia del Rio Abajo are the author’s alone and not necessarily those of the Valencia County Historical Society or any other group or individual.)
Richard Melzer, guest columnist
Richard Melzer, Ph.D., is a retired history professor who taught at The University of New Mexico–Valencia campus for more than 35 years. He has served on the board of directors of the Valencia County Historical Society for 30 years; he has served as the society’s president several times.
He has written many books and articles about New Mexico history, including many works on Valencia County, his favorite topic. His newest book, a biography of Casey Luna, was published in the spring of 2021.
Those interested in joining the Valencia County Historical Society should contact Dr. Melzer at [email protected].