The Hermit Juan Maria Agostiniani
In her collection Legends of a Hermit, Elba Cabeza de Baca recounts: "After New Mexico became part of the United States, trading began in earnest between the New Mexico territory and the States. My dad's great grandfather Don Manuel Delgado, was on such a merchandising trip in the early 1850's, when he came down with cholera and died on the return journey. His men soaked his body in whiskey to preserve it. In 1863, Don Manuel Delgado's son-in-law, Don Miguel Romero, had also gone to the States to trade. He and his men were on their way back when they decided to make camp in Council Grove, Kansas. Just as they were getting ready to eat their supper by the campfire, a strange approached them. "May I speak to El Señor Capitan?" he asked. Don Miguel introduced himself and asked, "What can I do for you?" The stranger replied, "I would like to join your wagon train." After saying this he handed Don Miguel a paper: "To whom it may concern: This paper certified that the bearer, Juan Maria Agostiniani, is a missionary who has lived in this area for about 45 days. He has lived in a cave and has been in the St Louis district for several years where he lived in caves, dugouts and in the open subsisting only on vegetables and corn meal mush. He has befriended the poor and helped the ill. He meditates constantly; indeed, he must be a holy man." The paper was signed by several prominent citizens of St Louis. Don Miguel invited him to travel with them and also to share their meal. The stranger ate very little and drank only water. He would not eat meat. Next day the wagon train was on its way. Don Miguel asked the stranger to ride one of the wagons. He replied, "I'm afraid the mules cannot carry me and the load I carry." Everyone was amazed as he only carried a briefcase. However, to prove his point, he got on one of the wagons and the mules refused to budge. The stranger said, "See, I told you the load was too heavy. Anyhow, I much prefer to walk." And walk he did --all of 550 miles! The men in the wagon train later related this incident. One of them said, "He must be a holy man. I think he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders." Don Miguel and the holy man soon became good friends. They carried on long conversations. Don Miguel learned that the hermit had been born in Novaro, Italy, in in 1799 and that he was the son of a count. (in later years he gave Lorenzo Lopez a photograph of himself dressed in all his finery.) He related that he had been educated in the best colleges in Italy, but that at an early age he had made a vow to live as a hermit and to serve God in whatever way he could. He had traveled all over Europe and later had gone to Venezuela. After that he had journeyed all over South and Central America. He had ministered to the poor in those countries. When the wagon train reached Wagon Mound, the holy man was impressed by the majestic peak which would in the future be named after him. When the travelers reached Las Vegas, New Mexico, Don Miguel invited the hermit to stay at his house, but the hermit only stayed a few days. He said that he wanted to find a cave where he could live. Don Miguel sent his son, Eugenio, to accompany the hermit to Romeroville where there by the creek the hermit found a cave. He only stayed there a few months. later he moved to the Peak where he stayed close to five years --from the year 1863 to the year 1868 when he left."
The following article appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican of July 22, 1899:
"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 know as "El Solitario", who for several years lived in a cave in the Rincon range of mountains. N. M. and in his honor the Mexicans have christened the highest peak "El Cumbre del Solitario" --the hermit's mountain.
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 involutary, 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 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 clapsed 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
A religious mystic named Father Francesco lived in a in small rock shelter near Council Grove. The site has pictures of this place. It says that he was a nobleman born in 1801 in Novara, Italy. He used other names, including Mateo Baccalini, and his birthname Giovanni Marsa the Agostini. He had trained for the priesthood, but was said to have had to leave Italy after falling in love with a young lady. He left Council Grove with a wagon train owned by Don Eugenio Romero. He walked the entire 550 miles to Las Vegas, New Mexico. There it is said that he performed miracle cures. He went to live in a cave of a nearby mountain. The citizens of Las Vegas built him a small cabin, where he carved religious emblems which he traded in town for cornmeal.
In We Fed Them Cactus (pp. 86-88), Fabiola Cabeza de Baca de Gilbert gives additional information. She says that her grandmother, Estefana Delgado de Cabeza de Baca used to like to talk about him. Estefana used to say that he was a Italian called Juan Agostini and the friend of a relative of theirs (surely one of the Romero brothers). He brought his clothes there to be washed. On the feast of the Holy Cross, he built luminarias, on the peak and the people of Las Vegas would watch for them and say the rosary, a practice that they continued after his death. Fabiola tells how Don José Baca and one of his sons saw a man walking along with a cane. He asked them for a drink. They didn't have any water and said that the river was far away. The man told them that there was water by the hillside. The boys had never seen water there, but they went there and there was a spring of clear water. He continued walking to Las Gallinas. The villagers invited him into their homes, but he wanted a shed. In the evening, he preached to the people and in a few days became part of the village. Then he asked the men to climb the Peak with him. He showed them the way. There was no water and every few days someone went to take him water. He fed people cornmeal gruel that was said to be delicious. One day he led them to a rocky spot to find water. He organized the Society of the Holy Cross. They built a Via Crucis and said the stations of the cross there. He lived alone on the Peak, but stayed in contact with the people in the village. Occasionally, he came down and walked to Las Vegas to attend mass. He was said to have had superhuman powers and to have performed miracles, could see into the future and read people's minds. Fabiola says that the people of the village still practice the rites that he taught them.
Josefa's son Margarito Romero y Baca built the El Porvenir Hotel near the base of Hermit's Peak so that that Margarito could be near his friend the Hermit Giovanni Maria de Augustino. Margarito was the head of the Brotherhood of the Hermit, dedicated to Augustino.
Estefana remembered that the hermit left Las Vegas to return to Italy. He was going to take a boat from Mexico. He travelled to Old Mesilla where José de Jésus Cabeza de Baca, Estefana's brother in law, was the priest. The hermit went to live in a cave in the Organ Mountains. One day, he came down and left his books and other possessions to the priest because he planned to leave for Mexico the next day. He said that he would light a bonfire and that the priest and his parishioners should pray with him. The signal never came. When they went to search for him they found that he had been murdered. The motive was apparently robbery.
El Ermitaño is buried in the Mesilla Cemetery with the following Spanish inscription, "John Mary Justiniani, Hermit of the Old and New World." He died the 17th of April, 1869, at 69 years and 49 years a hermit."
EDITOR OF THE NEW MEXICAN:
"Sir: Neither curiosity nor deceit move us to occupy a column in your esteemed newspaper; but rather, we are induced by the idea of revealing to the literary world the rare and mysterious life of the hermit Juan María Agustini in its normal uniqueness; wherefore, we request that you publish the following article. We remain your humble servants.
Tecolote Mountain lies north of the town of Las Vegas, county seat of San Miguel County, Territory of New Mexico; its geographic position allows it to rival the elevation of the majestic mountains of the city of Santa Fe. It lies on the eastern flank of that range, full of thickets and mountainous, making it extremely obscure and difficult to scale. Its roads consist of two new and scant pathways cut through the forest with axes. The path on the north side of the mountain facilitates passage on horseback, since its natural slope provides a gradual climb; two deep canyons which begin abruptly at the foot of the mountain, because of their immediate position, form a precipice or gorge, which makes the trip extremely dangerous; but one can make it on horseback as far as the lower crags of the peak. The other path is extremely perpendicular, a circumstance which makes the climb on horseback impossible, and even dangerous for those who go on foot, this path being on the northeast side of the mountain.
As we have mentioned above, this mountain peak rivals the elevation of the Santa Fe Mountains, which are covered with snow throughout the four seasons. Imagine the harsh wildness of our mountain: This past May 28  we went up the mountain to visit our recluse. The day was overcast with a cloud cover so dense that we could only see those objects directly in front of us; we could see the snow in the shaded areas of big cliffs, and the light drizzle which fell from the mist upon the tree's branches froze instantly and formed crystals which resembled hanging candles. On the western summit of the peak there is a spring of water, which would probably be unknown if one considers the isolation of the mountain, the impenetrability of the forest, and the obvious lack of interest man would have to climb to the summit. This spring supplies the hermit of the peak with its pure and crystal-line waters. We cannot conceive how this venerable old man defies so many dangers, with no other armaments than his daily devotions, and for such bad weather, he has no shelter except for three roughly constructed wooden huts which the merciful people have helped him build-- one of which is the actual residence of the hermit, built below a large crevice on the southeast side of the peak, and close to three hundred yards below its cliffs, and the others, built to protect his library consisting of about eighty volumes on sacred matters and the works of the Church Fathers which keep him occupied to the extent that one rarely finds him idle.
We quote from the Valparaíso Messenger [Chile]: "The solitary hermit, dweller of the deserts, carries the baptismal name Juan María, and family name of Agustiniani--a native of Italy, from the Province of Navara in Lombardia, of an honorable family--and he has studied in various colleges and universities. "This rare hermit left his country as a pilgrim and traversed almost every sanctuary and mountain in Europe and after many years of wander-lust, he embarked for the Americas, crossing oceans, conquering deserts, and penetrating mountains. Finally, he has arrived in our Territory, choosing the Serro del Tecolote as his abode, bringing only a sack containing his library. His residence on the mountain dates from this period when he made a new life among ice crags and ruggedness, until the people from the area helped him build his huts. His age does not go below sixty-five years. He is of small stature; plump and well-proportioned body; fair complexion; blue eyes, long and graying, venerable beard; a somber and imposing expression commanding respect from all who see him; instructive conversation; devout countenance; and a hospitable and frank nature which makes him amiable, as he shares his frugal nutrients with whoever visits him. He himself, is always willing to prepare a corn meal gruel with water and salt, clean and well cooked; his table is a rock slab loosened from the same crevice and is well situated under the porch of his small cabin; courteous without ceremony, he invites his guests without formality or commotion. This rare man involves himself in a mysterious life, which causes some persons to form rash impression, others compassionate ones, and finally, all to preoccupy themselves with the hermit and his life of solitude. His exercise consists of meditation and prayer; he begs from no one, nor does he visit anybody, but he will accept invitations with modest courtesy, and as in our case, they serve a purpose, such as to cure a sick person, instruct a family, or carry out some other pious duty, on which type of visits he rarely sits; he works to furnish his sustenance; and he is very much given to study. We are amazed with everything we have related about the life of the recluse Agustini; the Nineteenth Century cannot present us another hermit as rare and mysterious, and we are certain our account will likewise surprise the reader; but we can assure you that we have witnessed this experience for the past three years. And furthermore, one must also express admiration knowing that the hermit Agustini has led this life since the age of twenty-five (at an age which our human nature constantly finds itself fiery and indomitable, and when those extremely strong passions drown most of our virtuous and moral zeal). He has received titles and honors from many ecclesiastical and civil dignitaries which confirm what you have read, these being so many and so varied, that if bound in a book the letters and documents would form a big volume; these certificates are found signed, sealed and countersigned by conceding authorities who leave no room for doubt.
Whatever way it may be, the life of the hermit Juan Maria Agustini in itself is rare in our times."