Cathedral's century-old spruce remembered as 'Grandpa's tree'

·5 min read

Jan. 23—Parishioners of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi took to social media Dec. 15 to mourn the predawn toppling of a nearly century-old, 60-foot spruce tree by fierce winds that had wrought destruction throughout Northern New Mexico.

Hundreds of people drove by the cathedral to see the fallen tree one last time. Most had never seen the cathedral without it and could never have imagined they would.

For 72-year-old Grace Luper, the tree's fall had a more personal significance. "My grandfather, Charles J. Eckert, planted [that] tree," she wrote in an email. "He planted it around 1922."

"We always call the tree in front of the cathedral 'Grandpa's tree,' " Luper said in an interview. "And we always said, 'We're going to get a plaque to put there.' People need to know that Grandfather planted that tree."

Eckert was the treasurer of First National Bank on the Plaza in downtown Santa Fe and would walk past the cathedral every day. Luper said he thought the yard looked barren and bought the spruce tree to have it planted in front of the church.

"Because the bank was almost right across the street from the cathedral, on his way home every day after work, he would stop and water that tree," she said, adding he also would help with other chores around the church yard.

"He was always coming [home] late, and my grandmother was furious with him because she had nine children to feed, and they wouldn't eat until he got home," Luper said.

The Eckerts were devout Catholics and were members of the cathedral's congregation for decades. They sat in the same pew each Mass for more than 50 years.

"He was a Knight of St. Gregory," Luper said of her grandfather. The honor is given to Catholics to recognize their service to the church.

Eckert was born in St. Louis in 1889. He suffered from tuberculosis, so he was sent to Santa Fe, where the climate would allow him to recuperate.

As a patient at what was then known as St. Vincent Hospital adjacent to the cathedral — now Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center on St. Michael's Drive — he met nurse-in-training Josephine Mary Perea. They fell in love and were married in 1912, the same year New Mexico gained statehood.

The couple lived on Garcia Street, where Eckert planted a second spruce tree that grew as large as the one in front of the cathedral. Luper recalled climbing it often with Charles and Josephine Eckert's other grandchildren.

"They had 29 grandchildren," she said. "We're spread out all over the country. I don't know how many great-grandchildren there are."

Luper's mother, Margaret, grew up on Garcia Street, and she met Luper's father, Larry Cornell, at La Fonda on the Plaza. The couple moved to Hastings, Mich., where Luper lived until she was 5 before returning to New Mexico.

La Fonda would play an outsize role in the extended family's life, serving as the primary venue for Communion celebrations and wedding receptions.

"We always have a mariachi band play because everybody loves mariachi music," said Luper, who now lives in Tequesta, Fla., with her husband, Larry Luper. She has a little phone book with all her cousins' names and phone numbers, so they can keep in touch.

The families have get-togethers in Santa Fe — there was one planned just before the coronavirus pandemic that had to be postponed. Luper said they eat at their favorite restaurants, like Tomasita's and La Casa Sena, and also would visit the spruce in front of the cathedral.

Luper said she found out about the toppled spruce from her son, Dennis Mosqueda, 52, who lives in Albuquerque. "He called me one day and said, 'Mom, you're not going to believe this, but Grandpa's tree blew down.' "

Elsa Thompson, 71, another of Charles Eckert's grandchildren, grew up in Farmington. As a student at New Mexico State University, she lived with her grandfather on Garcia Street for several summers.

"He would walk every day to Mass," Thompson said. "He just loved the cathedral."

Eckert died in 1969 at the age of 80 from a heart attack and was buried in Rosario Cemetery. A funeral Mass was held for him at the cathedral. His wife, Josephine, had died years earlier, at the age of 57.

After Eckert's death, his house was sold, and the tree he had planted there was uprooted, having grown too large for the residence.

The beloved spruce at the cathedral was one of two evergreens on the church property brought down by winds up to 60 mph during a storm that swept through the region. The spruce knocked over a sign but caused no damage to the church and missed the statues of St. Kateri Tekakwitha and Archbishop Jean Baptiste-Lamy that stand in the church yard.

The cathedral's rector, Rev. Tim Martinez, offered pieces of the tree trunk to santeros and woodcarvers. The trunk was — coincidentally — cut into 29 pieces, equal to the number of Eckert's grandchildren. When Luper learned of the coincidence, she cried. She said she'd like to have a cross made from one of the pieces of wood.

Martinez said he'd like to have a show of all the works made from the tree. He added the wood already has been assigned to local artists.

"It had already been decorated for Christmas when it fell," Martinez said of the spruce tree. "As much as we lost our Christmas tree that day, we also saw how a group of people came together to tell stories about the memories they had surrounding the cathedral and surrounding the tree."

Martinez said discussions about whether to plant another tree on the site are just getting started.

The fallen spruce uncovered a small human arm bone, likely from an old burial ground on the church property, so it's currently an archaeological site, he said.

The tree served as a marker of people's lives, Martinez said. "It's nice to have things that have been there all your life."

Luper said she and her cousins are going to have another family get-together in the spring, if the coronavirus pandemic will allow it, "because we realize how important family is. It's nice to have that history."