Franciscans in the Americas

Franciscans in the Americas
Franciscans in the Americas

The Franciscans sent the greatest number of missionaries to minister in the New World. This is quite likely due to the fact that they were the largest order in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1493, there were some 22,000 friars participating in various Franciscan observances. A large number of them were in Spain.

By 1517, this number had grown to 30,000, mainly due to reforms initiated by Cardinal Francisco de Cisneros in the simpler more relaxed Observant reform (which retained the name Order of Friars Minor). The Franciscan order has had a history marked by reforms and divisions. In 1517, Pope Leo X divided into two independent groups disgruntled Franciscans still unsatisfied by the medieval attempts at reform.

The result was a Conventual Franciscan group (those resisting change) and the Observant group, which would be called Friars Minor. A Capuchin reform surfaced in 1528 and became an independent group by 1619 (Order Friars Minor Capuchin). Among the three groups, the Franciscans had an overwhelming majority of religious representatives in the New World.

It has been suggested by historians that Franciscan missionaries, Friars Juan de la Deule and Juan de Tisin along with Father Ramón Pané, were the first members of a religious order to come to the Americas. These men accompanied Christopher Columbus in 1493 during his second expedition.

They had been sent by a special commission of the Franciscan order in response to royal instructions from the Spanish Crown aimed at bringing the natives of the Americas to Catholicism. Their initial chapel was built at Port Conception on Hispaniola, where in December of 1493 they offered Mass for the first time in the New World. A convent was built for them by Columbus at the stronghold of Santo Domingo.

Pane, probably more of a contemplative, accompanied Columbus on his voyage to Puerto Rico in 1496. Pane kept very exacting records of his activities and observations of the natives that have survived to this day. The Franciscans were at the vanguard of missionary activity on the newly discovered islands. In 1502, 17 more Franciscans arrived along with the first governor of Hispaniola. They would go on to build the first convent and church (San Francisco) at Santo Domingo.

Domingo became the base of operations for countless missionary expeditions to the north, south, and central continental mainland for many decades. During the next 25 years, more than 50 Franciscan missionaries attempted to evangelize the Caribbean islands, particularly Hispaniola, Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. Friar Juan de la Deule died while ministering to Jamaicans sometime between 1508 and 1511.

In 1512, Father García de Padilla was consecrated as bishop of Santo Domingo and, two years later, another Franciscan, Juan de Quevendo, was consecrated as the first bishop of the Central American mainland at Santa Maria Darién. The eastern part of Venezuela was also established as a Franciscan apostolic mission that lasted from 1514 to 1521.

Not until after 1576 were friaries founded in the province of Caracas. In the 17th century, the Capuchins attempted to evangelize in Venezuela. Francisco de Pamplona (a former military general) began work at Darién in 1650. The Capuchin houses located there refused to accept Creoles into the order.

Expeditions to Mexico

During 1523 and 1524, two Franciscan missionary expeditions set out for Mexico from Santo Domingo. The first friars among the Mexicans were Flemish. Among them was Father Peter of Ghent (d. 1562), who spent some 40 years among the native Mesoamericans. The following year 12 more Franciscans arrived. Around 1527, a diocese was organized under the Franciscan bishop Juan de Zumárraga.

At that point, some 70 Franciscan houses rapidly surfaced in Mexico and the region was raised in status to a province. Zumárraga is credited with setting up the first printing press in the New World. Publications in 12 languages were printed and distributed throughout the Americas.

Education of the Indian children of Mexico became a priority and labor of love among the friars. However, there was some opposition on the part of the Spanish government in regard to the education of the natives.

Most convents had schools where thousands of Mexican boys were taught to read, write, and sing. Eventually the Franciscans assisted with the development of a school for girls in Mexico City. Several colleges were also founded for the sons of tribal chiefs throughout Mexico; they became centers for further missionary activity to both South and North America.

Before the end of the 16th century, friars extended missionary efforts from Guadalajara in the northwest to New Mexico in the north, northeast to the Gulf of Mexico, and south to the Yucatán, Guatemala, and Costa Rica.

Beautiful churches were constructed at Huejotzingo, Tlamanalco, Huequechula, Izamal, and Cholula. Friars Pedro de Betanzos and Francisco de la Parra became experts in the Mayan language and have handed down keys to its translation. By 1569, there were some 300 Franciscan missionaries in New Spain (Mexico) alone.

Missions to Peru

Missionary efforts to Peru were launched by Franciscans from Santo Domingo, after 1527 by Juan de los Santos, and followed by Marcos de Niza between 1531 and 1532. Earlier, Franciscans accompanied Pizarro during his conquest and exploration of the region. Evangelization progressed fairly slowly in Peru for the first 20 years due to the animosity between natives and the Spanish invaders.

From Santa Cruz eight missionaries were sent out to Peru. Friar Francisco de Aragón took 12 Franciscans and traveled south to form the main trunk from which communities in Ecuador, Chile, and Bolivia grew. A center for ministry was established at Quito as well as a college.

By 1549, a supervisor was sent to Lima to coordinate all Franciscans in the southern part of the continent. It was not until 1553 that Peru saw permanent Franciscan establishments. In Ecuador a Franciscan province was erected in 1565. Missionary activity to the east and south continued.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, many friars were lost to martyrdom in the territories of the Ucayali and the region north of the Amazon. Franciscans count 129 friar deaths on the Ucayali alone. In 1742, most of these centers of ministry were destroyed during native uprisings.

It took 50 years to restore the Franciscan missions in these areas. Attempts by Franciscans to evangelize Chile were gravely disappointing. Between 1553 and 1750, repeated hostilities between Spanish settlers and natives made activity in the region difficult.

Not until Chilean independence in 1832 did the friars resume their missionary work. In the southern part of Chile and Bolivia the Franciscans were more successful. Seven missionary colleges were established and Franciscans ministered to the people of Bolivia between the 16th and 19th centuries.

They reached Paraguay in the early 1600s and Uruguay a century later. In Argentina, Paraguay, and Peru, the Franciscan missionary St. Francis Solano (1549–1610), who was said to have had the gift of tongues (having learned numerous native languages), spent 14 years ministering to colonists and natives. He is still held in highest regard among descendants of the indigenous people of South America.

Franciscans in Florida

Franciscans arrived in Florida in 1573, eight years after the first permanent Spanish settlement. A larger influx of friars in 1587 and again in 1589 helped with the conversion of the Guale.

Many of the northern tribes of Florida were urban dwellers, so the Franciscans attempted to move into their cities and live among the people. Soon a chain of missions were established along the Atlantic coast for some 250 miles. However, during Indian uprisings of 1597, five Franciscan friars were martyred.

In 1612, the Franciscan province of Santa Elena, which was headquartered in Havana, Cuba, began to supervise missionary work in Florida. At its peak in 1675, some 40 friars maintained 36 missions and the bishop of Havana claimed 13,000 native souls and about 30,000 total Catholics (which might be an exaggeration) under his care.

Eventually, the Franciscan missions would fall victim to the struggle between England and Spain over the territory between St. Augustine and Charleston. Slaving raids, armed conflicts, and British alliances with Native American tribes caused the Florida missions to vanish. By 1706, most Franciscan houses in Florida had ceased to function.

By 1680, there were more than 60,000 Franciscan friars worldwide. This may have had to do with the growing number of friaries (2,113 in 1585 and 4,050 in 1762). There were 16 provinces in the Spanish Americas alone.

By the middle of the 18th century, at least a third of all Franciscan houses and friars were in the Spanish New World. Some of this growth reflected an increase in the number of native Franciscans in the Americas, especially in the 16th century. In fact, in Mexico, Spanish friars began to constitute a thin minority by the mid-1600s.

Texas Settlements

Texas began to be settled by Franciscans while the area was still linked to New Spain. Some missionaries refer to the areas occupied by Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California as the New Kingdom of St. Francis.

There was trouble in 1680; the Pueblo Revolt saw the uprising of many Native Americans, primarily in response to the denigration of their religion by the Spanish Franciscans as well as the disruption of the Pueblo economy. Under the direction of Popé, the revolt was successful, and Popé ruled from the former governor’s palace until his death in 1688.

Shortly after his death, the Spanish returned, reconquering the land without bloodshed by offering clemency to the inhabitants. In 1690, permanent missions began to be founded in the area of Texas, mostly through the efforts of Father Damian Mazanet.

Many Indians in Texas were open to accepting the Christian gospel. During the 1700s, some 21 Franciscan missions staffed by more than 160 friars were established in Texas and thousands of Indians embraced the faith.

During the mid-1700s, many were constructed in magnificent fashion of stone; some included fortress walls. Several examples of these still survive, particularly in the area around San Antonio, Texas. After the period of Mexican independence in the early 1800s, a large number of these missions were left to ruin.

While Mexico and Arizona had Franciscan visitors in the 1500s, it was not until the early 17th century that there was any permanent activity there. Father Juan de Padilla died in the region for his faith in 1542 during an early expedition.

By 1628, there were 43 churches and an estimate of some 30,000 Catholics (native and Spanish) in the territories. The Franciscans were the only missionaries to minister there and it has been recorded that nearly 300 Franciscans preached in the area during the 16th and 17th centuries. California did not experience Franciscan activity until 1769.

The work of Father Junípero Serra and his assistants saw the founding of 21 permanent missions extending from the initial foundation in San Diego north to San Francisco. For the next 100 years, 144 friars would labor in California, resulting in an estimated 80,000 baptisms among Native Americans and settlers.

English American Missions

In the English American colonies there was some isolated Franciscan activity in the late 1600s as well as some activity in French Canada in the early part of the 17th century. Between 1672 and 1699, English friars assisted the Jesuits with work in Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Michigan, Illinois, and Minnesota. The only permanent success seems to have been in Detroit. However, even that region was unstable. In 1706, the Franciscan priest Constantine Dehalle was killed in an Indian uprising.

Father Gabrielle de la Ribaude also gave his life near Joliet, on the banks of the Illinois River, in 1681. In New France (Canada) the first missionaries in the region were four French Franciscans in Quebec around 1615. They spent the 10 years ministering to the Huron and Algonquins in the regions of the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes.

Father Nicholas Veil was the first Franciscan to be martyred in Canada. By 1630, the British ended friar activity in most of Canada. Some work continued among the Abnaki in Nova Scotia and Arcadia until around 1633.

A group of explorers led by the Franciscan Father Louis Hennepin (1640–1701) sailed from Niagara Falls down the Mississippi. Hennepin wrote several accounts of his adventures. One of the last of the formative Franciscan missionaries in Canada was Father Emanuel Crespel, whose efforts extended all the way to the Fox River in Wisconsin during the 1720s.

Historical information on Franciscan activities during the 17th and 18th centuries is not as abundant as that of the 16th century formative period. Heroic tales of martyrs and founders survived in the form of oral traditions, written accounts, and records kept by the order. By the 17th century, the scope and goals of missionary and evangelical activity began to change.

By then it was even more necessary to educate and catechize as well as bring European culture and ideas to the native inhabitants. Dealing with a second generation of settlers, the arrival of new Europeans, as well as the issue of intermarriage, preoccupied the friars.

The mission foundations, or doctrinas, began to evolve into parishes (some were exclusively native, others were urban European, and there were many mixed communities). It was also customary to hand many of the more successful parishes and mission foundations over to diocesan secular clergy, freeing many Franciscans to attend to ministry in the more remote areas.

As the 18th century progressed, growing control by the secular clergy eventually gave way to the specialization of the Franciscans in attending to new and more isolated missionary territories in addition to the establishment of missionary colleges directed at the propagation of the faith.