The Spanish Franciscan Missionary

Principal missionary order in Spain’s vast colonial empire

Back in the 1960’s, at the old Spanish Mission Concepcion in San Antonio, I met a young priest, a Jesuit, as I recall, who had just arrived in the area. He came from Cincinnati. He spoke perfect Castillian Spanish. I could see in his eyes his enthusiasm for the history of the missions. "As soon as I can get time," he said, "I’m going to research the archives at the archdiocese to see if I can learn why the Indians kept running away from the missions during the days of the Franciscans."

"Father," I said, having just read the history, "the Indians came to the missions hoping for protection from the Apaches and a dependable source of food. The friars tried to force them to become Christians and Spanish subjects. They tried to destroy their old religions and rituals and customs. They tried to make them worship a new deity, learn the catechisms, sing new religious songs and attend the masses. They tried to make them work in the mission fields and workshops and give up old traditions and freedoms. If the Indians escaped the missions, the friars sent soldiers to recapture them. They punished and jailed and beat those they could catch. They made slaves of the Indians."

"Yes, the young priest said without a trace of irony, "but look what the Franciscans gave them: Christianity and civilization."


The Franciscan Creed

The Franciscans, the principal missionary order in Spain’s vast colonial empire, took their creed and their passion from St. Francis, the compelling 13th century evangelist from Assisi, an ancient town in the hills 40 miles north of Rome. Francis, who gave up the material comforts of family wealth for the spiritual rewards of evangelism and poverty, issued a famous "rule" that required his order to follow the Gospel by living in "obedience, without property and in chastity." He cast impoverishment and humility as the hallmarks of the order. "The brothers shall appropriate nothing to themselves, neither a house nor place nor anything," he said, "?let them go confidently in quest of alms." The Franciscans wore gray, blue or brown habits and cowls made of coarse fabric, with simple ropes for belts. They tied three knots near the ends of their belts to symbolize their vows of obedience, poverty and chastity.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, "?admiring crowds? followed Francis from place to place hanging on his lips; church bells rang at his approach; processions of clergy and people advanced to meet him with music and singing; they brought the sick to him to bless and heal, and kissed the very ground on which he trod, and even sought to cut away pieces of his tunic. ?Francis became?a very conqueror of souls."

"The salvation of souls was ever the burden of Francis’s prayers," according to the encyclopedia. Francis sent his followers "?forth two by two exhorting the people of the surrounding country. Like children ‘careless of the day,’ they wandered from place to place singing in their joy, and calling themselves the Lord’s minstrels. The wide world was their cloister; sleeping in haylofts, grottos, or church porches, they toiled with the laborers in the fields, and when none gave them work they would beg. In a short while Francis and his companions gained an immense influence, and men of different grades of life and ways of thought flocked to the order."

As the order grew, Francis breathed life, vigor and spirituality into the promise of evangelism. "There can be no doubt," according to the Encyclopedia, "that the great impulse given to foreign missions in the thirteenth century is due to St. Francis, who was himself a missionary in the East and saw some of his brethren martyred for the Faith." He also propelled the Franciscan missionaries of 16th and 17th century Spain into evangelism in the New World. They would see themselves as "the very conquerers of souls."


The Franciscan Missionary Purpose

Imbued with the passion of St. Francis, the deep rooted spirituality and mysticism of their mother country, and the tyrannical zeal of the Inquisition, the Franciscan fathers of Spain – a country more Catholic than the Vatican, according to some observers – came to the New World to save the souls and redefine the lives of the "savage heathens." With their work endorsed by Pope Paul III and sponsored and protected by the Spanish crown, they saw their destiny in Christianizing and civilizing the peoples of the Americas. They believed that they had to make way for the new religion by obliterating the old religions of the Indians, including their spiritual authority, doctrines, rituals, temples, ceremonial chambers, shrines, murals, symbols, masks and icons.

They had to make way for Spanish-style civilization by recasting the basic cultural structure of the Indians, including their political and governmental institutions, tribal and family hierarchies, interpersonal relationships, subsistence practices and personal skills. They thought less in terms of the present than of the hereafter; of the body (the property of the Church) than of the soul (the property of Christ); of immediate human needs than of everlasting spiritual fulfillment. They believed that punishments for misdeeds in the present life meant little compared to the rewards of salvation in the next life.

"…many Franciscans paternalistically and optimistically regarded Indians as pliable, childlike innocents, uncorrupted by Europeans—clay to be molded into ideal Christian communities," said David J. Weber in his book The Spanish Frontier in North America. "With communally owned property, communal labor, and representative government, the Indian communities would be heavenly cities of God on earth—utopian Christian republics."

This vision drew the Franciscans into conflict with the conquistadors, who came less for the service of the Church than for the purpose of conquest, plunder and treasure. The Franciscans’ dream also put them into competition with Spanish land barons and mining tycoons, who regarded the Indian peoples, not as potential citizens of some "utopian Christian republic," but rather, as a reservoir for slave labor.

However, by any measure – Franciscan, conquistador or entrepreneur – the Indians would become the losers.

The Franciscan Desert Mission

By the time the Franciscans came up the trails into the Southwest to begin in earnest the work of Christianizing and civilizing the Indian peoples of the desert, they had already put their imprint on the Spanish empire in the New World. According to the web site, The Franciscan Experience?since 1182, Franciscans sailed with Columbus on his second voyage, in 1493, to begin the work of converting the Indian peoples of the islands of the Greater Antilles. Franciscans moved with the leading edge of Spanish expansion during the first half of the 16th century, calling the indigenous peoples of Brazil, Columbia, Venezuela, Mexico, Central America, Paraguay, Peru, Trinidad, Argentina and Chile to the glory of Christianity and the splendors of Spanish culture. They traveled with the explorers of the trails of the southeastern United States during the last third of the 16th century, recruiting Indians for Church and Crown.


While a few Franciscans had probed the Southwest during the mid- to late 16th century, the earliest to begin founding missions among the Indians came up the Chihuahua Trail with Juan de Onate and the first Spanish colonizing expedition in 1598. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Franciscans built roughly 100 mission churches across the Southwest, including more than two dozen in Texas, nearly four dozen in New Mexico, a handful in Arizona and more than 20 in California. Many missions decayed and fell into ruin over time. Some took root and endured.

With his enterprise funded by the government and protected by the military, the typical mission friar choreographed the very lives of his charges, who had to follow "a highly structured and disciplined routine of prayer, work, training, meals, and relaxation, punctuated by frequent religious holidays and celebrations," according to Robert E. Wright’s article, "Spanish Missions," in The Handbook of Texas Online.

Every day at dawn, the padre tolled his mission bells to summon his Indians to the morning service. He required them to ask God to bless their food at meals. He maintained a strict separation between unmarried men and women. On work days, he sent men to mission fields, building sites and workshops for the day’s labor. He sent the women to looms, laundry pits and mealing bins. He dispatched children to guard the fields from birds and rodents. At night, he locked young girls and unmarried women in quarters segregated from the men.

Imposing a monastic life on his Indian "children," the Franciscan "conqueror of souls" sought to fulfill his order’s vision of a "utopian Christian republic." He commanded his charges to give up the old ways. More concerned about their souls than their bodies, he might chain and imprison those who violated the stringent mission ethic, either intentionally or unintentionally. He left the scars of his lash – or that of his soldiers – on Indian backs. In one account, a woman, convicted of infanticide, "was punished by having her head shaved, being whipped daily for two weeks, having her feet bound in irons for three months, and ‘having to appear every Sunday in church, on the steps leading up to the altar, with a hideous painted wooden child in her arms.’" By many accounts, Franciscans turned missions into plantations of slavery, with rules enforced by Spanish militia, and they used the produce of the labor, not to improve the lives of the Indians, but to embellish the glory of their church.

As a result of the tyranny, which redoubled the hardships of the frontier, the Franciscans often failed in their mission. Their churches collapsed, sometimes demolished by the mission Indians themselves, sometimes under repeated assault by raiders such as the Apaches. Many friars died as martyrs at the hands of the Indians. (In the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, for one example, 21 of 33 priests assigned to missions in the upper Rio Grande basin fell to Indians’ vindictive bludgeons, arrows and torture.) Mission populations wasted away as a result of virulent diseases introduced by the Spanish and spread by the enforced crowded community life. In many years and in many missions, padres buried more than they baptized. Disillusioned with Christianity, desperate Indians reverted to traditional religions, sometimes secretly, in nighttime rituals in hidden ceremonial chambers. In other instances, the Indians blended Christianity and traditional religions into a unique new whole. As Weber said, "Oppressed in body and in spirit, many mission Indians sought ways to extricate themselves from the loving embrace of the sons of St. Francis."

The Spanish Catholicism of the Franciscan order collided, sometimes violently, with the ancient spirituality and cultural traditions of the Southwestern Indian cultures, but undeniably, the friars came to their missions as profoundly committed, courageous, persuasive and resourceful men. Obedient to their Church, they came to the colonial frontier obsessed with fulfilling their destiny to save "heathen souls." Impoverished, with no horses, they walked in sandals from Mexico City for more than 1000 miles up the trails to their Southwestern assignments. Alone, or with a small party, they put their lives on the line in taking up their missions among Indian tribes, some of them, for instance, the Zuni and Hopi pueblos, as isolated as Mars from Spanish colonial population centers. With the strength of their faith, they induced tribal men and women to raise the walls of immense mission compounds and to embrace the life of a "utopian Christian republic," at least until disillusionment took over. Drawing on their skills, they taught their charges new crafts, new music, new arts. In the end, if they failed, it was because the friars – products of the zeal of St. Francis, the spirituality of imperial Spain, and the brutal excesses of the Inquisition – had simply tried too hard.

Franciscan Fingerprints

On a September 2 some years ago, my wife and I traveled to Acoma, a 12th or 13th century mesa-top pueblo about 70 miles west of Albuquerque, for theMission annual celebration of the Day of St. Stephen, the patron saint of the village. From the roof of one of the single-story stone pueblo buildings, we watched through the day as dancers – descendants of the Anasazi Puebloan tradition – moved to traditional rhythms of tribal drums in an open courtyard. Below us, we could see the tribal governors, who held silver-crowned canes, including one signed by Abraham Lincoln, which symbolize tribal authority and justice. Beneath a brush-shaded arbor, we could see the tribe’s Franciscan-era statue of St. Stephen.

Across the pueblo, we could see the twin-towered San Esteban del Rey Franciscan-era mission church, a massive structure built in the 1630’s from materials which the Indians hauled to the mesa top on their backs. An Acoma woman pointed out a small opening in the side of one of the village kivas—a Puebloan ceremonial chamber. "In the days of the Franciscans," she said, "a woman stood as a sentinel beside the opening so she could warn our men if the friar approached when they were holding a ritual, which was prohibited." As the end of the day approached, we watched as several men lifted the holy statue of St. Stephen on their shoulders and led a reverent procession of Anasazi descendants through the streets of Acoma to the sanctuary of the church and the service to end the celebration.

In another trip, my wife and I stopped to visit the charming late 17th century Franciscan mission church at the Laguna Pueblo, about 45 miles west of Albuquerque. As we approached the front door, we could hear the beat of drums from inside the sanctuary. Not wanting to intrude, we peeked furtively through a slight opening in the doorway. We could see a Laguna woman in traditional tribal dress dancing in the rich warm light which illuminated the altar. Presently, the drums ceased. The ceremony ended. As people – also descendants of the Anasazi – filed from the church, a man told us, "We are celebrating the retirement of a Sister. She has been with us for more than 20 years." She had brought them Christianity and civilization.

Today the Franciscan missions stand as enduring memorials to Spanish colonialism in the Southwest. Some remain as living churches. Others lie in ruins. All of them speak to the strength of the faith and resolution of the Franciscans. Massive buttressed stone or adobe walls, labyrinthine cloisters and convents, tolling bells, serene sanctuaries, exquisite frescos and compelling icons tell of the power of spirituality, mysticism and a religion.

I have listed below some of the Franciscan mission churches which can still be visited in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. I have also included the year of about when each mission first took root. I should mention that, over time, the Franciscans moved or rebuilt many of the churches. For instance, they founded they Espiritu Santo mission near Matagorda Bay, on the Texas Gulf coast, in 1722. They moved it to a site near Victoria, Texas, in 1726, then to the present site at Goliad, Texas, in 1749. The Civilian Conservation Corps restored the church in 1930. In a few instances, the Franciscans assumed operations of churches which had been founded by the Jesuits, who were unceremoniously booted out of the Southwest by Spain’s king Carlos II in 1769. These include, for instance, San José de Tumacacori, Los Santos Ángeles de Guevavi and San Cayetano de Calabazas of the Tumacacori National Historic park in Arizona.


1. Texas Missions

El Paso Area
Mission Ysleta, 1680’s
Mission Socorro, 1680’s
San Antonio
San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo), 1718
San Jose, 1720
Concepcion, 1731
San Juan Capistrano, 1731
San Francisco de la Espada, 1731
Goliad Espiritu Santo, 1722

2. New Mexico Missions

Santa Fe San Miguel, 1610
North Central Region
Santo Domingo, 1607
Nuestra Señora de los Angeles de Porciuncula de los Pecos, 1622
San José (de Guisewa) de Jémez, 1627
San Ildelfonso, 1711
San Lorenzo de Picuris, 1776
Central Region
San Agustin de la Isleta, 1613
San Gregorio de Abo, 1622
Nuestra Señora de Purisma Concepcion de Quarai, 1625
San Isidro and San Buenaventura de Humanas (Gran Quivira), 1629
Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion de Zia, 1706
San Felipe, 1706
San José de Laguna, 1706
Santa Ana, 1750
San Buenaventura de Cochiti, 1736
Northwest Region
Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de Zuni, 1629
San Esteban del Rey de Acoma, 1629
Southwest Region
San Miguel Socorro, 1615?

3. Arizona Missions

Tumacacori National Historic park
San José de Tumacacori, 1691
Los Santos Ángeles de Guevavi, 1691
San Cayetano de Calabazas, 1756
Hopi Area, 1629

4. California Missions


San Diego, 1769
San Gabriel, 1771
San Juan Capistrano, 1775
Buenaventura, 1782
Santa Barbara, 1786
San Fernando, 1797
San Luis Rey, 1798
Carmel (San Carlos), 1770
San Antonio, 1771
San Luis Obispo, 1772
La Purisima, 1787
Soledad, 1791
Santa Cruz, 1791
San Juan Bautista, 1797
San Miguel, 1797
Santa Ines, 1804
San Francisco, 1776
Santa Clara, 1777
San Jose, 1797
San Rafael, 1817
San Francisco Solano (Sonoma), 1823



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