FIOR (Franciscan Institute Outreach - Malta)

11. Franciscan Missionary Charism (3)

The evangelisation of the Americas

11.15. The great revival of missionary zeal in the Franciscan Order during the 15th century, especially through the Observant reform, was further stimulated by the discovery of the New World. We shall present a very brief and incomplete outline of the attempts at missionary evangelisation of the Americas by the Franciscan Order after 1492.

11.16. Christopher Columbus himself was a friend of the Franciscans, and especially of Juan Perez, guardian of the friary of La Rabida, near Palos. In the same friary Columbus also knew Antonio Marchena, a Franciscan scholar of astrology. Perez defended Columbus in front of Ferdinand and Isabella, the monarchs of Spain, and was instrumental in the first expedition of this navigator to the New World.

11.17. It is not known whether Columbus was accompanied by Franciscans during his first voyage across the Atlantic in 1492. But after the discovery of the Americas, during the second expedition in 1493, Columbus was accompanied by two Franciscan lay brothers from Belgium, Jean de la Deule and Jean de Tisin. From that moment many Franciscans began to arrive in what is today Latin America, especially in the Antilles. The missionary revival was further promoted by the Franciscan Cardinal of Toledo Fray Francisco de Cisneros. In 1526 Clement VII asked Charles V of Spain to send 120 Franciscan Observants, 70 Dominicans and 10 Jeronimites to the Americas. In 1504 the first bishop of the new colonies, Garcia de Padilla, was installed in Haiti. Later on, in 1511, he passed to the see of Santo Domingo.

11.18. In 1519 two Franciscans accompanied Cortez in his expedition to Mexico. In 1521 he asked the king of Spain to send missionaries, preferably from the family of the Franciscan Observants. Charles V requested the Minister General to send friars. Quinones promptly sent a group of missionaries from the province of St. Gabriel, led by Martin de Valecia. They arrived in Mexico in 1524 and were known as the twelve apostles of Neuva España.

11.19. The first Franciscans came from the colonial mentality of Spain, and also contributed to the destruction of the culture of the Atzec peoples of Central America. However, it would be unjust not to mention the great number of friars who defended the indios from the tyranny of the new colonisers. One of the most famous among these Franciscans was Juan Zumarraga (+1548), the first archbishop of Mexico City.

11.20. The Franciscans then spread to northern Mexico and to the Yucatan peninsula. From there they also arrived in Guatemala and Honduras in 1525.

11.21. The first region of South America to be evangelised by the Franciscans was Colombia and Venezuela. The first missionaries arrived in these regions from the Antilles in 1510. In 1516 three Franciscans suffered martyrdom in the hands of cannibals. Gradually, however, they succeeded in converting the indios of these regions. The social work of the Franciscans in the various missionary stations was often destroyed by the same conquistadores who plundered these regions. The words of praise of Philip II in 1587 in favour of the Franciscans were all in vain. The Franciscans soon established missions in Cartagena, Pampelona, Bogota (Colombia) and in the regions of the Orinoco river (Venezuela). The first Franciscans to set foot on Trinidad in 1540 were killed by cannibals.

11.22. The reign of the Incas in Peru was destroyed by the ruthless violence of Pizarro, who betrayed the king Atachualpa. The Incas were ready to accept the new conquerors and even to hand over their gold to them! The missionaries, like Marco da Nizza, who came from Mexico, were witnesses of this cruelty on the part of the Spanish conquerors. In 1533 this Franciscan went to Quito to protest. The Franciscans were soon solidly founded in Peru, especially in Lima, where they had friaries and colleges.

11.23. Another important Franciscan mission was that of the Ucayali region. In 1553 the Franciscans began to evangelise what is now Chile. The first bishop of Santiago was Antonio de S. Michael. In this country the Franciscans worked hard in favour of the indigenous peoples, who often rebelled against the tyranny of their colonisers. In 1580 two Franciscans, Antonio Quadramiro and Christophoro de Merida even travelled as far south as the Estrecho de Magellanes (Strait of Magellan), in order to evangelise the indians of the archipelago.

11.24. In Bolivia the first Franciscan missionaries worked in extreme conditions of poverty, especially in the regions of the rivers Beni and Madre de Dios.

11.25. Argentina was evangelised particularly in the region of Tucumán, by St. Francis Solano (1549-1610), who is widely known as the apostle of South America (see lecture on Franciscan Saints).

11.26. In Paraguay the Franciscans entered in 1538. The first bishop of Asuncíon was the Franciscan Juan de los Barrios. Many Franciscans worked in these regions and translated the Guarani language. One should also state that the "reducciones" of the Jesuits were well-organised in these areas, even above the famous Saltos do Iguacu (Iguacu falls), from where the Jesuits were expelled in 1767 (the film "Mission" refers particularly to this historical truth in these regions between Paraguay, Argentina and southern Brasil).

11.27. One final word about South America regards the missions of Brasil. When Cabral arrived in Brasil in 1500 some Franciscans accompanied him. At first the Franciscans suffered martyrdom in the hands of the local populations. But after 1570 two Discalced Franciscan provinces were formed on the coast. Other Observant Franciscans continued to evangelise the interior regions of this immense country. In 1635 an expedition of Franciscans left Quito in Ecuador, in order to penetrate into Amazonia from the west. Their intention was to reach the river Aguarico. Unfortunately many of them were killed by the natives. Some soldiers, together with the Franciscans Didacus de Brieda and Andreas de Toledo, escaped on a canoe on the river Napo until its confluence with the Amazon. They then crossed all the Amazon basin and arrived in 1637 on the Atlantic coast. They had crossed the whole breath of South America.

11.28. Now we turn to the evangelising mission of the Franciscans in North America. In 1527 five Franciscans accompanied the Florida expedition of Narvaez. Some of them died of hunger, among whom the bishop Juan Suarez. The real beginnings of the missions in what today are the United States of America began in 1565, and continued especially after 1597 in the regions of Florida and Georgia, where the Franciscans converted a great number of Indians.

11.29. The Franciscans arrived in New Mexico in 1539, and accompanied the expeditions of 1540. From New Mexico the Franciscans also spread to Arizona, where they toiled in great difficulty among the Apaches. In 1609 the Florida custody was established, and in 1616 the custody of the Conversion of St. Paul was founded in New Mexico and Arizona.

11.30. In 1690 Querétaro sent the first Franciscan missionaries to Texas. The missionaries worked along the Rio Grande and in the region of San Antonio. Many missions were opened along the Colorado and in the route to California across the desert.

11.31. "The successful evangelization of the Americas is an achievement in which the Franciscans certainly had a major share. The poverty and evangelical zeal which were part of the very foundation of the Order made the friars ideally suited for the missionary task before them. But at least two other characteristics of the Franciscans contributed to their rapport with the native population and therefore their success, namely a cosmopolitan view of the world and a vision of a reformed Church and society ... Any hope of evangelizing the natives of the New World depended on the friars' abilities to master their languages. How well they did is evidenced by the innumerable dictionaries, grammars, catechisms, sermons, and spiritual writings in the native languages. By 1572 the Franciscans had written at least eighty works in the native languages, an achievement unequaled by all the other Orders combined" (Conrad L. Harkins OFM, Franciscan Friars in the New World, in Friar Lines, Vol. VI, No. 1, 1994, pp. 17-31).

11.32. The most famous missions of the United States of America were those of California. Baja California in Mexico had been evangelised by Jesuits and Dominicans. The Franciscans concentrated their efforts in Alta California. The apostle of these regions was Fray Junípero Serra, beatified recently in 1988 by Pope John Paul II (see lecture on Franciscan Saints). In 1769, after a long experience of missionary work in Mexico, Junípero Serra moved on to the California missions. The primitive names of the Franciscan missions are still evident in today's cities on the Pacific coast of California: San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Juan Capistrano, Santa Clara, San Buenventura, Monterey, Carmel.

11.33. In Canada the Recollect Franciscans of France entered Queec in 1615. In 1619 other Recollect Francisans from Aquitaine evangelised Nova Scotia. Nicholas Viel became the first martyr of Canada in 1625. When Canada became an English colony in 1763 the French missions had to close down. But in 1881 the Franciscan Frederic Janssoone, a Commissary of the Holy Land, returned to the old mission of Trois-Rivieres and refounded it, together with those of Montreal and Quebec

© copyright FIOR-Malta
Text by Fr. Noel Muscat ofm


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