As opposed to the complex organization of the Order at the worldwide (or general) level, the local organization was quite simple, following the lines that were traditional in the Order, namely independent custodies or provinces, and then conventos in specific locations.
To denote less formal units, we often find the terms doctrinas, visitas, or misiones. Indicating places where one or two friars would live for short periods for apostolic reasons and activities, they depended on the nearest convento. Such minor religious houses, principally the misiones, are more frequently found in the newly established custodies or provinces when there was not a sufficient number of friars to establish permanent conventos.
At the local level the usual unit was the province. It generally would begin as a simple custody, that is, a small number of houses and friars dependent on a mother-province. It is interesting to note that in the Americas no custody was established depending on a mother-province in Spain. The first Franciscan missionaries working on the Caribbean islands were never organized as a custody; as we have seen, from the start they enjoyed the status of an independent province. When the Custody of the Holy Gospel was organized in New Spain, it depended directly on the Minister General. When this custody reached the rank of a province (1536), in some sense it became the mother-province of the other custodies established in Hispanic North America, though its authority over them was virtually non-existent.
Even in mission lands, friars must live in fraternities, which in the Franciscan tradition are called, in Latin, conventus. The term is translated into English as convents, friaries or monasteries, and in Spanish as conventos. According to the same legislation, only those fraternities in which at least twelve friars resided were rightly known as conventos, while the rest were called vicarias. In the provinces of the New World, the term most often used in the documents was convento, no matter what the number of friars assigned to it. In reference to the houses located in Indian towns where the friars had the pastoral care of the Indians, the usual term was doctrina. A visita as a small religious house, depending on a doctrina, which from time to time the friars visited to administer the sacraments to the natives. These were the terms most frequently used in central New Spain. To the north, where the Indian towns were scarce, the most frequently used term for such minor religious houses was mission.
”Rule of l221," ch. 16:10-11, in The Writings of Saint Francis, trans. Ignatius Brady (Assisi: Edizioni Porziuncola, 1983) 77. Henceforth, Brady.
St. Bonaventure, Major Life of St. Francis, chap. 12: I, trans. Benen Fahy in Marion A. Habig (ed.), St. Francis of Assisi: Writings and Early Biographies: English Omnibus of the Sources for the Life of St. Francis, 4lh rev. ed. (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1983), 721. Cited henceforth as Omnibus.
Ibid., chap. 3:1, pp. 646-47.
Thomas of Celano, The First Life of St. Francis, chap. JO: 29, trans. Placid Hermann in Omnibus, 247.
Ibid., chap. I 5, p. 258.
Bonaventure, Major Life, chap. 9:5, in Omnibus, 701.
St. Francis, "Letter Addressed to the Whole Order," in Brady, 121.