Bearers of the Gospel: The Franciscan Mission in la Florida

Historical Setting

During the half-century following Columbus' arrival in the New World, a series of voyages to the unknown areas north of the Caribbean brought Spanish explorers to what is now the territory of the United States.

Under the banner of the Catholic Kings of Spain, various explorers set out to reconnoiter the mysterious and challenging landmass that, beyond any known or even imagined limits, stretched to the north and to the west. In the context of the future full-blown Franciscan activity in La Florida, some persons and places are of special interest.

On Palm Sunday of 1513 Juan Ponce de León – who had been a member of Columbus' second voyage to the New World – sighted the mainland of North America. In honor of the liturgical season in which he made his landfall, he christened the land La Isla de la Páscua Florida. Neither on that occasion nor on his 1521 voyage to claim and explore his "Easter Island" did he attempt to bring the religious message of the Easter feast to its inhabitants. Though no priest was with him on his first expedition, on his second he was indeed accompanied by several priests, both diocesan and religious. As his party was fiercely attacked by unfriendly natives, the newcomers decided to leave and to return to the safety of Cuba. Nothing had been attempted, nothing had been accomplished in the way of announcing the Gospel in the new land; but Spain's claim to the land had been made in a ritual ceremony.1

In 1526 Lucas Vazquez de Ayllón led a group of prospective settlers to the east coast of La Florida, which by that time was known to be a peninsula and not an island. Among the instructions formalized during the preliminary planning for the expedition was one – issued in June of 1523 – that the future colony of La Florida should have a Franciscan friary. Ayllón and his colonists did not know that the time of their visit by chance was the least propitious of the year. Bitter cold, famine and death beset their venture. This effort to establish a colony on the mainland was no more successful than had been Ponce's in 1521. The expedition had included no Franciscan but did have three Dominicans, two of them priests. Though the priests had offered Mass for the prospective colonists, it was not with the participation of any natives; no effort had been made to bring them the knowledge of Christ and His message.2

In the following year, 1527, a more numerous and more ambitious expedition, consisting of 600 Spaniards, including five Franciscans and several diocesan priests, sailed from Spain with the purpose of establishing a colony in La Florida. Among the Franciscans in this expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez was Fray Juan Suárez, accompanied by Fray Juan de Palos. Suárez was one of the "Twelve Apostles of Mexico," as was also the lay Brother Juan de Palos: both had gone to Mexico in 1524. Fray Juan Suárez in 1528 was proposed by the Emperor Carlos V for the See of "El Rio de las Palmas y La Florida" – a jurisdiction planned for creation in the New World. In theory, this new title gave him spiritual authority over the entire territory north of the Gulf of Mexico. Narváez' expedition into La Florida foundered; and, of all those who with him had landed in La Florida in 1527 only four survived the rigors of life in the New World before it was finally dissolved in 1534. Among those who perished on this expedition was the first bishop to be named to guide the Church in this part of the New World, along with his four Franciscan confreres. The bishop-elect and Fray Juan de Palos died of hunger, perhaps in Texas, while attempting to reach Mexico.

No less discouraging was the attempt made a decade later, in 1538, by Hernando de Soto to settle Christians among the Indians in La Florida. De Soto's expedition included twelve priests, of whom one, Fray Juan de Sevilla, was a Franciscan friar. Fray Juan accompanied De Sota on his quest for the Golden Cities. De Soto himself died on the banks of the Mississippi and was ceremoniously buried in the "Father of Waters." In 1543 – four years after starting out on this American odyssey – the all-but-annihilated band of explorers reached Mexico. Of the half-dozen survivors of the heroic but ill-starred saga, one was Fray Juan de Torres, the Franciscan friar from Seville.

To cite these Franciscans who in the early days of La Florida's life made a contribution to history is not to pretend that theirs was the only group which tried to introduce and establish Christianity in that part of the New World. Diocesan priests also, and members of other religious Orders as well, took part in the stupendous effort to plant the Church in the peninsula of La Florida. Their presence, and frequently also the sacrifice of their lives, left a blessing on the land.

Along with the Franciscans, especially notable in this sense were the sons of St. Dominic. The Dominicans were the official chaplains of the Ayllón effort to colonize the land in 15263 and were represented likewise in the De Soto expedition of 1538-43.4 Especially notable is the name of Fray Luis Cáncer de Barbastro. In 1549, with three Dominican confreres, he made a truly heroic effort to evangelize the especially violent natives near Tampa Bay, paying with his life for his zeal.5 Dominicans also were the official chaplains for the expedition of Tristán de Luna y Arellano in 1559-61, on yet another fruitless and tragic effort to bring the Gospel to the natives of La Florida.6 With the Franciscans, the Dominicans faced the labors of that first half-century of Florida's history, suffering the same sense of defeat in not being able to share the Gospel and the message of Salvation with these people of the New World. The series of failed attempts, during the six decades after the first sighting of the land, to bring La Florida and its inhabitants into the saving servitude of Christ was hardly less painful for the missionaries than was the lack of secular success for the emissaries of the King of Spain. The friars and their fellow-messengers of the Gospel had worked, suffered, sacrificed – and many of them died – in the effort to plant the seed of the Gospel in that outpost of the New World. Having taken to heart the command of the Savior: "Go out to the whole world; proclaim the Good News to all creation" (Mk. 16.15), the missionaries could see little accomplished, despite their heroic sacrifices.

Fray Juan de Torquemada, Monarchia 1ndiana, 2nd ed. (Madrid: Nicolas Rodriguez, 1723), Lib. XIX, cap. 20., 1, 5.

See above, 1, 5-6, 16-17.

See above, 1, 5-6, 16-17.

See above, 1-2, 6, 17-18.

See above, 2.

See above, 2-3.

Contact Information

Credits/External Links
The First Georgia Missions: Our Southern Catholic Heritage, Dr. Paul Thigpen and Katherine Ragan. Illustrations by Pamela Gardner, based on the retablo by Dan Nichols. This retablo is part of the parish patrimony of Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church in Jasper, Georgia

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