Bearers of the Gospel: The Franciscan Mission in la Florida

Franciscan Beginnings


Disheartened with the small number of Jesuits who had come in 1566 – only three, whereas he had requested twenty-four – Menéndez de Avilés in the following year appealed to the Franciscans for assistance in bringing the Faith to the natives.


The friars, in considerable numbers, were already at work in other Spanish dependencies: on the islands of the Caribbean area, in Mexico, in the region that we now call Central America, not to mention Peru with its many and vast divisions. The friars who had been so generous in these other parts of the Spanish New World, he hoped, might be willing to send some missionaries for the evangelizing of La Florida.

In letters to various personages who he thought might be in a position to influence a favorable decision – to the saintly Franciscan Bishop of Yucatán, to the Franciscan bishop who was the confessor of the newly crowned King Felipe of Spain, to the Minister General of the Order in Rome – as early as 1567 Menéndez directed a plea for Franciscan missionaries. In the Archives of the Indies in Seville there are documents which indicate that in 1573 Fray Francisco Gusmán, the Commissary General of the Franciscan Order resident in Madrid, at the request of the King was preparing to send six friars to La Florida in the vessel of Pedro Menéndez.9

When finally, under the impact of the series of tragedies the Jesuit mission was all but annihilated and the few remaining Jesuits had withdrawn, in 1573 the King himself ordered that six Franciscan friars should be sent to the Indies for this specific mission.10 Perhaps it was this detachment of Franciscans – whose names are not known – that came to Santa Elena in 1573. They remained, however, only to the death of Menéndez de Avilés which occurred in the following year.11 Uncertain of their support after his demise, they left Santa Elena and may well have headed for one or other of the more flourishing missions in Mexico or on the Caribbean islands. Two friars were the real pioneers in the story of the Florida missions. They may have been among the first friars at Santa Elena in 1573, although hard evidence is lacking.12 They have left many evidences of their presence and their activities. And with their appearance the name "Franciscan" becomes synonymous with mission history in La Florida, even as a century and a half later it does in California and in Texas. One is Fray Francisco Marrón. Previously a missionary in Peru, Guatemala, and Mexico, he is thought to have been the first Franciscan friar to labor directly in evangelizing the natives of La Florida. He will occupy a significant place in the story of the martyrdom in 1597.

The other friar who is known to have been in La Florida at about the same time is Fray Alonso de Reinoso. He is especially remembered as a tireless promoter of the Florida mission. After having himself worked in La Florida and having acquired an intimate sense of the needs of the mission, he made at least three trips to Spain for the purpose of recruiting more of his Franciscan brethren for the apostolic needs of the land he had come to love. Oré records that it was at the request of the adelantado Menéndez Márquez that in 1584 Reinoso brought his first group of confreres, who undertook missionary work at Tolomato, Tupiqui, Santa Elena and San Agustin.13 Again in 1587, and once more in 1590 he was responsible for gathering significant numbers of Franciscan missionaries in Spain for the expanding work of instructing the Florida natives in the Faith. He has been called, by no less an authority than Herbert Eugene Bolton, "a sixteenth-century Serra on the Atlantic coast."14 After bringing his third group of apostolic workers whom he had recruited in Spain, he disappeared from the Florida scene, leaving to take up again his missionary work in Yucatán.

See Maynard Geiger, The Franciscan Conquest of Florida {1573-1618), Studies in Hispanic-American History, I (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America, 1937), 34-36.

Ibid., 36-37.

Ibid., 39; Geiger, Martyrs, 56, n.7.

See Fidel de Lajarza, "Ragos autobiograficos del Padre Escobedo en su poema 'La Florida,' Revista de 1ndias, I: 42, n.10.

Oré, ed. Lopez, 1:76; Geiger, Martyrs, 43.

Herbert E. Bolton and Mary Ross, The Debatable Land (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1925), 14.

CREDIT: REPORTATIO SUPER MARTYRIO SERVORUM DEi PETRI DE CORPA ET SOCIORUM EJUS ANNO DOMINI 1597 IN FLORIDA OCCISORUM (Editio Tertia "Positionis", 7 Maii 2002)
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REPORTATIO SUPER MARTYRIO SERVORUM DEi PETRI DE CORPA ET SOCIORUM EJUS ANNO DOMINI 1597 IN FLORIDA OCCISORUM (Editio Tertia "Positionis", 7 Maii 2002)
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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