Bearers of the Gospel: The Franciscan Mission in la Florida

…the Seed of Christians

Perhaps there is no more certain way of looking at the sudden and dramatic change in the story of the mission to the native-people of La Florida than to look at the constitutional organization of, first, the local parish of San Agustin, and, second, the missionary agency, the Franciscan community, in total charge of and with basic responsibility for the spiritual aspects of the colony.

In the present territory of the United States, the first canonical visitation of a parish, a local church, was that carried out in San Agustin in the year 1616.16 Bishop Juan de las Cabezas de Altamirano, coming from Cuba, arrived in mid- March of that year and spent several months in visiting all the establishments of the Church of La Florida.

He began his formal visitation on Holy Thursday, in the ceremony traditionally performed on that day, consecrating the sacred oils to be used for the coming year in all the churches and missions not only in La Florida but in all the other churches and missions of his diocese centered in the Antilles. On Holy Saturday, in the first such ceremony in the extensive area which in the future would be the territory of the United States, he conferred Holy Orders (probably only the four so-called minor orders, and not the major orders of diaconate and priesthood) on twenty candidates for the priesthood. On Easter Sunday he confirmed in the faith 350 recently baptized Christians.

Following. a schedule suggested by the friars, he began the visitation of all the mission-sites then established in La Florida – in the vicinity of the embryonic capital, San Agustin, in the Potano district where the friars had for some time been attending the Timucua settlements, and in the more distant Guale area where they had been ministering again after the bloody events of 1597. During his six-month stay in La Florida, traveling to the sites of the principal missions, he confirmed 2,074 Indians and 370 members of the families of Spaniards. His visit also marked the beginning of a new sense of unity and cooperation between the civil authorities and the ministers of the Church. Walking for more than two days, he and his party arrived at the friary and the mission of San Francisco in Potano; then on to the mission of Santa Fé de Teleco. Every place he went, he preached to the Indians and examined them as to their faith. Of the visitation conducted by Bishop Altamirano, the historian par excellence of the Florida Mission, Fr. Maynard Geiger, has this to say: "With the termination of the episcopal visitation…an era of enlarged fruitfulness was at hand."17

If the episcopal visitation marked a definite highpoint in the history of the society in colonial Florida, no less significant was the canonical visitation of the Franciscan missionary undertaking which was conducted in late 1616.18 It was the first canonical visitation of any exempt religious order held in the area of the present United States of America. To conduct the visitation, there was required the previous permission of the King of Spain and the authorization of the Royal Council. The Franciscan Commissary General of the Indies deputed for the task Fray Luis Jerónimo de Oré, a member of the Peruvian Province of the Twelve Apostles, as Visitor General. At the time of his appointment he was living in Spain, engaged in administrative and pastoral work. Shortly after having conducted the canonical visitation in La Florida, he was named Bishop of Concepción de Chile, the most southern of all ecclesiastical sees in the New World.

In early November of 1616 (having spent twenty-five days in a stormy crossing from Havana to San Agustin), Fray Luis began his visitation of the newly created Province of Santa Elena, in Florida and Cuba. Declining the use of a horse which the governor had put at his disposal, he undertook his appointed task to visit and confer with each and every religious engaged in the various missions. Visiting first the friary and mission of San Antonio de Enacape, he met and consulted with the members of that community and also those of Avino. Here, as in all the stops he made in the course of the visitation, he discussed with the friars the matters of importance for the life of the new Province of Santa Elena. Part of his responsibility was also to examine the Indians as to the purity of the doctrine in which they had been instructed. He preached to the people every day that he was there, and according to the prescriptions for the conducting of a visitation, he examined the baptismal font and the receptacle for the keeping of the Holy Oils. He likewise examined the manner of the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament, to make sure that due respect and reverence for so precious a Presence would not be wanting. There were suffrages for the deceased of the mission, imparting to the new Christians a sense of the seriousness of life.

On foot he then headed to the friary and the mission of San Francisco de Potano. After a trek of two and a half days, the Visitor arrived at an intermediate mission station at Apalo. After meeting and consulting with the friars who had gathered there, he and his associates continued on to the friary and mission of Santa Fé de Teleco, and from there to the mission of San Martín, some thirty-four leagues distant from San Agustin. In all the towns through which the group passed, they preached to the Indians and examined them in Christian doctrine.

In the friary of San Martín in Tumucua, according to the instructions he had received in his letters of appointment, he met with the superiors of Potano and Tarahica, and all the friars of the missions in Guacara, Teleco and Cofa, who had gathered there. In his address to them as they met in chapter, the Visitor exhorted them to fidelity in the service of the Lord and in their observance of the Rule of St. Francis. In a special way he proposed to them their obligation to promote the conversion of the Indians.

Each friar was given the opportunity of a personal visit with the representative of the General Superior in Rome, who had sent Fray Luis to assure each one of his paternal interest in the apostolate and in the sanctification of the individual friar. In each of the towns and missions he visited, Fray Luis remained three or four days, conducting the visitation, consoling and exhorting the individual friars to the faithful observance of their mission vocation and to diligence in their special work of converting the natives.

The culmination of the canonical visitation was to be the chapter, or gathering, of those friars entitled to vote for the provincial superior. Since this was the first provincial chapter held after the erection of the Province of Santa Elena, the minister provincial would be selected to guide the new unit of the Seraphic Order. To make participation in the provincial chapter as easy as possible, the visitor proposed – and the proposal was accepted – that the chapter would be held in a more central friary than that in San Agustin. Since the friary at Guadalquini could be reached easily by canoe from all directions, it was decided to hold the chapter – the first Franciscan provincial chapter in the territory of the future United States – at that town.

Continuing his arduous and sacrificial journey, Fray Luís with his secretary left the mission in Tumucua and headed to the next stop, some eight leagues distant, to Mission San Juan de Guacara, then to Tarihica another eight leagues distant, then fifty leagues to the Mission Santa Isabel de Utinahica, to Tarraco, to several other towns, enduring severe cold and rain. Preaching to the Indians as they made their difficult way, they descended a river to enter the land of Guale. Their last stop before reaching the chapter-house was at the friary of San Jose de Zapala – and in passing through, the Visitor was reminded that it was in that area that one of the Five Martyrs, Fray Pedro de Corpa, had been tortured and put to death.

The first provincial chapter of the Franciscans to be held in the United States territory opened on December 18, of that year 1616, and elected as minister provincial of the Province of Santa Elena the learned friar, Fray Francisco Pareja, who had spent twenty-two years in La Florida, having come to the mission in 1595 with two of the Martyrs who in 1597 had given their lives for the Gospel. 19

Altamirano's visitation is described by Geiger, Conquest, 195-205.

lbid., 205.

The Franciscan visitation and ensuing Provincial Chapter are described by Oré, ed. López, I: 119-25; Geiger, Martyrs, 125-32.

Oré, ed. López, 1:86-90, Geiger, 66-69.

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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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