Proceedings of the Second Annual Mission Research Conference
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Movements Influencing the Heart and the Mind of the Early Franciscan Missionaries in Texas
Patrick Foley, Ph.D.
Tarrant County Junior College, NW Campus
Fort Worth, Texas

As attention is focused upon the main driving forces which lay behind those Franciscans who missionized Texas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, two characteristics of these men stand out. They brought to the land of the Tejas a Roman Catholicism shaped by both their religious order's particular approach to experiencing the Christian ideal as well as the historical evolution of the Catholic Church in Spain. In the past, Europe periodically had witnessed revivals of spiritual and intellectual zeal, which phenomena, among their other forms, matured in an outpouring of the appearance of new religious communities. These clusters of religious invariably inherited from their founder a commitment (carefully outlined in the order's rule) to serve the Church in a specific way. In the beginning, these clerics usually exhibited a great enthusiasm for service to God with an intensity sometimes found lacking in the Church throughout. More often than not, the rule of the order helped to inflame this religious fervor among the community's membership by having profiled clearly the latter's mission in the world.

Such was the case in the thirteenth century when St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) founded his order of friars. Perhaps that feature of the saint's rule which most directly influenced later missionary activity of the Franciscans in Texas was the mandate that his followers were to remain mendicants, or beggars. By way of contrast with Europe's great landed monastic orders, the friars of St. Francis held no property in common as their community was being organized. It is true, however, that Francis's original prohibition against property ownership by the friars was later compromised. By the beginning of the fourteenth century though individual Franciscans still were forbidden to own property, the order, itself, through one means or another, could corporately possess title to land holdings.

This resistance to personal attachment to property worked to make the Franciscans — four centuries later — more effective missionaries. In the first place, the mendicants had a long tradition from which to draw of moving about among the populace rather than remaining secluded on monastic lands. This seemed to work to their advantage when they entered into the mission fields, in that even though they did out of necessity acquire property, the Franciscans never concentrated on building up vast holdings. As a result, they were able — in the eighteenth century — to adjust more easily to governmental secularization of the missions. (It should be remembered that according to original plans each mission was to be secularized after ten years anyway.)

Developing further the theme that certain characteristics marked the Franciscans as peculiarly effective missionaries, some attention must be given now to intellectual currents which affected these men. History seems to have judged the friars, generally, as being light-hearted and at times somewhat removed from the more serious theological and philosophical debates of the times. While such a portrayal is, on the whole, an inaccurate one, it does contain certain elements of truthfulness. The effect of Franciscan gaiety was that the friars, as a group, were consistently able to resist being consumed by the theological polemics of the day while at the same time turning their attention to the more mundane aspects of missionary work.

There is little doubt that St. Francis, himself, set the example for his followers cheerfulness; even today the Franciscans strive to emulate this aspect of their founder's nature. Others too, however, contributed to the overall character of the Franciscan order. Although much of William of Ockham's thought found little acceptance within ecclesiastical circles of Europe in the fourteenth century, certain essentials of his ideas influenced later Franciscans, helping to release them from medieval scholasticism's predisposition to try to prove the existence of God through rational speculation drawn from experience through the senses (from St. Thomas Aquinas) and allowing them to develop a perception of the world more like that held by their founder. This Franciscan (ca. 1285-1349) lived a century after St. Francis and his philosophical nominalism, which argued that religious truth was not ascertainable through reason, but could be realized only by intuitive faith, had some influence upon the Franciscan order.

Such is not to suggest that scholasticism was insignificant to the Franciscan missionaries. On the contrary, all Catholic seminaries and colleges established in Spanish America during the colonial era were modeled after Spain's seminaries as well as the Universities of Salamanca and Alcalá de Henares, all centers of scholastic learning officially. It is intimated, though, that many Franciscan missionaries resisted scholasticism's intellectual obsession for proving God's existence and turned to the realities of work in the mission fields.

The reference to the Spanish personality of the colonial seminaries and universities serves to introduce the second distinguishing characteristic of Texas' early Franciscans, their Hispanic heritage. To be sure, not all of the early friars of New Spain were Spanish, but most were. Of even greater importance, the institutional Church of the colonial Americas (except for Brazil) was markedly Spanish. The Church in Spain was an established institution, whose inter-relationship with the Crown the patronato real (a system of royal patronage whereby the Crown had pervasive control of ecclesiastical matters in the Spanish lands) most clearly mirrored. While this unique phenomenon first was established in Spain during the reign of the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, it formed the basis of royal suzerainty over church affairs in Spanish America throughout the Colonial era.

As a consequence, the Catholic Church in Mexico, and subsequently, Texas, became a standard-bearer for Spain's empirical interests as well as for the Hispanicization of the Indians. In other words, while the Spanish royal government promoted and protected Catholicism as the one true faith throughout Spanish lands, the Church stood firmly by the Crown in preaching obedience to royal authority and teaching the Hispanic culture. Thus it was in New Spain, as in the mother country, that to be Spanish was to be Catholic and vice versa. The altar and the throne were bound together in union to promote this condition.

The sixteenth-century Reformation crystalized the concept of this union in one sense by giving to the Spanish clergy, particularly the episcopacy and members of the religious orders, an intense feeling for the life and death struggle Catholicism seemed to be waging against Protestantism. This war carried over into the colonies and, therefore, the mission fields. As a result, from their earliest appearance in New Spain — and later in the land of the Tejas — the Spanish Franciscans as a group exhibited intense anti-Protestant as well as pro-Spanish sentiments.

Historians sometimes have lamented that in colonial Texas, as in other parts of New Spain, missionaries were often caught up in governmental policies and activities which worked to the disadvantage of the Indians whom the missionaries were trying to convert and teach. Yet, without the protection of the Spanish Crown, its governmental bureaucracy and military power, the Catholic Church would most likely never have been able to take hold in the land of the Tejas. While these early Franciscans in Texas were members of a world-wide missionary order, they were also subject to the established Church of Spain and, therefore, the Crown. As a consequence, the Spanish royal government was not hesitant to use the missionaries to promote its interests in the frontier areas, where strong resistance to potential interlopers in these lands (such as France) was absolutely necessary. Nowhere was such a situation seen more decisively than in the case of the foundation of Texas' first Franciscan mission, San Francisco de los Tejas in 1690. While this endeavor, just west of the Neches River, was essential to the Catholicization of the land of the Tejas, it was at the same time seen by the Spanish government as important to its efforts to resist French entry into the area.

These movements influencing the heart and the mind of Texas' early Franciscan missionaries represent only a few of the motivational factors of missionary Texas to be sure, but they constitute some of the most dominant themes distinguishing the period. Moreover, they remind once again that the story of missionary activity in Texas was never as simple as it may sometimes seem to have been. It was a narrative of men of the Church laboring to Catholicize natives in primitive frontier lands, but doing so with the advantages as well as the limitations imposed upon them by the Crown of Spain.

Patrick Foley. Ph.D.
Tarrant County Junior College, NW Campus Fort Worth, Texas
Photo courtesy of Patrick Foley

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Last Updated: 24-Apr-2011