Christopher Columbus made landfall in a previously unknown land in 1492. Hernán Cortés landed in the Mexico region in 1519 and had, in most respects, conquered the Aztecan Empire within 2 years. This was only the beginning of Spain’s advancement throughout the Americas.
The Spanish occupation of New Spain began an unprecedented missionization effort, the conversion of the native population of the Americas to Catholicism. Three mendicant orders undertook this task, the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians. The Jesuits came later, in 1572. These groups were the regular clergy, because they lived by regulations - the rules of their orders. In contrast, the secular clergy were made up of an archbishop, bishop, and local parish priest.
The regular clergy worked under a set of provisions different from the traditional pattern long established in the Old World. They depended for their support not on the charity of the surrounding population, but on their legal position in relation to the Spanish crown and the administrators of the new colony. The privileges of patronato real had been granted to the King of Spain by a papal bull of 1508, which gave him the right to collect tithes, maintain the secular and regular church systems, and nominate candidates to the various religious offices within the New World. The Crown selected the mendicant orders to carry out the duties of the church in the new colony, funded by the crown. In 1524 the first contingent of twelve Franciscans arrived in Mexico to begin converting the Indians. By 1559, 80 Franciscan friaries housing 380 friars had been established.
The privileges granted to the Franciscans and other missionaries allowed them to impress Indian labor without pay. In the early years missions were established in Indian towns that already existed. After 1550, it became common to establish a new village at a site selected by the missionaries. The Indians would then be brought to the site to carry out its development. This was called a congregación, and became one method used all along the expanding northern frontier, especially where the Indians were nomadic and did not live in permanent villages.
The secular clergy slowly increased in number and quality from about 1550 to 1570. In 1574 a royal order placed the mendicant orders under the control of the Viceroy and the diocese, and a decree of 1583 made it clear that the secular clergy would receive preference in Mexico. By the end of the 16th century, the progressive secularization of Indian parishes gave the regular clergy only two choices: retire from the world into their remaining conventual retreats, or take on new conversions at the edges of the colonial world.
Edited excerpts from the original work “Of Various Magnificence” by Jake Ivey, NPS 2007
Chapter 1: Mission Frontier in Texas