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  • Franciscan Missionary Scholars in Colonial Central America*
  • France V. Scholes

LAST SUMMER, during a vacation in Mexico City, I received a letter from Father Wyse inviting me to speak at this Annual Convocation of the Academy of American Franciscan History. The invitation did me great honor, and in view of the many courtesies extended to me by the Academy since its founding more than seven years ago, including election to corresponding membership, I also regarded it as a command. It gives me pleasure and satisfaction to participate once more in the academic exercises of the Academy and to renew association with old friends and comrades in the field of Franciscan studies. To Father Wyse, Father Wheeler and their associates I offer congratulations for their splendid contributions to historical scholarship relating to the Americas and best wishes for continued success in the enterprise to which they are dedicated.

It is fitting and timely that the central theme of this Convocation should be the civilizing activities of the Franciscans in Central America. For many years students of American Franciscan history, at least in this country, have given major attention to the story of Franciscan effort in Mexico—in the vast region extending northwestward from Tehuantepec to the borderlands of Texas, New Mexico and California. This is not surprising in view of the great epic of Franciscan missionary enterprise in New Spain, in which men of rare ability and talent—Gante and Zumárraga, Motolinía, Molina and Sahagún, for example—were outstanding early leaders. But these men had distinguished contemporaries—Toral and Landa, Pedro de Betanzos, Bienvenida and Ciudad Real—who labored with equal zeal in the lands of the Maya from the Gulf of Mexico to Honduras. It is not without interest that Toral, after years of service in Mexico, crowned his missionary career as the first resident Bishop of Yucatan; that more than a century later Margil first demonstrated in Central America the tireless energy which prompted his biographer to describe him as “the North American Pilgrim.” [End Page 391]

Within the Maya lands of Central America, Franciscan activity was centered in two areas, northern Yucatan and the highlands of Guatemala. For many years the Franciscan missions in these areas were united for administrative purposes, until the great distance separating them and the success of the evangelizing program in both the northern and southern districts prompted the creation of separate provinces in 1565: the Province of St. Joseph of Yucatan and the Province of the Most Holy Name of Jesus of Guatemala. Yet the ties that had earlier united them—the ties of history and common effort—were never completely severed. Indeed, the vast expanse of jungle which separated the Franciscan missions in Yucatan from those in Guatemala actually served as a continuing bond of union, a constant challenge, beckoning friars from north and south to complete the spiritual conquest of the Maya country. It was this challenge which first called Margil in his long career as teacher and traveler; from Yucatan came others, who followed the jungle trails to Lake Peten in search of souls to save—and of martyrdom.

It is not my purpose here to narrate the history of Franciscan missions in Yucatan and Guatemala. Rather I wish to call attention to the contributions to learning made by Franciscans in these areas while engaged in active and often very arduous missionary work. For it is my opinion that the scholarly activities of the Franciscans in Central America constitute in many respects their greatest achievement. It was this view that prompted me to speak on a similar theme at the Inauguration of the Academy in 1944, and I welcomed Father Wheeler’s suggestion that I enlarge upon it in this Convocation address.

Learning and Education

The colonial chroniclers of Yucatan and Guatemala record the names of scores of Franciscans who enjoyed local fame for their learning.1 Many were renowned as Latinists, theologians and canonists. Others, although not so numerous, cultivated the natural sciences, [End Page 392] especially mathematics, practical astronomy, botany and medicine. Many of these colonial scholars served as teachers in the Franciscan colleges, or houses of study, in Mérida and Antigua...


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