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  • The Franciscan Provinces of Spanish North America
  • Marion A. Habig O.F.M.

A SURVEY of the history of the Franciscan Provinces and Mission Colleges of Hispanic America, particularly of the colonial period, it seems to the writer, will be a contribution to historical scholarship inasmuch as it will point the way for further investigations by those who are devoting or who wish to devote themselves to historical research.

To many others who perhaps have heard only of the Franciscan Missions of California, such an outline will convey a faint idea at least of the magnitude and extent of the missionary work which has been carried on by the sons of St. Francis in the vast Spanish and Portuguese portions of the New World.

Speaking of the missionaries who came to the New World after its discovery by Columbus, the eminent Franciscan historian Father Otto Maas wrote recently: “The spiritual sons of Saint Francis of Assisi were among the first, and they were always the most numerous. On every ship of conquistador or trader were found the followers of the Poverello, eager to carry the light of the True Faith to the children of darkness dwelling in the wilderness.”1

The first Franciscans who came to the New World were with Columbus on his second voyage; and by 1505 a Franciscan Province was established in the West Indies. After the conquest of Mexico, the Franciscans came in large contingents. In 1554, for instance, two hundred came to the Americas on a single occasion. At the time that the first of the Mission Colleges was founded in 1682, there were no less than eighteen Franciscan Provinces and two Custodies in Hispanic America, comprising 449 conventos strictly so-called, and therefore not including residences, hospices, parishes, and missions. The total membership of the eighteen Provinces was 4,842 friars. And in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries thirty-four Franciscan Mission Colleges were founded in Spanish America. Each of these Mission Colleges was the equivalent of a small missionary Province; but the Provinces founded in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries continued to do missionary [End Page 88] work even after the establishment of the Colleges, as will be evident from our outline.

In the present article we shall have to limit ourselves to the Franciscan Provinces of Spanish North America; and in subsequent articles we hope to offer similar outline studies of the Franciscan Provinces of South America, the Franciscan Mission Colleges of Spanish North America, and the Franciscan Mission Colleges of Spanish South America.

It may be well to mention that a Province (spelled with a capital to distinguish it from a civil province or state) is a unit of the Franciscan Order consisting of a number of religious houses or friaries within a certain territory, at the head of which there is a minister provincial. A small Province or one which is in process of formation was called in colonial times a Custody and in modern times is styled a Commissariat. Such a unit is usually dependent on a Province, and in that case is really a part of a Province; its common superior is the Custos or Commissary.

By Franciscans we mean the Order of Friars Minor, exclusive of the Capuchins and Conventuals who are likewise autonomous branches of the First Order of St. Francis. From colonial times to the close of the nineteenth century the Franciscans, in the restricted sense indicated, were called Observant Franciscans. Within the ranks of the latter there were also several so-called Reform families, for instance, the Recollect Franciscans in France and New France and the Discalced or Alcantarine Franciscans in Spain, in Hispanic America, and in the Philippines. In Hispanic America, however, there were only three Provinces of Discalced Franciscans, one in Mexico and two in Brazil; the others were Provinces of Observant Franciscans.

There also were and are Capuchin missionaries in Hispanic America. These are not included in our survey; and a special study concerning them would be welcomed by all students of mission-history. In the seventeenth century Capuchin missions were founded in the West Indies, on the Orinoco in Venezuela, in Guayana (Guiana), and in Brazil. They...


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