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

DURING the three centuries of the colonial period, Franciscan friars devoted themselves to the Christianization and civilization of the natives and the spiritual care of settlers in all the regions now comprising the nine Spanish American Republics of South America, in the Portuguese American Republic of Brazil, and even in the Guianas; and though the various units of the Franciscan Order suffered considerable reverses during the wars for independence and subsequent disorders of the nineteenth century, the sons of St. Francis are today in all these countries with the exception of Venezuela and the Guianas.

“South America,” writes Dr. Leonard Lemmens, “became the largest mission field of the Franciscans in modern [colonial] times. Missionaries of the Order were here, and, if we except Guyana and Patagonia, remained in every country up to the time of the Revolution. In some territories they were the first and for some time the only missionaries. Their number was never equalled by any other religious order. When other religious orders which participated in the missionary work at the beginning restricted themselves afterwards to the sacred ministry among Christians, the Franciscans followed the pagan Indians who withdrew into the virgin forests and plains, and continued the work amid a thousand dangers, in some places down to the present day” (Geschichte der Franziskanermissionen, p. 269).

The history of the friars’ work in South America, however, is even less known than that of Spanish North America. Rippy-Nelson’s Crusaders of the Jungle, for instance, mentions only in passing the work of the Franciscans in some of the eight “principal frontier mission fields of Spanish South America, 1600–1800;” and they could very well have increased the number of “principal frontier mission fields” by adding such Franciscan mission fields as (1) Putumayo, (2) Ucayali, (3) Cerro de la Sal, (4) Tucumán. These and others, at any rate, deserve no less to be ranked among the principal frontier mission fields of Spanish South America during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

During the colonial period nine fully organized Franciscan Provinces were established in South America from 1553 to 1675; and during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries twenty-four additional Franciscan Apostolic Colleges were founded in Spanish South America. At the present day there are nine Provinces, three Independent Commissariats and ten Dependent Commissariats, [End Page 72] which have charge also of five Vicariates Apostolic and three Prelatures nullius; and the total number of Franciscan friars in South America is now 2,432, with 335 friaries. Add to these figures the 3,671 friars and 346 friaries of North and Central America, and there are thus in the Americas of today 6,103 Franciscan friars and 781 Franciscan friaries.

It may be well to mention that we shall follow the same method here as in the survey of the Franciscan Provinces of Spanish North America (The Americas, I, 88–92). By Franciscans we mean the: Order of Friars Minor, and hence the Capuchins are not included. First we shall present an outline of the missions of the nine Provinces of South America in this order: Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, and the two of Brazil. The work of the Dutch friars in colonial Guiana and the islands of Curaçao, Bonaire and Aruba will be described separately, following the section on Venezuela. The Apostolic Colleges are reserved for another study. At the end of each section we shall offer a brief bibliographical essay.

bibliographical note

Besides the works mentioned in the general introduction (The Americas, I, 91–92), especially: Conspectus Missionum; Lemmens, Geschichte; Civezza, Storia; Gonzaga, De Origine; Maas, Las Ordenes; Parras, Gobierno; Truxillo, Exhortación; Ocaña, Relación; Streit, Bibliotheca; and the Espasa Enciclopedia, it will be well be well to list the following for South America.

An English translation of Alcedo’s Diccionario, mentioned together with the above, was published in London, 1812: The Geography and Historical Dictionary of America and the West Indies, 5 vols.

A general history of the Franciscans in Latin America is that by Francisco Alvarez de Villanueva, Relación histórica de . . . los pp...


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