The Franciscans who helped build Texas

This post was underwritten by a generous contribution from the Texas Historical Foundation.

The new Alamo Master Plan is encouraging Texans to appreciate the many layers of historical significance associated with the “cradle of Texas liberty,” with the story of Mission Valero (the Alamo) as an important aspect. Such a reimagining of the Alamo is timely, since 2018 marks the 300th anniversary of the founding of Béxar (San Antonio) and its most famous mission. But how did the Spanish missions in Texas come to be? Most Texans know the basic outlines of the story, since Texas schoolchildren begin learning about Fray Antonio Margil de Jesús in the seventh grade.[1] Yet as with most history, there is much more depth than many people realize. The missions were founded by Franciscan missionaries who were guided by a specific worldview.

Here, we explore who the Franciscan Missionaries were, what it meant to be a missionary, and how and why they came to Texas and the rest of the American Southwest.

George Nelson, [Franciscan Friar at Mission Valero (the Alamo)], 2004. Mural located in Long Barracks, The Alamo Collection, the Alamo, San Antonio, TX.

Missionaries are often seen as simple agents of the Catholic Church, an institution that in turn served the Spanish Crown in its efforts to pacify and “civilize” American Indian groups. Yet the missionaries represented a unique subcategory of Catholics, and their relationship to both Church and Crown was complicated. Further, the missionaries did not always share Spain’s goals and outlook.

This letter signed by Fray Antonio Margil de Jesús made the case for the founding of a mission at the site of Mission San José. Fray Antonio Margil de Jesús to the Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo, December 26, 1719, Title to Mission San José and San Miguel de Aguayo, Records of the Spanish Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Texas missionaries belonged to the Franciscan Order, a religious community founded by St. Francis of Assisi in thirteenth-century Italy.[2] In imitation of their founder, who renounced all his worldly possessions and wandered the earth barefoot, preaching and praying, the Franciscans adopted a life of apostolic poverty. They took strict vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience; adopted coarse habits and codes of behavior; and roamed the countryside, begging for their sustenance. Seeking direct contact with the divine, they worked to master and suppress their worldly desires, withdrew from commercial society, and dedicated themselves to preaching and quiet contemplation of Christ’s sacrifice.[3]

Detail showing the signature of Fray Antonio Margil de Jesús.

A restless, self-critical bunch, the Franciscans underwent several waves of internal reform and debate during the order’s infancy in Europe, a process which led to fragmentation and conflict. At issue was the question of how much the members should assimilate into the diocesan Church and worldly society generally. Should they follow Saint Francis’s example rigorously, forsaking material goods and permanent dwellings? Or should they retire to convents to study and pray? These questions nearly pulled the order apart over the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In fact, some Franciscans were so dedicated to poverty and so suspicious of worldliness that they renounced the concept of property altogether, a radical stance that put them on a collision course with Church authorities and other members of their own order.[4]

Giovanni Bellini, Saint Francis in the Desert, c. 1480. Frick Collection, New York City. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Saint Francis is depicted wearing the characteristic brown habit tied with a three-knotted cord (symbolizing the Franciscan vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience).

Although recurring conflict forced them to moderate their stance somewhat, by the time of the Iberian “discovery” of the New World in the fifteenth century, the more rigorous “Observant” wing of the order had triumphed over its “Conventual” counterpart. The Spanish friars who came to Mexico in the sixteenth century, and their successors who went north to Texas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, carried this rigorous, Observant worldview with them. Their unique religious culture left a deep imprint on Spanish Texas.

Franciscans were no simple hangers-on to the Spanish colonization project — they were in some ways its intellectual authors and architects. In their evangelical wanderings over the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, they traveled through Europe, the Middle East, and even parts of Africa and Asia. They had accompanied Spain’s first imperial adventure in the Canary Islands in 1402, which in many ways served as a trial run for their missionary expansion into the Americas. Their knowledge of the globe was almost unrivaled in the West, and their travel writings, treatises, and maps influenced Renaissance cartographers and explorers like Christopher Columbus, who is said to have become a Franciscan Tertiary (lay brother of the third order) in his dying days.[5]

Vincenzo Maria Coronelli, America Settentrionale Colle Nuoue Scoptere sin All Anno 1688, Venice, Map #93709, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX. Coronelli was a Franciscan Conventual friar who served as court cartographer for the Republic of Venice. Although he never visited the Americas, the friar tirelessly followed the news of new discoveries, which he incorporated into his maps.[10]

Spanish Franciscans from the La Rábida convent in Andalucía were early supporters of Columbus’s mission, and friars accompanied him on his second voyage. Famously, twelve Franciscans journeyed to Mexico in 1524 at the behest of Hernán Cortés to evangelize the Aztecs immediately after the conquest. Once there, the friars quickly established themselves as the foremost experts in the language (Nahuatl) and culture of the Aztecs (or Mexica), with friars such as Bernardino de Sahagún penning what might be considered the first ethnographic texts ever written.[6]

The often apocalyptic and utopian ideas of the Franciscan friars shaped the Spanish colonial enterprise in the Americas from the start. Like the Franciscan historian Jerónimo de Mendieta, many friars believed that Spain’s conquests in the Americas would lead to the events prophesized in the Book of Revelation. In anticipation of the coming apocalypse and the establishment of a 1000-year, paradisiacal kingdom of Christ on earth, the friars rushed to convert American Indians, whom they considered the last people on earth who had not been exposed to Christianity.[7]

Franciscans set out to create a utopian Indian Church in America as in this evangelization scene. Fray Diego de Valadés, Rhetorica christiana: ad concionandi et orandi vsvm accommodate […] ex Indorvm maxime deprompta svnt historiis (Perugia: Petrus Jacobus Petrutius, 1579), p. 225, Getty Research Institute, accessed via https://archive.org/details/rhetoricachristi00vala, May 5, 2017.

Not only were the friars confident in their ability to overcome the significant language and cultural barriers between themselves and their would-be flock, they believed American Indians could be better Christians than Europeans. Admiring the Indians’ poverty and apparent indifference to material possessions, the friars convinced themselves they had found the perfect converts. A life wandering barefoot among the poor in a strange land was not for them a punishment. It was an opportunity to recreate Christ’s “primitive church” while awaiting the end of the world.[8] Of course, in the context of conquest and colonialism, such a project left the indigenous communities of Mexico with little choice in the matter of their conversion. Observance was enforced with both spiritual and bodily punishment.[9]

Friar instructing an indigenous congregation on the passion and resurrection of Christ. Frontispiece, Fray Juan de Torquemada, Monarquía Indiana (Madrid: Oficina de Nicolás Rodríguez Franco, 1723), Rare Book Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

The unique worldview and goals of the Franciscans made for a sometimes-tense relationship with both the Church and Crown in the Americas. Their vision of a utopian society of friars and Indians living in apostolic poverty had little place for diocesan bishops and secular priests, let alone Crown officials or ordinary Spanish immigrants. Recurring conflicts with Church and Crown notwithstanding, this spirit of independence and utopianism was inherited by later generations of Franciscan missionaries, such as the ones who ventured to Texas in the late seventeenth century. These same missionaries established the building blocks of what would become cultural centers of population, like Bejar (San Antonio) in Texas. A fuller understanding of where these missionaries came from, and how they developed their beliefs, provides crucial context for many documents in the Spanish Collection of the General Land Office Archives.


[1] http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/rules/tac/chapter113/ch113b.pdf

[2] To learn more about the Franciscan Order, see: Handbook of Texas Online, Marion A. Habig, O.F.M., “Franciscans,” accessed April 12, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ixf01
 Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Modified on February 29, 2016. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

[3] Steven E. Turley, Franciscan Spirituality and Mission in New Spain, 1524–1599: Conflict Beneath the Sycamore Tree (Steven Turley, 2014); John Richard Humpidge Moorman, History of the Franciscan Order: From its Origins to the Year 1517 (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1988).

[4] Julia McClure, The Franciscan Invention of the New World (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2017), pp. 23–40; Turley, Franciscan Spirituality and Mission, pp. 1–9.

[5] McClure, The Franciscan Invention of the New World, pp. 23–40.

[6] Miguel León-Portilla, Bernardino de Sahagún: First Anthropologist (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002).

[7] John Leddy Phelan, The Millennial Kingdom of the Franciscans in the New World, 2nd ed., revised (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970). Another Franciscan theory cast the Indians as members of the Lost Tribes of Israel who preserved certain Judaic traditions underneath their “corrupted” New World culture. The task, then, was to “uncover” it.

[8] McClure, The Franciscan Invention of the New World, pp. 159–180; Leddy Phelan, The Millennial Kingdom, pp. 44–58.

[9] For an example of how dashed Franciscan hopes for utopia could turn into grisly violence against indigenous people in Mexico, see Inga Clendinnen, Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatán, 1517–1570, 5th ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

[10] Coronelli was a Franciscan Conventual friar who served as court cartographer for the Republic of Venice. Although he never visited the Americas, the friar tirelessly followed the news of new discoveries, which he incorporated into his maps. This map of North America is currently on display in the exhibit, “Mapping Texas: From Frontier to the Lone Star Republic,” at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.


This post was edited to correct an earlier error about the arrival date of the twelve Franciscan missionaries in Mexico.