Florida Franciscan Missions

We traveled to St. Augustine and Tallahassee Florida and visited Mission Nombre De Dios and Mission San Luis. The Spanish Franciscan missionaries were hard at work in in bringing Catholicism to the native Apalachee indian populations in Florida long before the United States was formed as a country.

The Mission of Nombre de Dios traces its origins to the founding of the City of St. Augustine, America’s oldest city, in 1565. On September 8, 1565, Pedro Menendez de Aviles landed and proclaimed this site for Spain and the Church. It was here that Menendez knelt to kiss a wooden cross presented to him by Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, chaplain of his expedition. It was on these grounds that Fr. Lopez would celebrate the first parish Mass and begin the work at America’s first Mission. It was at this sacred spot that the Spanish settlers would begin the devotion to Our Lady of La Leche that continues into the present day.

Later that same day we traveled just thee hours west to visit Mission San Luis in Tallahasee.

Shortly after the founding of St. Augustine in 1565, missions were established along the Atlantic coastal plain and westward into north Florida. Native groups with initial sustained Spanish contact (the Timucuans and Guales) were the first to suffer dramatic population losses as a result of disease and overwork. In 1633, Pedro Muñoz and Francisco Martínez launched a formal mission effort in Apalachee Province. For reasons not well understood, the Apalachees had requested friars as early as 1608. It is possible that since their closest tribal neighbors, the Timucuans, had created an alliance with the Spaniards, the Apalachees felt compelled to do the same. However, it is also likely that epidemics introduced a century earlier following the first Spanish expeditions had raised doubts about the ability of traditional Apalachee leaders to protect their people. A document from a Franciscan council states “the Indians obey their chiefs poorly, and the chiefs would like to gain control of their Indians with the aid and support of Your majesty.” Evidence suggests that some native leaders, many of whom were high priests as well as chiefs, were willing to relinquish some priestly power when it no longer bolstered their chiefly authority. They were also guaranteed protections under the Spanish legal system. Spaniards introduced a law code based on Roman law (not Anglo Saxon) that clearly defined rights for slaves, freed persons, and women. Under Spanish law, all subjects of the Crown had access to grievance redress, property rights, and the right to testify in courts.

The Spaniards’ specific construct for the governance of Spanish Florida was a system of two republics. The Spanish Republic functioned as one entity with its own institutional hierarchy, while the Native Republic, which actually consisted of multiple tribal groups, recognized hereditary leaders, lands, and Indian “vassals.” Association with Spaniards enhanced the power and prestige of native leaders through formal recognition including honorific titles (such as “governor” and “don”), military alliances, and gift giving, including firearms, iron tools and, particularly, cloth and clothing. This form of representative government also served to control the native populations under chiefs’ rule. They spoke on behalf of their people (individual villages or entire tribes) in matters dealing with Spanish authorities, and Spaniards interfered little with the inner workings of tribal affairs. Individual rights were accorded to everyone who rendered obedience to the Crown, thus becoming subjects of the King. Additionally, the Spaniards appointed an official Protector for the Indians of Spanish Florida. The Protector answered to the Governor, but also had the authority to write directly to the King.

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