St. Augustine Catholic
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Katrina One Year Later
Angels of Mercy
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from San Francisco to San Luis

In 1675, roughly a century after the beginning of the Spanish Franciscan missions to the Indians of Florida, 25 mission churches stood in a line across the waist of the northern peninsula. From St. Augustine in the east, with its pioneer mission Nombre de Dios, to mission San Luis at present-day Tallahassee these frontier churches extended like rosary beads across the principal chiefdoms of the Timucua and Apalache nations.

The church buildings themselves were of wattle-and-daub or wood plank construction, hence easy subjects to fire, wind, rot and enemy (English) assault. Not surprisingly, none survives today. (Because their name is so well known, it bears mention that the Seminole Indians did not figure in the mission story. Originally Lower Creek Indians from the Georgia-Alabama line, the Seminoles would not enter Florida until the middle of the 18th century, when the Spanish missions had long been destroyed, as we shall see in the next issue.)

During the mission period, 1577 to 1706, the number of baptized Indian converts numbered as high as 26,000 at a time. The Franciscan friars, unlike their later counterparts in California, did little to alter the aboriginal settlements. Nor did they expropriate the natives’ lands or push them back along an ever-advancing European frontier, as happened in the English colonies to the north. Instead, the Florida missionaries lived among their charges much as Peace Corps volunteers live respectfully within foreign societies today.

Under what was called the “Republic of Indians” Florida’s converts were given the privileges and protections of a relatively autonomous state. They enjoyed rights to inherit titles and offices, to own land and rule vassals, and, in the case of chiefs and nobles, to wear swords and go about on horseback. They were protected from molestation by rules that forbade any Spaniard on legitimate business among them from staying longer than three days in an Indian village (where the visitor also was constricted to sleeping in the “official” building - the council house).

The primary mission of the friars was to celebrate Mass, administer the sacraments and preach the Gospel. In the native pueblos they taught not only the catechism of Christianity but also European farming, cattle and hog raising, weaving, music, and, in many instances, reading and writing.
To that labor they devoted, individually, as many as 30 or 40 years, until death set the final seal on their sacrifice. One can only imagine the ordeals they suffered from long overland treks, hunger, heat, semitropical diseases and unending clouds of mosquitoes.

Truly theirs were lives of total service, devoid of any ambition for human glory. Of them may be said what historian Francis Parkman wrote of Jesuit missionaries later in Canada: “Men steeped in antique learning, pale with the close breath of the cloister, here spent the noon and evening of their lives…and stood serene before the direst shapes of death.”

We may be comforted to reflect that Catholic Florida began with this great work of the human spirit.

Michael Gannon, Ph.D.