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from the archives
the first Florida mission
Mission San Francisco de Potano

The first Catholic mission church and European educational center in the interior of Florida was San Francisco de Potano (Saint Francis in Potano). Located eight miles northwest of present-day Gainesville, the mission was founded in the year 1606, 14 years before the Pilgrims came ashore at Plymouth Rock, and four centuries ago this year. Potano was the name of the native tribe of Timucua-speakers who inhabited the region of today’s Alachua County.

The mission’s patron was St. Francis of Assisi (A.D. 1182-1226), beloved apostle to the poor who founded a religious order of men, the Order of Friars Minor, whose members half a millennium later ministered to the native populations of North America from Florida to California.

San Francisco de Potano was founded by Franciscan friar Martín Prieto, OFM. Sometime after 1615 Father Martín wrote: “On April 10, 1606 I was sent [from Mission Nombre de Dios at St. Augustine] to the province of Potano among the natives where there had been but one Christian, and he had been baptized at St. Augustine. Another friar went with me. I commenced to build a church there named San Francisco.”

This was the first-ever use of the name San Francisco for a mission, church, or geographical location in what is now the United States, bestowed 170 years before the founding of San Francisco in California.

Nearby, Friar Martín erected a visita (mission station) to which he gave the name San Miguel (St. Michael). This was the first use of the name St. Michael in what is now the State of Florida.

Friar Martín’s account of the founding months at the mission and outlying station includes the following dramatic sequence:

In San Miguel and San Francisco, the Indians listened to the instruction and with great diligence learned the things of God that I taught them…. [In another place] the Indians made fun of me. They jostled me when I announced Christian doctrine to them. One of them said: “Our cacique [chief] is very old. When he was a boy he was a captive of Hernando de Soto. From Christians he had received much injury and for this reason he tells us that we should not become Christians.”

At that moment there was a thunderclap so that all fell to the ground, accompanied by so strong a wind that in this place and in the other there remained neither a house nor a barn standing, nor a hut nor any structure, great or small. Only a cross and a church in which Mass had been said, remained standing, and this through the mercy of God, our Master. The next day the cacique called for me in order that I might instruct him. Within six days I baptized him and after that he gave his soul to God. The entire locality had the greatest desire of becoming Christians. I baptized there four hundred persons, old and young.

The mission would last 100 years.

Michael Gannon, Ph.D., is a Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Florida, and noted author on the history of the Catholic faith in Florida.