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America’s First Pastor

by Michael Gannon, Ph.D.

To date in this series of articles we have concentrated on the Spanish men’s religious orders, most notably the Franciscans, who ministered to the indigenous people of Florida (“Indians”) during the 16th and 17th centuries. It is time now to take note of the secular, or parish priests who tended to the spiritual needs of the Spaniards themselves after the founding of the first permanent parish in North America north of Mexico, that of St. Augustine in 1565.

Four parish priests accompanied the founding expedition of Pedro Menndez de Avils from Spain to Florida in that year. The only name we know of the four is that of Father Francisco Lpez de Mendoza, who was fleet chaplain, and, after the landing here, first pastor of St. Augustine.

From Spanish documents recently discovered in the Thomas Gilcrease Institute in Tulsa, Okla. we learn that Francisco was a native of Jerez de la Frontera in the southern Spanish province of Andalucia. His parents were Leonidas de Huevar and Maria de Mendoza, hijodalgos, or nobles. One other child, Martin de Trujillo de Mendoza issued from that union. The family lived in a house on a side street off the plaza San Dionisio.

During his adolescence Francisco engaged in a knife fight with another youth named Alonso de Estrada. In the combat, which stemmed from a love affair, neither boy was injured, though Alonso suffered two cuts to his clothing. The two later made up and became close friends.

After ordination as a priest Father Lpez served in various parishes of his hometown. In those assignments he gathered praise from citizens of Jerez who described him, variously, as “a priest of good conscience, lifestyle and fame, very reserved, and a good example to the community:” and as “one of the most honest and honorable priests who existed in that city.” At the date, 1565, when he was recruited by Menndez de Avils to serve as fleet chaplain of his Florida enterprise, the priest was “about” 40 years old.

Father Lpez’s crossing of the Atlantic was every bit as wind-tossed and harrowing as the famous voyage of the Pilgrims’ Mayflower 50 years later. We know the details of his passage from a diario (diary or journal) that he kept. In it we read that the fleet on which he sailed departed Cdiz in southern Spain in early July of 1565.

At the Canary Islands the expedition paused to take on firewood and drinking water. Having set sail again, the fleet soon encountered “a fierce tempest” that broke up the disciplined columns of the 19 sailing vessels with their 1,504 passengers and cargoes. Some ships were forced to return to port; other craft simply disappeared over the horizon. Father Lpez wrote that only his ship and four others remained together. Worse was to come. On July 20th, the chaplain recorded that “a violent wind arose” and became “the most frightful hurricane one could imagine!”

Our story continues next month!