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Franciscans Brought Catholicism to Area
Article first published in Vol. 17, 1998.
By Chris Gonzalez and Erik Toyosima
Natives and visitors in the Southwest cannot help but notice figures of St. Francis of Assisi in Churches, in gardens, in private home, even in public places. The influence of St. Frances of Assisi is no coincidence.
Franciscan friars traveled to the New World with Spanish explorers from the very beginning. While the explorers were looking for gold, the Franciscans were looking for a treasure of souls to bring to God. The early Franciscan brothers came to Christianize the natives and became part of the roots of Southwestern culture.
St. Francis was born Giovanni de Pietro de Bernandone in 1118 in Assisi, Italy, to a wealthy family of cloth merchants. His father changed Giovanni's name to Francis because he loved singing French love songs. As young man, Francis led a worldly life. At age 18, he belonged to the Crusaders of Assisi, fighting with townsmen of a nearby town, Perugia.
Held captive in Perugia for more than a year, Francis contracted flu, and the fever he suffered caused him to turn his thoughts to things eternal. Catholic researcher Paschal Robinson says, "At last the emptiness of life he had been leading came to him during that illness." In 1205, he had a vision of the speaking crucifix and began performing charities in Assisi among the lepers. He also restored the chapel of his Santa Maria degli Angeli. Disinherited by his father for his devotion to a religious life, Francis soon began preaching and attracting followers. He chose 12 men who became the original brothers of his first order called the Order of the Friars Minor (OFM) granted by Pope Innocent III.
In 1212, Francis established the Second Order consisting of women who would be called the Poor Clares, named after a young nun of good family form Assisi. Nine years later, the Third Order of Franciscans developed which included men who were married or who could not leave their dependents. By this time, the orders had spread to Africa, England and Spain.
According to Padre Jaime of St. Anthony's Seminary in El Paso, the early friars were wandering evangelists, practicing whatever trade they knew and preaching simple sermons, especially to the sick and the poor. Lepers were a special group receiving attention from the Franciscans. From time to time, the friars would retire to secluded places to pray and gain strength for the apostolate.
In 1224, after years of travel and preaching in the Holy Land and Spain, Francis suffered the marks of Christ's crucifixion known as the stigmata and returned to Assisi. His last years were spent in blindness and great pain, and he died in 1226. He was canonized in 1228.
Artistic renditions of Francis often show him with birds, as well as the wolf, the lamb and fish, for Francis loved animals, especially birds, referring to them as his brothers and sisters. Legend says that even wild animals came to him for protection. Pope John Paul II 1980 named him the patron saint of ecologists.
The Franciscans became more and more powerful over the next 300 years, surpassed only by the Dominicans. However, power struggles developed, and in 1517, Pope Leo X split the order into two groups, the Conventuals who were allowed to own property, and the Observants, who dedicated themselves to precepts taught by Francis, including poverty and itinerant preaching. Out of this latter body came the Capuchins, who became independent.
When Charles V sent Spanish explorers to the New World in order to make Spain the foremost nation of Europe, he dispatched the Franciscans to maintain the power of the Catholic faith. These expeditions were not only about power and wealth but also about the conversion of the native people, the Indians.
The Franciscans who arrived in the El Paso area in 1598 with Don Juan de Oñate were eager to convert the Suma and Manso Indians to Christianity. The Spanish set up a mission system that would spread their faith throughout the continent. Missions were built to be permanent.
Historian Cleve Hallenbeck says that missions were also built to educate the natives in skills such as farming, building and crafts. The missions became the center of settlements which would eventually become towns. Presidios, Spanish forts, were built next to missions to protect them from native attacks.
In El Paso, Fray Garcia de San Francisco built the cornerstone of the El Paso-Juárez metropolis when he completed the Guadalupe Mission in 1668. Missions at Ysleta, Socorro, Carrizal, San Elizario and others prospered; most still serve Catholics of the area.
Today, El Paso is home to the Roger Bacon and St. Anthony seminaries. It is not unusual for El Pasoans to see the familiar brown hooded habit of a young Franciscan. For 400 years, the Franciscans have been spreading the Word of God in El Paso.