In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Franciscans in Colonial Latin America

  • Introduction
  • General Studies
  • Original Sources
  • New Spain–Mexico
  • Early Friars in Mexico
  • Yucatán
  • Colegios de Propaganda Fide
  • Mission Presidents
  • South America
  • Collections of Essays

Latin American Studies Franciscans in Colonial Latin America
John F. Schwaller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 December 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0235


Four religious orders have played central roles in the history of Latin America: Jesuits, Franciscan, Dominicans, and Mercedarians. But the first two of these are significantly more important and have had an outsized influence on the region. Of these, the order with the longest experience in the New World is the Franciscans, having been present in the Caribbean only a few years into the Spanish settlement of the region. The Franciscan Order was founded in the early 13th century. A wealthy young man, Giovanni Bernardone, known as Francesco, rebelled from the life of wealth and opulence into which he had been born, as the son of a wealthy cloth merchant. He took refuse in an abandoned chapel and attracted a group of followers. The central elements of his teaching were that as much as possible, they were to live in imitation of Christ by being poor and humble, and in this way attract people to God’s love. They rejected titles and outward signs of social differentiation, becoming known as the Friars Minor, or Lesser Brothers. Francis collected his teachings into a simple set of rules for his companions, which eventually received papal approval. The interpretation of these rules, however, led to many different fractures within the order, as one group or another claimed to live a life closer to the truth of the rule. In Latin America there were two principal male Franciscan orders: the Observants and the Discalced. The Franciscan Family also consists of female orders, mainly represented by the Order of St. Clare. The order for women is traditionally known as the second order. Beyond the orders for men and women, there have always been individuals who followed the Franciscan Rule but who never took clerical vows and remained laypersons. These lay people are organized into the Third Order of St. Francis, also known as the Secular Franciscan Order. Members of the order arrived in Mexico as the Spanish invasion became an occupation of the formerly Mexica territory. The first organized missions to that region were Franciscans. In South America, other orders had primacy of arrival, but the Franciscans soon arrived and began their missionary work there too. Many of the most famous mission systems of the far-flung fringes of the Spanish Empire were under the control of the Franciscans, including Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Upper California, and the Spanish Amazon. Thus, in order to fully understand the Catholic Church in Latin America, one must fully consider the contributions of the Franciscans. Many scholars have studied the order in Latin America. Undoubtedly the most important contributor to the study of the order has been the Academy of American Franciscan History (founded in Washington, DC; now located in Oceanside, California) as a research entity within Catholic University. It is underwritten and supported by the order in North America. There are few works that provide a complete overview of the Franciscan Order in Latin America. Nearly all scholarly work has focused on the activities of the friars in specific regions at specific times. Thus, the literature on the Franciscans remains highly fragmented both temporally and geographically. While there are studies of early missionary activity in Mexico and Peru, there is no comparison of the two experiences. Much scholarly attention has focused on the initial evangelization of the 16th century, but the arrival of friars belonging to the specialized Colegios de Propaganda Fide (Colleges for the Spreading of the Faith) dominated the study of the order of the late 17th and 18th centuries.

General Studies

Fewer than a handful of works consider the Franciscan experience in the New World outside a specific time and place. Yet, those works that do attempt to provide an overview are extremely important in laying a common foundation for many of the other studies that have been done. The one work that truly considers the Franciscan experience in Latin America is Gómez Canedo 1988. Similarly, although more clearly grounded in the Franciscan activities in Mexico, Sylvest 1975 attempts to understand the common themes found in the order’s missionary world.

  • Gómez Canedo, Lino. Evangelización y conquista: Experiencia franciscana en Hispanoamérica. 2d ed. Mexico City: Editorial Porrúa, 1988.

    Perhaps the only work to consider the totality of the Franciscan experience throughout Latin America.

  • Sylvest, Edwin E. Motifs of Franciscan Mission Theory in Sixteenth-Century New Spain, Province of the Holy Gospel. Washington, DC: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1975.

    Sylvest focuses specifically on the actions and models used by the Franciscans in their efforts at evangelization as developed in central Mexico.

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