History of the Franciscans in the Southwest

Long before the Franciscans arrived in Arizona and New Mexico, Native Americans of Pueblo, Navajo and Apache tribes populated the Southwest, sometimes fighting among themselves. Yet, they nurtured a rich life of faith.

Marcos de Niza, a Franciscan, lost during his travels from Mexico City in the early years of Spanish exploration during the 16th century, first set eyes on the Zuni pueblo in western New Mexico in 1539. Because the adobe used to construct the dwellings had been mixed with quartz, the buildings glistened in the setting sun, an image de Niza mistook for gold. Telling the story upon finding his way back to Mexico City, interest in the area blossomed, with Don Francisco Coronado traveling to the area two years later, accompanied by other Franciscans, ready to evangelize the natives.

Thus, Christianity was introduced to the natives, but Spanish imperial decrees and other factors led the indigenous people to reject their newfound religion and revolt against the Spanish in 1680. The Franciscans martyred during these battles numbered 21, with even more Pueblo Indians – who chose to hold fast to their Christian faith – killed by their own tribesmen.

The Spanish – and the Franciscans – returned to the region in the late 17th century. Various Native tribes had been emboldened by the revolt, however, and frequently raided settlements on horseback. Once enemies, the Pueblo and Spanish cooperated to defend themselves against these nomads.

When Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1821, trust in the Franciscans diminished, with the friars seen as too closely linked to Spanish endeavors. The bishop of the Diocese of Durango chose to rely upon the few diocesan priests assigned to his See. The number of Franciscans declined until the last died in 1848.

Franciscans would not reappear in the southwest until 1898, when Fr. Anselm Weber and two other friars arrived at St. Michael’s Mission. The northeast Arizona mission had been founded by Saint Katharine Drexel to serve the Navajo on the reservation established by the U.S. government in 1868. The three friars came from St. John the Baptist Province, Cincinnati, upon Saint Katharine’s request, and embarked upon an adventure which would see them developing a written Navajo language, facilitating additions of 1,000,000-plus acres to the reservation, and assisting in the establishment of the first democratically elected Navajo Tribal Council.

With the coming of the 20th century, Franciscan friars from Cincinnati expanded their ministries in New Mexico, to the Pueblo Indian settlements, Hispanic villages, and outlying missions. The Franciscans count noted friars, among many others, who assisted in evangelizing the Southwest: Archbishop Albert Daeger, OFM, of Santa Fe; Bernard Espelage, OFM, first Bishop of the Diocese of Gallup; and Angelico Chavez, OFM, the first native New Mexican to be ordained to the priesthood.

In 1984, the Provincial Chapter of St. John the Baptist Province, the highest governing body of the Province, met for the first time in the Southwest, at the College of Santa Fe. After 86 years staffing missions in the Southwest - and decades of discussion - the friars voted to petition the general administration of the Franciscan Order in Rome to establish an independent entity in the New Mexico and Arizona. As a result of this action, on January 3, 1985, the Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe was formally erected by decree of the Most Reverend John Vaughn, Minister General of the Friars Minor, who was present in the Cathedral of St. Francis in Santa Fe for the occasion.

Approximately 100 friars, all but a few working and living in the Southwest, became the founding members of the new Province. At the time, the friars were working among the Navajo and Pueblo Indians of New Mexico and Arizona, as well as with the Hispanic people in a number of parishes. They were also soon to be involved in ministry of the Word, preaching retreats and parish missions. The headquarters of the Province is located in Albuquerque.