The Franciscan Confrontation with Indigenous Diversity in Spanish Texas, 1690–1821

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 11:30 AM
Chicago Ballroom B (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Jay T. Harrison, Catholic University of America
As representatives of the Franciscan renewal of missionary fervor in late Habsburg New Spain, Texas missionaries engaged in direct missions to the ‘infidels’ of the north while their brethren in the missionary colleges attempted the restoration of localized, indigenous Catholicism in the closer provinces of New Spain.  The dual purpose of the apostolic colleges of Propaganda Fide was but single-sided once friars left the settled areas of New Spain, and yet it was based on the same Catholic intentionality and cultural hegemony rooted in Christendom’s history as interpreted through the Observant Franciscan lens.  Friars in Spanish Texas encountered a world dominated by shifting Indian polities, and after a half century the friars lost their drive to convert the dominant groups; they opted instead to congregate weaker bands in need of allies against the dominant bands and nations of the north.  This key accommodation explains the lasting presence of the Texas missions in part, though overall most attempts to found missions were abortive.  This paper will argue that the Franciscan discourses on missionary intentions and purposes did not waver throughout the mission period (1690-1693; 1714-1821) but rather accommodation was achieved through gradual acceptance of the futility of attempting the conversion of the each indigenous band in the province.  Instead, focused efforts towards marginalized bands enabled the Franciscans to construct small missionary communities in and around the villa of San Fernando (San Antonio), the coastal region of La Bahia, and a few other exceptional locations.  As late as the 1790s friars actively pursued and congregated coastal peoples in missions.  These efforts illustrate adaptation to real politics at work in Texas while friars’ preserved the central theoretical discourse justifying their efforts in the region.