José Antonio Díaz de León, the last Franciscan missionary in prerepublic Texas, was born in Mexico either in late 1786 or early 1787. He became a friar in 1811 and was admitted as a cleric in 1812 to the College of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de Zacatecas, which at the time administered all Franciscan missions in Texas. In 1815, after being ordained to the priesthood, Díaz de León began his missionary career in Nuevo Santander (present Tamaulipas). After being assigned to Texas in 1816 he took charge of Nuestra Señora del Refugio Mission in 1817. In 1818 he conducted a census at Refugio that showed 164 persons, not distinguished in the report by ethnic origin, living at the mission pueblo. This population was, however, soon decimated. In 1820 Díaz de León became resident minister of San José y San Miguel de Aguayo Mission in the outskirts of Bexar (San Antonio) and was appointed ad interim president of all the Texas missions. During his tenure at San José he took charge of the spiritual care of Indian and Spanish settlers at four partially secularized missions in the neighborhood of San Antonio. He also served briefly as chaplain of the presidio at Goliad and acted as assistant pastor of the church of San Fernando (later San Fernando de Béxar Cathedral) during the long absence of its parish priest, José Refugio de la Garza, who represented the province as a delegate in Mexico City.
Fray Miguel Muro succeeded Díaz de León at Refugio, where fierce Comanche attacks soon brought about the virtual disintegration of the mission. Díaz de León applied to Governor Antonio María Martínez for military protection for Refugio, or for permission to remove at least the sacred objects to La Bahía. After Mexican independence, the new governor, José Félix Trespalacios, donated fifty pesos to Refugio Mission and promised help, but the desperate situation did not change.
Unknown to Díaz de León, Father Garza recommended and obtained legislation for the final secularization of the Texas missions in 1823. Díaz de León, as acting president, received the order to transfer the missions but declined to comply without instructions from his superiors in Zacatecas. This was the first in a series of delays and requests for modification of the decree that Díaz de León presented to the government over the next seven years. While seeking exemptions for Espíritu Santo and Refugio missions on the basis that the mission Indians still needed protection, the Franciscan had to surrender the San Antonio missions to the Diocese of Monterrey, Nuevo León, on February 29, 1824.
Because of continuing Comanche depredations, Refugio Mission was officially abandoned that summer by order of the political chief, José Antonio Saucedo. But Díaz de León was determined to save the mission and did not give up. He also became the representative of twelve or thirteen Aranama Indian families who claimed right to the mission lands of Espíritu Santo, a move opposed by the ayuntamiento of La Bahía. By that time white colonists, who had been settling the coastal area traditionally considered Indian territory, were causing population displacements in the region. Indians from Refugio Mission, now roaming wild, apparently joined other coastal Indians in harassing the colonists. Armed confrontations ensued. Muro and Díaz de León secured a peace treaty between Stephen F. Austin and the Karankawas, but shortly afterwards hostility continued. The Mexican government became convinced that it was wise to support the rehabilitation of Refugio in order to keep the Indians out of trouble. Díaz de León used the opportunity to make a detailed analysis of the Indian situation in the area and listed the specific needs of Refugio Mission under such conditions. In 1825, while considering a request from the people of Nacogdoches to become their pastor, the missionary moved to Espíritu Santo. He did not wait for government help but set out with Muro to the wilderness in order to gather scattered mission Indians. Refugio was reestablished, and Muro resumed his ministry there, though without much success.
In 1826 Zacatecas officially named Díaz de León president of the Texas missions. The college also granted his request to trade a mission bell to the new town of Victoria for items useful to the Indians under his care at Espíritu Santo. The Franciscan-described by a contemporary French observer as "an industrious, disinterested man, adored by the indigenes"-continued against all odds, by pastoral visitations, to serve the spiritual needs of the whole region for three more years. The question of how to distribute the mission lands turned more complicated because settlers and empresarios coveted them. The town of Goliad (as La Bahía was renamed in 1829) obtained from the state government a new decree to enforce secularization of the missions on March 6, 1829. Díaz de León, upon receiving the order, went to San Antonio to argue once more for delays, conceding Espíritu Santo but requesting exemption at least for Refugio. Having finally lost the case of the Aranama families a few months before, he knew that secularization would result in depriving mission Indians of their land. He gathered a number of Aranamas, as well as some Karankawas and Cocos, and took them to El Oso, ten miles below Goliad on the San Antonio River. He tried to encourage them to farm in common there and live according to a modified mission routine. He took whatever he could from Espíritu Santo and gave it to them. But because the town protested the presence of the Indians in their neighborhood the experiment had to end. The Franciscan finally decided to comply with the secularization decree. He made an inventory and then, on February 8, 1830, surrendered the last remaining missions. The mission lands, as he had expected, were soon made available to colonists.
Under the jurisdiction of the see of Nuevo León the friar was assigned a parish post in Nacogdoches. The College of Zacatecas received an anonymous letter written in Latin by a Catholic empresario in Texas warning the superiors not to let missionaries move to Anglo settlements beyond the Colorado River because of danger to them. Díaz de León, refusing to believe the warning and showing no fear, accepted the risk and went to Nacogdoches. There he found the church being used as a barracks by the troops of Col. José de las Piedras, who had quartered them there since the Fredonian Rebellion of 1827. The friar rented a house as a temporary chapel but was eventually evicted when he could not pay. He organized a "piety board" (junta de piedad) intended to solicit private donations for the construction of a new church and school. Eager to help in civic activities, he became a member of the town's health board, established to combat smallpox. He also began signing the official reports of all births, baptisms, marriages, and deaths. Using Nacogdoches as home base, he undertook pastoral visitations throughout the whole district. He approached Indian, Hispanic, and Anglo alike. His English, however, was very poor, and he had little success with most Anglo colonists, who were willing to be only nominal Catholics in order to comply with the Mexican colonization law. The Anglos would have preferred someone like English-speaking Father Michael Muldoon, who had been performing token Catholic marriages in the Austin colony, thus producing scores of the nominal Catholics who came to be called "Muldoon Catholics." It was difficult to discern at the time who among the colonists was Catholic by conviction. A case in point is Sam Houston, baptized by Díaz de León at the house of Adolphus Sterne, a common friend, in 1833.
The Anglo-Hispanic polarity was reaching a dangerous level of tension in East Texas by 1834. Stephen F. Austin, who had been privately writing bitter condemnations of the Catholic Church in general and missionary friars in particular, was being held in jail without trial in Mexico, to the dismay of the colonists. After the Mexican government passed a national law of religious toleration that suddenly released Protestant colonists from their pretensions to Catholicism, the presence of Díaz de León, a pious and dedicated Mexican missionary, came to be resented in Nacogdoches. He received several death threats and learned that someone had been paid to assassinate him. After performing a marriage ceremony near Liberty (Liberty County), he wrote a moving farewell letter to friends and enemies, knowing that his end was near. On November 4, 1834, he was shot on his way back to Nacogdoches, in the vicinity of St. Augustine. At the moment of death he was kneeling, as if in prayer. He was the thirty-first, and last, Zacatecan missionary to die in Texas. Some Mexicans living in the area, convinced that Díaz de León and five other citizens had been murdered, sent a report to Gen. Martín Perfecto de Cos, who allocated 300 soldiers under Col. Domingo de Ugartechea to impose order in the Eastern District. Meanwhile, the official investigation of the Franciscan's death dragged for a few months until an inquiry concluded that the missionary had grown so frightened of being killed that he killed himself. Catholic historians regard this judgment as a calumny against a priest-martyr, whereas Protestant ones favor a verdict of suicide. It would at least have been impolitic for a court of inquiry staffed by colonists to return a verdict of murder. In 1926 a German, Robert Streit, published a historical novel on Díaz de León, Der letzte Franziskaner von Texas; the work remains untranslated. See also FRANCISCANS, CATHOLIC CHURCH, CATHOLIC DIOCESAN CHURCH OF SPANISH AND MEXICAN TEXAS.