By: Marion A. Habig, O.F.M.

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: October 16, 2019

Franciscans is the popular name of the priests and brothers of the Order of Friars Minor, founded by St. Francis of Assisi in 1209. In 1517 Pope Leo X divided the order into two autonomous branches, Observant Friars Minor and Conventual Friars Minor. A third branch, the Capuchin Friars Minor, begun in 1525, became autonomous in 1619. Within the ranks of the Observants, three stricter groups were formed in the sixteenth century: the Discalced or Alcantarine, the Reformati, and the Recollect Friars Minor. All the Franciscans in New Spain, except those who belonged to the Discalced Province of San Diego in Mexico beginning in 1599, were Observants. A Franciscan province comprises a number of conventos or friaries in a certain area, and these are under the jurisdiction of a minister provincial. No fewer than six provinces were established in Mexico between 1534 and 1606. The Franciscan missionary colleges, of which seven were founded in Mexico between 1683 and 1860, did not belong to a province but were the equivalent of a small province; each consisted of only one large convento or colegio, governed by a father guardian. The colleges ceased to exist in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The members of the colleges wore a grey Franciscan habit, while those of the Observant provinces had a habit of a bluish color; the Discalced Friars' habit was light brown. In 1897 Pope Leo XIII reunited the Discalced, Reformati, and Recollect Franciscans with the Observants in one Order of Friars Minor, simply so-called; and dark brown was made the common color of the habit of all its members.

The Franciscans who made journeys into what is now Texas or served as missionaries there during the Spanish period belonged to different units of the order, both provinces and colleges. If the Indian missions they maintained formed a group in a certain area, they were organized into a presidency with a father president as superior, or in the case of a province, if there were many missions, into a custody that remained dependent on the province until it could be made a new and separate province.

If the Quivira of 1540 was not in Texas but in Kansas, on the north side of the Arkansas River near Great Bend, as is now considered quite certain, the first mission in Texas was founded in 1632 near the site of present San Angelo by Franciscan missionaries from the custody of San Pablo de Nuevo México, which was a part of the Province of Santo Evangelio or Mexico City. The same custody also founded the missions in the El Paso del Norte area in 1659 and 1680, the two near the site of Presidio, Texas, in 1683, and another short-lived Jumano mission, east or west of the San Angelo area, in 1684. Later missions founded in 1715 in the Presidio area were established by Franciscans of the Province of San Francisco de Zacatecas, which had charge of numerous missions in the area of the present Mexican state of Chihuahua.

Most of the Spanish missions in what is now Texas were established and staffed by Franciscans from two missionary colleges, the College of Santa Cruz de Querétaro (founded 1683) and the College of Guadalupe de Zacatecas (founded 1703–07). Fr. Damián Massanet and his companions of the college of Querétaro founded the first two missions in East Texas in 1690-San Francisco de los Tejas, which was abandoned in 1693, and Santísimo Nombre de María, which was destroyed by a flood in 1692. The first permanent missions in East Texas, six in number, were a joint project of the two colleges of Querétaro and Zacatecas. In 1716 Father President Isidro Félix de Espinosa of Querétaro founded three missions, which were temporarily abandoned in 1719, restored in 1721, moved in 1730 to a site on the Colorado River now in Zilker Park in Austin, and reestablished on the San Antonio River in 1731. In the meantime, Queretaran Father Antonio de Olivares, called the founder of San Antonio, had established San Antonio de Valero Mission in 1718; it became the Alamo after its secularization in 1793. Nearby San Francisco Xavier de Nájera Mission was staffed from Valero from 1722 to 1726 and then merged with it.

"Unsuccessful" missions were also founded by missionaries of the college of Querétaro: the three missions on the San Xavier (now San Gabriel) River in 1746–49, two of them moved to the San Marcos River in 1755 and one to the Guadalupe in 1756 (see SAN XAVIER MISSIONS); the Apache mission of Santa Cruz on the San Saba River in 1757, destroyed the next year by hostile Indians; and San Lorenzo de Santa Cruz and Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria missions to the Apaches on the Nueces River in 1762. The three Apache missions belonged not to the presidency that had been moved from East Texas to San Antonio in 1731, but to that of the Rio Grande missions of San Juan Bautista, which was begun there in 1700. For the mission of Santa Cruz and others planned in the San Saba River area, besides the missionaries supplied by the college of Querétaro, three were sent by the College of San Fernando or Mexico City (founded 1730–34).

In 1772 the college of Querétaro surrendered its four remaining missions on the San Antonio River to the college of Zacatecas and left Texas so it could undertake the care and further development of the former Jesuit missions of Pimería Alta (northernmost Mexico and southern Arizona) into a chain of successful missions, resembling and contemporary with the "Old Missions of California" (that is, Alta California), which were begun in 1769 by Fr. Junípero Serra and his companions from the College of San Fernando.

Five of the Texas missions of the College of Guadalupe de Zacatecas were founded by Father President Antonio Margil de Jesús, either personally or through a companion friar who represented him. They were Guadalupe Mission at Nacogdoches, founded in 1716; Dolores Mission near San Augustine; Los Adaes Mission near Robeline, Louisiana, founded in 1717; San José y San Miguel de Aguayo Mission on the San Antonio River, founded in 1720; and Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo Mission, near Lavaca Bay, founded in 1721–22, moved to its second site on the Guadalupe River in 1726 and to its third site at La Bahía, the present Goliad, in 1749. A second mission founded near La Bahía in 1754 was that of Nuestra Señora del Rosario. Near the mouth of the Trinity River, Nuestra Señora de la Luz de Orcoquisac Mission was established in 1756; and the last of the Texas missions, Nuestra Señora del Refugio, was founded on the coast south of La Bahía in 1793. To these must be added a mission that was such in a somewhat wider sense, which had two sites. Missionaries of the College of Zacatecas ministered to the Spanish villa of Bucareli from 1774 to 1779 and its successor, the Villa de Nacogdoches, from 1779 to 1834, as well as to former mission Indians who lived in East Texas during those years. Father José Francisco Mariano de la Garza, who conducted refugees from Bucareli to Nacogdoches in 1775, shares with Antonio Gil Ibarvo the title of founder of the city of Nacogdoches. The last Spanish Franciscan in Texas was Fr. José Antonio Díaz de León, who had his headquarters at Nacogdoches and was murdered in 1834 while making one of his missionary trips in East Texas.

The College of Guadalupe de Zacatecas also supplied seventeen missionaries for the nineteen villas and fifteen missions established by José de Escandón in the new civil province of Nuevo Santander between 1749 and 1755. This province extended across the lower Rio Grande into what is now Texas. Two of its villas, Laredo and Dolores, were on the Texas side of the river, and four on the Mexican side-Revilla, Mier, Camargo, and Reynosa-extended across the river since their settlers had ranchos on the Texas side. From the settlements south of the Rio Grande, the Zacatecan missionaries occasionally also visited the four groups of ranchos and for a short time also the two villas in Texas. In 1766 the college of Zacatecas surrendered the care of the villas and missions in Nuevo Santander to fellow Franciscans from the provinces in Mexico.

Of the thirty-eight Spanish missions in Texas (including the one in Louisiana) and the six visitas on the lower Rio Grande, sixteen missions were staffed by the college of Querétaro, nine missions and six visitas by the college of Zacatecas, eight missions by the Nuevo México custody of the Holy Gospel Province, and four missions by the Franciscan province of Zacatecas. One, Santa María de las Caldas, below Socorro, had a diocesan priest as its missionary from 1730 to 1749. A biographical dictionary published in 1973 contains sketches of 121 Franciscans of the college of Zacatecas who served as missionaries in Texas between 1716 and 1834. Of this number thirty-two died in Texas. Seventy Texas missionaries are known to have come from the college of Querétaro, but the list is incomplete.

To the Spanish Franciscans who were Texas missionaries must be added the three Recollect Franciscans who were among the six priests with La Salle in his expedition of 1684. All of them except the Recollect father Anastase Douay died when Fort St. Louis was destroyed by Karankawas in January 1689. Father Douay accompanied La Salle on his last trip, reached the Illinois country, returned to France, traveled back to Louisiana, and celebrated the first Mass at the site of New Orleans, where a monument has been erected in his honor.

From 1852 to 1859 a group of five German Conventual Franciscans worked among their countrymen at New Braunfels, Fredericksburg, and other towns in the vicinity of San Antonio. The Conventual Franciscan father Leopold Moczygemba, who went to San Antonio in 1851, led 100 families of immigrants from Poland to the junction of the San Antonio River and Cibolo Creek on December 24, 1854, and founded the first Polish settlement in the United States at Panna Maria. He was succeeded at the Panna Maria parish by a confrere from London who remained till 1860.

Franciscan father Bartholomew (Augustine) D'Asti and four other friars, who resided at St. Vincent's Friary in Houston during the years 1859–66, made such an impression on the people of that city that their memory is still kept alive more than a century later. Father D'Asti belonged to a group of Italian Franciscans who moved to Buffalo, New York, in 1855, and were organized into a custody in 1861 and into the Province of the Immaculate Conception (New York) in 1911.

Franciscans of the St. Louis-Chicago province came in 1931 to San José Mission in San Antonio, and in 1967 to the two missions of San Juan Capistrano and San Francisco de la Espada. They have also established new "missions," that is, parishes of Mexican Americans, in the southern part of San Antonio: St. Joseph, Our Lady of Angels, St. Leonard, St. Bonaventure, and St. Clare. They have the care of the parishes in Von Ormy and Macdona south of the city, and attend the mission station of St. Ann in Southton from San Juan Capistrano and that of St. Frances Cabrini from Espada. In 1984 a total of twenty-eight friars of the St. Louis-Chicago Province were residing in six south San Antonio friaries.

The St. Louis-Chicago Province of Franciscans has also had the temporary care of several parishes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. A friary opened at Paris, Texas, in the summer of 1949 was closed a year later. In 1955 Holy Family parish at Vernon, with missions at Quanah and Crowell, and two years later St. Peter's parish in Fort Worth were committed to the province; but they were relinquished on January 6, 1961.

On the shore of Lake Benbrook, near Fort Worth, St. Francis Village, a village with double cottages for retired persons, was established in 1936 under the sponsorship of the National Fraternity of the Secular Franciscan Order (formerly called the Third Order Secular of St. Francis, founded in 1209). At various times during the years from 1924 to 1969 Franciscans of the Province of St. John Baptist (Cincinnati) had the care of nineteen parishes and one chaplaincy in sixteen different cities or towns of Texas. After an interval of about a decade, Franciscans of the Cincinnati Province returned to Texas and began in 1980 to administer Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in Galveston.

Carlos E. Castañeda, Our Catholic Heritage in Texas (7 vols., Austin: Von Boeckmann-Jones, 1936–1958; rpt., New York: Arno, 1976). Catholic Archives of Texas, Files, Austin. Marion A. Habig, The Alamo Chain of Missions (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1968; rev. ed. 1976). Marion A. Habig, "The Franciscan Provinces of Spanish North America," The Americas 1 (July, October 1944, January 1945). Marion A. Habig, San Antonio's Mission San José (San Antonio: Naylor, 1968). Benedict Leutenegger and Marion A. Habig, The Zacatecan Missionaries in Texas, 1716–1834 (Austin: Texas Historical Survey Committee, 1973). Alexander C. Wangler, ed., Archdiocese of San Antonio, 1874–1974 (San Antonio, 1974).

  • Religion
  • Catholic
Time Periods:
  • Spanish Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Marion A. Habig, O.F.M., “Franciscans,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 30, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

October 16, 2019

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