Spanish Missions

Early Jesuits in Mexico
In 1572, the first Jesuit priests arrived in Mexico City where they established the Colegio Maximo of San Pedro and San Pablo some sixty years before Harvard University opened its doors. During the seventeenth century these priests moved northward from Mexico City in two columns, one on the west and one on the east side of the Sierra Madre Mountains of Northern Mexico. They gathered the natives in pueblos, taught them farming and stock-raising and tried their best to protect them from the exploitation of the Spanish civilians who wanted their labor in the mines and elsewhere. These priests acted as explorers, map-makers, and historians and often they learned the native languages.

The best known Jesuit missionary in Sonora was Father Eusebio Kino, who established many mission churches and explored widely through northern Sonora and southern Arizona. (The town of Magdalena de Kino, just southwest of Cananea, is the final resting place of Father Kino. After his grave was discovered there in 1966. a 15-acre memorial plaza was constructed including a museum and a library.)

Expulsion of the Jesuits,
Coming of the Franciscans
In 1767, some fifty-five years after Kino's death, his Order was expelled from all the Spanish dominions by King Charles III. Despite this expulsion, the mission system continued to function in many areas under the supervision of Franciscan friars.

According to John L. Kessell, author of Friars, Soldiers and Reformers, the primary motivation of Charles III in expelling the Jesuits was to realize more revenue from the Spanish Empire, by transforming dependent mission Indians into tax-paying peasants. "But," Kessell explains, "few secular priests wanted, or were available, to minister to semi-heathens who could pay only in chickens and squash if at all. Although the king's social planners hoped to speed up the transition from frontier mission to parish, they did recognize in the summer of 1767 the immediate need for more missionaries."*

So it was decided to send in men from the Franciscan missionary colleges who were already serving on the frontier in the Sierra Madre Occidental. Thus the gray robes replaced the black throughout Sonora.Spanish monk

Fray Francisco Garces then became the leading figure in Pimeria. The churches which remain today at San Xavier, Tumacacori and other places are in part or mainly Franciscan structures erected on foundations earlier laid by Kino. San Xavier del Bac near Tucson and the remains of Tumacacori are the only Spanish mission churches which remain in southeast Arizona, but it is possible to see a number of churches just south of the border in northern Sonora. Areas of historic interest include Moctezuma, Bacadehuachi, El Coyote, Granados, Tepache and the picturesque ruins of Cocospera.

See also: The Fiesta of San Francisco in Magdalena. John Russell Bartlett describes the festival of a saint brought to Magdalena, Sonora, by the Franciscan priests.

Recommended reading:

Bannon, John Francis, S.J. The Spanish Borderlands Frontier. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997.

Kessell, John L. Friars, Soldiers and Reformers: Hispanic Arizona and the Sonora Mission Frontier, 1767-1856. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1976.

Pfefferkorn, Ignaz. Sonora: A Description of the Province. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1989.

Woodward, Arthur et al. The Missions of Northern Sonora: A 1935 Field Documentation. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1993.

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*Kessel, p. 15.