A Day in the Life of a Spanish Missionary

Jemez Pueblo Feast Day, by Simeon Schwemberger 1908.

Jemez Pueblo Feast Day, by Simeon Schwemberger 1908.

One of the greatest tasks of the friars is to adjust the disputes of the Indians among themselves, for since they look upon him as a father, they come to him with all their troubles, and he has to take pains to harmonize them. If it is a question of land and property, he must go with them and mark their boundaries, and thus pacify them.

For the support of all the poor of the pueblo, the friar makes them sow some grain and raise some cattle because if he left it to their discretion, they would not do anything. Therefore, the friar requires them to do so and trains them so well that with the meat he feeds all the poor and pays the various workmen who come to build the churches. With the wool, he clothes all the poor, and the friar himself also gets his clothing and food from this source. All the wheels of this clock must be kept in good order by the friar, without neglecting any detail, otherwise, all would be totally lost.

The most important thing is the good example set by the friars. This, aside from the obligations of their vows, is forced upon them because they live in a province where they concern themselves with nothing but God. Death stares them in the face every day! Today one of their companions is martyred, tomorrow, another; their hope is that such a good fortune may befall them while living a perfect life.”

The Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion del Socorro Church in El Paso, Texas by Carol Highsmith.

The Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion del Socorro Church in El Paso, Texas by Carol Highsmith.

Though Benavides wrote some of the most detailed documentary information about the Spanish province of New Mexico in the early decades of the 1600s, he only spent three years in the area. When his term was done, he claimed there were 50 well-built and beautifully decorated churches in New Mexico. He also presented an extremely rosy picture of relations between the Indians, Franciscans, and lay Spaniards, which was a stretch of the imagination.

However, he did accomplish much during his short tenure, including establishing new missions among the Piro and Tompiro Pueblos. Among the Piro, he founded the Blessed Most Holy Virgin of Socorro church at present-day Socorro, New Mexico. He also oversaw the erection of two other churches and associated conventos, or friars’ residences, among the Piro. He also ordered the construction of a substantial adobe church for the Hispanic residents of Santa Fe. Among the Pueblos of Jemez, he erected one impressive church and rehabilitated another. He also had some success with his missionary work among various bands of Apache.

When a new dignitary arrived to take his place in 1629, Benavides traveled to Mexico City to spread the good news of the province, he was a successful booster of his own successes. However, history would later find that he had not relayed or given emphasis to some important information.

Spanish Colonists

Spanish Colonists

During this period, the Spanish colonists had found it necessary to cultivate fear among the Pueblos by often firing their long guns at the native people. However, he admitted: “If this were not the case, the Indians would often be inclined to murder the Spaniards.” Though there was animosity lying just below the surface of early Spanish New Mexico, he mostly ignored and concealed it. He also failed to add that New Mexico’s climate, then as now, was subject to marked extremes of temperature and precipitation, creating problems for Pueblo farmers.

However, so glowing were Benavides’s descriptions to his superiors in Mexico City, that he was sent to Spain to persuade the royal court that increased expenditures in New Mexico would be amply rewarded. Thrilled with his stories to his listeners, a written version of his report was published in 1630 and hehe succeeded in obtaining authorization for 30 more friars for New Mexico.

Abo Ruins, courtesy National Park Service

Abo Ruins, courtesy National Park Service

Just three years after his departure, the Zuni Indians rose up and killed two friars in 1632. This, however, didn’t affect him, as in 1635, he earned an appointment as auxiliary bishop of the island of Goa, a former Portuguese outpost in the Arabian Sea. He departed for his new post from Lisbon in April 1635 and that was the last time he was ever seen of him. Never reaching his destination, he was presumed drowned at sea.

Compiled by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, December 2019.

Also See:

Missions & Presidios in the United States

San Antonio Missions National Historic Park

Significance of Spanish Missions in America

The Spanish Explore America

About the Article: The first portion of this article was written by Joseph P. Sánchez, Ph.D. and featured by the National Park Service. However, some edits occurred. The source for the latter part of the article, beyond Benavides’ description, is courtesy of the New Mexico Office of the State Historian.

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