Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Spiritual Conquest: The Franciscans - Where It All Began

Es fácil traducir esta página en español: vaya a la columna a la derecha. En la parte más alta hay una ventana etiquetada "Translate". Desplace la flecha abajo hasta encuentra "Spanish". Click en ese y inmediatamente todo el texto estará traducido en español por Google. Con certeza, habrá errores, pero creemos qué el sentido se quede bastante claro.
The objective of our current series of Ambles is to locate the vestiges of the original indigenous villages that still exist within Mexico City. We realized that the most obvious landmarks of these original communities are the churches established in these villages by various orders of Catholic monks to effect the evangelización and conversion of los indios, also called los naturales, the indigenous, into Spanish Catholics, the so-called Spiritual Conquest.

We then realized that, in addition to the many altepetls, city-states, around the lakes of the Valley of Anahuac, now the Valley of Mexico, and on a number of its islands, there were also the original indigenous residential quarters of the main city of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, now El Centro. These quarters were not eliminated by the Spanish; instead, they adapted them to organize and govern the indigenous residents of the city through a system of limited self-rule they called Indian Republics. The four campan (quarters) of Tenochtitlan became the Republic of San Juan Tenochtitlan. Catholic monks went into each quarter to build churches and convert the residents.

As we began exploring these four indigenous quarters, seeking out the churches that remain from this process, we became aware that we needed to trace the path of their construction from the Spanish side as well; that is, the path of the Franciscan monks who were the vanguard of the Spiritual Conquest.

How the Franciscans Came to Nueva España

In 1522, Hernán Cortes asked the young Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (Charles I of Spain, born 1500, died 1558) to send monks to Nueva España to evangelize and convert the natives. In his fourth letter to the king, Cortés pleaded for friars rather than diocesan or secular priests because those clerics were in his view a serious danger to the Indians' conversion.
"If these people [Indians] were now to see the affairs of the Church and the service of God in the hands of canons or other dignitaries, and saw them indulge in the vices and profanities now common in Spain, knowing that such men were the ministers of God, it would bring our Faith into much harm that I believe any further preaching would be of no avail." (Wikipedia)

As it happened, the Emperor, whose father was an Austrian Habsburg and mother the daughter of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of the emerging nation of Spain, was born in 1500, in Ghent, Flanders, part of the Habsburg Netherlands, and had grown up there.

The Protagonists: Conquistador, Emperor and Pope

Hernán Cortés, Museo de América.jpg
Hernán Cortés
Charles I of Spain,
Holy Roman Emperor Charles V
age 19
by Bernard van Orley

From 1505 to 1515, Charles's teacher, was one Adrian Florisz Boeyens, a Dutch professor of theology. He had been selected for this responsiblity by Charles' paternal grandfather, the Habsburg Archduke of Austria and Holy Roman Emperor, Maximillian I.

When, after the death of his maternal grandfather, Ferdinand in 1516, Charles inherited the throne of Spain, he saw that Boeyens was made a bishop in Spain. In 1519, upon the death of Maximilian, Charles became Holy Roman Emperor. In February 1522, Charles saw to it that Boeyens was elected Pope. He took the name Adrian VI and was the last non-Italian pope until John Paul II.

Hadrian VI.jpg
Pope Adrian VI

In response to Cortés's request, Charles consulted his old mentor, now the Pope, who selected/recommended the Franciscan order, founded in 1209 by Francis of Assisi as the Order of Minor Friars, to undertake the mission. The two then chose Charles's recently appointed Confessor, Jean Glapion, a French Franciscan stationed in Flanders, to lead a group to the New World. He, in turn, selected three Flemish brothers of the order to go with him: Pieter van der Moere, who became, in Spanish, Fray Pedro de Gante, (Friar/Brother Peter of Ghent); Johann Dekkers, who became Juan de Tecto, and Johan van der Auwera, who became Juan de Ayora.

In the summer of 1522, the four traveled to Spain. However, Glapion died there in September, at the age of sixty-two. The other three left for Nueva España on May 31, 1523, and arrived in Veracruz on August 13. Pope Adrian VI died of the plague in September of that same year.

Brother Pieter van der Moere,
aka Fray Pedro de Gante
Brother Peter of Ghent

Brother Pieter, Fray Pedro, born in 1479 or 80, is thought to have been a bastard son of Emperor Maximilian I, Charles's grandfather and, thus, a quasi uncle of Charles.

Arriving in Veracruz in August 1523, the three Franciscans were sent by Cortés to Texcoco, on the east side of the Lake, because there was a plague in Mexico City (brought by Spanish soldiers). There they began to study Nahuatl in order to preach to the indigenous and to learn native culture. They came to Mexico City the following year. That same year, Cortés decided on an expedition to what is now Honduras. He took Juan de Tecto and Juan de Ayora with him. Both died, likely of starvation, on the ill-fated adventure.

Meanwhile, in May of 1524, another group of Franciscans arrived in Nueva España, the famous "Twelve Apostles of Nueva España." They were led by Fray Martín de Valenciaf; all were Spanish. Together with Fray Pedro, they undertook the conversion of los indios. Some went out to other parts of Nueva España. Fray Pedro remained in Mexico City and began building churches in the indigenous quarters of San Juan Tenochtitlan.

Franciscans Establish the Foundations for the Spiritual Conquest

The Franciscans built a church and headquarters for themselves within the Traza español, the Spanish district, in the heart of the city, west of what is now the Zócalo, on the site where Moctezuma II’s zoo once stood. They named it San José de los Naturales (St. Joseph of the Natives). Next to it, they built a school for indigenous children, especially the sons of the noble class. It was an interno, a residential school, as the friars wanted to completely separate their students from their previous, "pagan" culture.

Critical to their goal of evangelization, the conversion of the indigenous, the Franciscans, and other religious orders that followed them in coming to Nueva España, rather than trying to completely suppress old beliefs and practices, deliberately adopted a strategy of seeking out elements in indigenous religious practice that had similarities to Catholic Christianity and building on them in order to create "bridges" between the indigenous beliefs and Catholicism, so that the new faith would be seen by the people as an evolution from their old faith rather than its elimination. The indigenous were seen as children who needed to be "brought up" to the religious maturity of the friars' version of Catholicism.

In the view of the friars, the European Roman Catholic Church had been corrupted by its hierarchy and wealth. The true church was that which was founded by Jesus' apostles, one characterized by simplicity of organization and style, poverty and humility. It was to be what Jesus had preached, the Kingdom of God on Earth. The Franciscans saw the indigenous as providing a unique and wonderful opportunity to re-establish the Church on that original model. It was to be an Indian Church, still obedient to the Pope, but otherwise distinct from the European one.

They accomplished their strategy via three main tactics:
  • They learned the native languages (Nahuatl being the first) not only so they could preach the Christian message but also so they could dialogue with the priests and sages of the people to learn about their religious beliefs and practices. Thus, they could find in those beliefs and practices ones that could be interpreted in Christian forms and incorporated into Catholic religious belief and practice. 
  • They used Christian fiestas as concrete, paticipatory vehicles to incorporate acceptable indigenous religious practices, such as dancing and singing, and to instruct in the faith using Christian songs translated into the indigenous language and set to indigenous musical form.
  • They created schools for educating the young, both from the upper class and the lower class, in Christian beliefs and rituals, and in Latin, the language of the Catholic Bible and Church writings so that these could subsequently be translated into the native tongue.
  • They developed a catechism of basic beliefs, written first in Nahuatl. In it, they explicitly used indigenous terminology for the Divine, particularly as the creator and lord of all things and as close by. So, when they spoke of their Christian God and His Son, Jesus the Incarnated Christ, these deeply rooted religious meanings would make them sound familiar to the people. Thus, their Christian God and especially Jesus the Christ could be understood as the ultimate embodiment of these very familiar characteristics of divinity. 
They minimized the concept of the Trinitarian God, likely to avoid polytheistic interpretations, and emphasized the closeness of God to humanity via the incarnate Jesus the Christ. He had shared the very flesh of common people. He had come among them and been one of them. God could be no closer than that. This human, but at the same time divine, Jesus had performed the ultimate sacrifice of himself to redeem mankind from their sins which had separated them from God. Hence, human sacrifice was no longer necessary. This sacrificed, human Jesus and his mother, the Virgin Mary, were the primary focus of the teaching.
Note: A much more detailed explanation of how the Franciscans undertook this "evolution" of the indigenous from their faith to Catholic Christianity is presented in the essay, The Native Encounter With Christianity: Franciscans And Nahuas In Sixteenth-Century Mexico, by Friar Francisco Morales, OFM, Historian of the Order of the Minor Friars, i.e., Franciscans, in Mexico. Click here to read our abridged version of the article.
(As it happened, the Protestant Reformation had only just begun in Germany (1517), led by Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk. The Counter-Reformation began with the convening of the Council of Trent, with its first session in 1545. Emperor Charles sat with the Pope in the early sessions. The Spanish Habsburg monarchy, and their 18th-century successors, the French Bourbons, using the Spanish Inquisition, never allowed Reformation thinking to gain a foothold in Spain or Nueva España)
Temple of San Francisco,
Baroque facade built in 1766
Entrance on Madero Street

Two hundred years later, at its peak in the 18th century, the church, monastery, school and a hospital for los indios covered the blocks now bordered by Bolivar, Madero, Eje Central (Central Axis) and Venustiano Carranza Streets—a total area of 8 acres.

Convent (monastery) and Temple of San Francisco at its height in 18th century.
Current Madero Street is upper left
Still existing church is to left of center,
Immediately to its right is the cloister, with fountain, now a Methodist church.
Lower, right corner, with small dome, is 
Calvario and San Antonio chapel, now a book store
Photo is of a tapestry currently hanging in the church entrance.

What Remains of San Francisco

After the Reform War (1857-61), the monastery of San Francisco, like many others, was disbanded and most of the property seized by the government. Much of the old monastery was demolished for the construction of new streets.

Temple of San Francisco

The church standing today is the third to be built on the site. The first two sank into the soft soil underneath Mexico City and were torn down. The current church was built between 1710 and 1716. Although the entire building is known as the San Francisco Church, the entrance on Madero Street is actually the entrance to the Balvanera Chapel. The church’s main facade, dating from 1710, is walled in and not visible.

The facade of the chapel was constructed in 1766. It is not certain who designed it, but most think it was the work of Lorenzo Rodríguez, best known for his Churrigueresque Baroque facade on the Metropolitan Tabernacle, adjacent to the Metropolitan Cathedral (Wikipedia).

Inside, the Balvanera Chapel is dominated by an 18th-century Baroque altarpiece dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Baroque reredos of Balvanera Chapel,
with image of Virgin of Guadalupe

In the main sanctuary, the large, gilded altar is a reconstruction of the original Baroque one.

Main altar

All that remains of Franciscan simplicity is a statue at one side of the sanctuary.

St. Francis

Hidden Treasures

A couple of other components of the 18th century complex remain, but we have to go looking for them by leaving the church, returning to Madero Street and going around the corner onto Pedro de Gante Street, named after the founding friar.

Street sign at the corner of Madero and
Fray Pedro de Gante Streets

Fray Pedro de Gante Plaza

Part way down the block, now a tree-shaded pedestrian plaza lined with sidewalk cafes and restaurants, we come to the rather non-descript, neo-gothic facade of a Methodist church. A sign says it was founded in the 1873. Luckily, the front door is open, so we enter. A way inside, a glass and wooden wall closes off the space. Further inside, we can see the columns of what appears to be an interior patio. 

At the side of the door is a bell, so we ring it. Within a minute, a middle-aged workman comes from the patio area and opens the door a crack. We tell him our mission of exploring the original churches of the city and our desire to see another part of San Francisco. He nods assent and lets us in.

Thanking him profusely that we didn't need the usual Mexican "permission in advance", we walk the rest of the hallway ... and enter another piece of history.

The cloister is now the sanctuary of a Methodist church established in the 1930s

The church sanctuary is the original Franciscan two-story cloister or residence, surrounding an inner patio that is a quintessential example of such Spanish colonial spaces: rows of arches whose even rhythm creates a space of complete balance and, thus, total tranquility. The Methodists were lucky to get it and wise not to modify it.

Thanking our lucky stars, and the workman who let us in, we return to Pedro de Gante Street. Walking two short blocks to Venustiano Carranza, we turn right towards the Eje Central (Main Axis, aka Lázaro Cárdenas). At the corner, we come to another remnant of Franciscan glory days.

Calvario and San Antonio chapels, now a bookstore

It is a modest looking edifice. We wonder what Baroque elegance it might once have contained. Looking up, we get a glimpse of past glory.

Glimpse of former glory, the tiled dome.

Most pleased with the success of our exploration, we return to the shade of Ghante Street to rest from our exertion in the Mexican sun. Sitting in the welcome shadow, we see two images that sum up the history of the monastery of San Francisco, and of Mexico City: modernity face to face with memory.


to Fray Pedro de Gante

Plaque reads:
Friar Peter of Ghent
(1480 - 1572)
First of the Great Educators of America,
The plaza and monument were inaugurated
January 16, 1976.
Constructed by the Federal District

Donated by the Eastern Province of Flanders
to Mexico City
in testimony to Belgium's friendship
toward Mexico.

What might he think of all that has transpired
from what he began?

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