Catholic Indian Missions of the United States

From the discovery of the western continent, the conversion of the American tribes was a subject of deep concern to Catholic France and Spain. The first Mass celebrated in the United States was probably that offered by the priests of Ponce de Leon's expedition in Florida (1521).


(Virginia to Alabama inclusive) The first attempt to evangelize the Florida tribes was made in 1549 at Tampa Bay and resulted in the death of the first missionary martyrs, the Dominicans Luis Cancer and companions. By 1568 several missions were established in Florida by Jesuits, in 1577 and 1593 by Franciscans, and by 1655 despite numerous attacks, there were 35 Franciscan missions in Florida and Georgia with 26,000 Christian Indians. These continued, although destroyed and restored several times until 1704 when Governor Moore and the Lower Creeks utterly demolished all the southeastern missions.


After the foundation of the English Catholic colony in 1634, missions were established especially among the Piscataway by the Jesuits but the work was prematurely ended in 1645 by the attacks of the Puritans and other malcontents. Father White wrote an account of this tribe, an Indian catechism, and a grammar of their language.


The earliest mission established in Maine (1613) was very soon destroyed. Later (1619) the Recollects, the Capuchins (1633), and the Jesuits labored among the Abenaki and the Penobscot. The principal post was Norridgewock (Indian Old Point), Maine, and the most noted worker Father Sebastian Rale, the author of an Abenaki dictionary. Many of these Indians migrated to Canada but the work continued and the two tribes are now entirely Catholic.


The hostility of the five Iroquois tribes to the French made permanent missions impossible in New York State and resulted in wholesale torture and martyrdom of the Jesuits (1642-1653). The first Iroquois mission was finally established at Onondaga in 1654, and in 1668 work was begun in each of the tribes, but later missions in the 18th century were continually disturbed by war. The Catholic Iroquois now number about 4,025. A mission begun in Pennsylvania in 1755 was soon discontinued.


In 1660, 1674, 1727, missions were established by Jesuits among the various tribes in Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Illinois, and flourished until the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1764 and the removal of the tribes in 1820 to 1840. Father Marquette, Father Druillettes, and Father Gravier, the author of the Illinois dictionary, are connected with these missions.


The Louisiana Mission. In 1699 the Paris Congregation of Foreign Missions made settlements in Mississippi and Arkansas, and in 1700 the Jesuits undertook missions in Alabama and Louisiana, and later took over the control of the Louisiana colony, the Ursuline convent established at New Orleans in 1727 being due to their efforts. These missions never attained much prosperity because of the intrigues of English traders, general neglect, and continual attacks from the Indians and were brought to a close by the expulsion of the Jesuits (1764).


The Indians of this district were visited by Father Juan de Padilla in 1540, by Jesuits in 1666, and by Father Hennepin, Franciscan Recollect, in 1680, but regular missions were not established until 1837 in Minnesota, in Montana (1840) the famous Flathead Mission inaugurated by Father de Smet, and later in Oklahoma, Nebraska, North Dakota, and other states.


The Franciscans in 1544, the Recollect missionaries in 1685, the Spanish and Mexican Franciscans in 1690 and 1699 began laboring in Texas, and throughout the 18th century continued to found missions which were open to constant attacks and finally suppressed in 1812 by the revolutionary government.


The earliest mission in this territory was undertaken by Franciscans in 1542 but there was little success on account of the Pueblo revolt (1680) in which 21 missionaries were massacred, and the expulsion of the Jesuits (1767). At present German Franciscans are laboring among the Navajo.


The tribes of this district first received knowledge of Christianity in 1820. Missions were established in Idaho by Jesuits (1841), in Washington and Oregon by seculars (1839), and later among the Upper Columbian Tribes by Oblates. Some of these are still in operation.


At present two societies, the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions (1874) at Washington and the Marquette League for Catholic Indian Missions (1904) in New York, are engaged in collecting and distributing funds for 100,000 Catholic Indians among whom are 321 Catholic missions administered by 200 priests and 450 sisters.

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