WHEN Fray Marcos de Niza planted the cross on the hill near
Hawikuh in 1539 and claimed the country for the Spanish
Crown a new chapter in the annals of the promulgation of the
Christian faith was written.
For nearly three centuries Franciscan missionaries had journeyed to
the far corners of the earth for the purpose of harvesting souls. Martyr-
dom was courted; fear for personal safety was non-existent. A spirit of
service in the Glory of God fired these zealots; and following Coro-
nado's conquest in 1540 and his return to Mexico two years later, three
Franciscans, Frays Juan de Padilla, Juan de la Cruz, and Luis de
Escalona, remained as the first missionaries, and they became the first
martyrs in the new land. When the Conquistadores failed to find
cities or mines of fabled wealth in the region that was to become New
Mexico, the country was saved from possible abandonment by the
courageous Franciscan friars. In June 1581, Fray Augustin Rodriguez
and two companion Franciscans with twelve soldiers under Captain
Francisco Sanchez Chamuscado, traveled north from Mexico to explore
the region, learn the languages, and convert the Indians. When the
soldiers withdrew, the friars refused to leave, and all were killed.
Concern for their unknown fate inspired the relief expedition of Antonio
de Espejo and Fray Bernardino Beltran in November 1582.
The first church was built in New Mexico in the new capital at the
old pueblo of Yunque-Yunque across the Rio Grande from the present
village of San Juan in 1598 by Onate, assisted by eight priests and two
lay brothers, religious of Saint Francis. This church was dedicated to
San Juan Bautista. The Spaniards called their first capital San Juan,
but moved to San Gabriel about a year later and in 1610 to the Royal
City of Santa Fe.
By 1617 the friars had built eleven churches and had converted
1,400 Indians. New Mexico became primarily a mission area and its
history was intimately linked with the Roman Catholic Church. Under
the direction of the Superior of the College of Saint Francis, established
in the City of Mexico, the missions of New Mexico were elevated to a
custodia of the Franciscan Order in 1617 and were given the name of
Saint Paul. Fray Alonzo de Benavides was appointed custodian, and
the territory was placed under the bishopric of Durango. In Benavides'