The Cross in the Sand: Missionaries in Spanish Florida

Spanish Florida
Mass of Thanksgiving at St. Augustine

Michael Gannon’s The Cross in the Sand is a moving account of the Church’s missionary efforts in Spanish Florida from its origins up to the 20th century. Among stories of heroic martyrdom, it contains several marvelous episodes of a liturgical nature. The book gets off to an encouraging start with this triumphant introduction:

“…on six subsequent Spanish explorations to the Florida shoreline from 1521 to 1565, priests of the Church were here to raise the Cross in the sand and to offer unnumbered Masses on wilderness altars. In the striking phrase of the nineteenth-century historian John Gilmary Shea, ‘The altar was older than the hearth.’

Wherever the historian’s eye is cast, there stands the altar with its surmounting Cross–Stat crux cum [sic] volvitur orbis. Around that altar there gathered, at one date or another, all the great names that made up our state’s early history, when La Florida was an outpost of empire and a curve on the rim of Christendom. With but one brief interruption, from 1763 to 1768, the practice of the Catholic Faith was a distinguishing feature of our state’s early culture, and the proudly worn badge of many of her people: priests and friars, conquistadors and hidalgos, soldiers and statesmen, Indians from the swamps and shoreland, Spaniards and Minorcans, rich and poor, the innocent and the repentant–they were a long line of stout men, and if there was any evil in them, there was also much good; and if at times they stooped to small and mean things, they also rose to heights of courage and generosity and sacrifice which are the real patens of nobility and the expected fruits of Christian life.”

1) During Hernando De Soto’s “indomitable procession” through parts of Georgia, Alabama, and the Carolinas in the 1540s, all of the vestments and vessels needed for Mass were destroyed in a battle. A chronicler relates how the expedition proceeded:

“Thereafter, an altar was erected and decorated on Sundays and holy days of obligation. Standing at the altar, a priest, vested in a buckskin chasuble, said the Confiteor, the Introit of the Mass, and the Oration, Epistle, and the Gospel, and all the rest up to the end of the Mass without consecrating. The Spaniards call this the Misa seca; and the one who said the Mass, or another priest, read the Gospel and delivered a sermon on it. From this they derived consolation in the distress they felt at not being able to adore our Lord and Redeemer Jesus Christ under the sacramental species. This lasted for almost three years, until the time they left Florida for the land of the Christians [Mexico]” (pg. 8).

2) The celebration of the Spanish landing at what would become St. Augustine parish, Sept. 8th, 1565:

“On Saturday the 8th, the General landed with many banner spread, to the sound of trumpets and salutes of artillery. As I had gone ashore the evening before, I took a Cross and went to meet him, singing the hymn, Te Deum Laudamus. The General, followed by all who accompanied him, marched up to the Cross, knelt, and kissed it. A large number of Indians watched these proceedings and imitated all they saw done.

A solemn Mass was then offered in honor of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. . . It was the first community act of religion and thanksgiving in the first permanent settlement in the land. It was also the beginning of the parish of St. Augustine and of the permanent service of the Catholic Church in what is now the United States” (pp. 26-27).


3) The education of the Indians at a mission near St. Augustine:

“The chapel at Nombre de Dios was a handsome stone structure complete with statues of the saints, and his Indians were by this time so well instructed they sang High Mass and Vespers on Sundays” (pg. 43).

4) From a detailed report written by the visiting bishop of Havana, Gabriel Diaz Vara Calderon, on the piety of the Florida Indians:

“As to their religion, they are not idolaters, and they embrace with devotion the mysteries of our holy Faith. They attend Mass with regularity at eleven o’clock on the Holy Days they observe, namely, Sunday, and the feasts of Christmas, the Circumcision, Epiphany, the Purification of Our Lady, and the feast days of Saint Peter, Saint Paul, and All Saints’ Day, and before entering the church each one brings to the house of the priest a log of wood as a contribution. They do not talk in the church, and the women are separated from the men, the women on the Epistle side, the men on the Gospel side.

They are very devoted to the Virgin, and on Saturdays they attend [church] when her Mass is sung. On Sundays they attend the Rosary and the Salve in the afternoon. They celebrate with rejoicing and devotion the Birth of Our Lord, all attending the midnight Mass with offerings of loaves, eggs, and other food. They subject themselves to extraordinary penances during Holy Week, and during the twenty-four hours of Holy Thursday and Friday. . . they attend standing, praying the rosary in complete silence–twenty-four men, twenty-four women, and twenty-four children–with hourly changes. The children, both male and female, are taught by a teacher whom they call the Athequi [interpreter] of the church–[a person] whom the priests have for this service; as they also have someone deputized to report to them on all parishioners who live in evil” (pg. 66).

A Day in the Life of a Chantry Priest

In last week’s article “Accipe Calamum Administrativum” the author hinted at the rich variety of medieval clerical life, a large web composed of diverse orders of clergy, monks and canons, diocesan and religious, foundations and their patrons, etc.

Now we zoom in a bit on one sort of medieval clerical life that all but disappeared in later days: the chantry. A chantry was a foundation endowed for the sole purpose of saying Masses for the benefit of the patron. They usually lived a common life, but were not technically monks or canons.

Such foundations were a normal feature of medieval life: something like the equivalent of a rich family endowing a charitable foundation today, except this one is staffed only by clerics, and their only job was simply to sing and offer Mass. Hence the name “chantry,” i.e a “chantery,” a place of chanting.

Below is an article from British History Online about an English foundation called the College of St. Elizabeth, a chantry established in 1301 by Bishop John of Pointose and dedicated to St. Elizabeth of Hungary. Its seven chaplains and choristers were hired for the sole purpose, which they faithfully carried out day in and day out, of singing the Divine Offices for the intentions of the founder.

The clerics of the College of St. Elizabeth sang the entire proper office of the day in addition to the Little Office of Our Lady, the Office of the Dead, a solemn Mass of Our Lady, the Mass of St. Elizabeth, three Votive Masses, and the Solemn Mass of the day. A full-time job! Even if the Offices of Our Lady and the Dead were monotoned rather than fully sung, one nonetheless marvels at how much time these officially secular priests spent in liturgical prayer.

Tonsure.pngAlso noteworthy is the presence of “young shavelings” who attended the the chaplains and sung in church. This was how apprentices to the priesthood were trained before seminaries were established in the wake of the Council of Trent.

Alas, the College of St Elizabeth was dissolved under the Act of 1539 during the tyranny of Henry VIII. Its buildings were sold to Winchester College in 1547, and they were demolished soon thereafter.

The College of St Elizabeth, Winchester

The ruins of Wolvesey Castle, where the bishops of Winchester dwelled until it was destroyed by the Parliamentarians in 1646. The College of St Elizabeth was located near the castle gate.

Near to the gate of his castle at Wolvesey, Bishop Pontoise built, in 1301, the college of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. The foundation consisted of a number of secular clergy and choristers living under the rule of a provost, with so clearly an expressed object that it was in reality a chantry on a large scale. In the episcopal registers and other documents, it is most usually described as the chapel of St. Elizabeth, but frequently as a college and sometimes as a chantry.

The seal of John of Pontoise, Bishop of Winchester (1282-1304), who built the College of St Elizabeth.

By the foundation charter, the bishop established three altars in the great chapel. The dedication of the high altar was to the honour of St. Elizabeth; the second to the honour of St. Stephen and St. Laurence; and the third to the honour of St. Edmund and St. Thomas of Canterbury. To serve these altars and to maintain a stately ritual, the foundation provided for the establishment of seven chaplains, one of whom was to be provost, three were to be in deacons’ and three in sub-deacons’ orders. All were to be appointed, as vacancies occurred, by the bishop; they were to live together and have a common table; to be satisfied with one dish and pittances on week days and two dishes on Sundays and double feasts; to dress humbly, and to wear in chapel surplices and black copes; to receive annually in addition to their board for clothes and other necessaries: the provost 6 marks, the chaplains 40s. and the clerks 20s.; to have a common dorter for the clerks save in sickness; each chaplain to have a young shaveling, between the age of ten and eighteen, to wait on him, and to sing in surplice in church; and the choristers to dine together in hall at a separate table.

Their clerical duties were to rise each day at daybreak and say together (submissa voce aperte et distincte) mattins of our Lady, and afterwards to chant antiphonally mattins of the days; after mattins to celebrate solemn Lady mass after the use of Sarum; next to intone the proper day hours, followed by the hours of our Lady in a low voice; immediately afterwards, the mass of St. Elizabeth was to be sung, followed by the saying of three masses at the three altars, two for the departed and one of the Holy Spirit; and about nine o’clock (fn. 2) high mass was to be solemnly sung. Each chaplain was to say at each mass six special collects (1) for the founder, (2) for the then Bishop of Winchester, (3) for all the departed bishops of the diocese, (4) for the king and queen and their children, (5) for kings and queens and all faithful departed, and (6) a general collect for the quick and dead, but especially for the prior and convent of St. Swithun’s. Before evensong, all the chaplains and clerks were to say, in low but distinct voice, Placebo and Dirige; afterwards to say evensong of our Lady, and to sing evensong of the day, to be followed by compline of our Lady and compline of the day. Everything was to be according to the use of Sarum; the provost and chaplain were to appoint one of their number as precentor, to order the masses and services.

The provost, in the presence of the chaplains and the treasurer of Wolvesey, was yearly at Winchester to deliver a statement of account, and a report as to the condition of the chapel and house. No one was to be absent from masses or hours save by special leave. No chaplain or clerk was to be admitted, unless first examined in letters and singing, and in knowledge of the divine offices. Women were not to enter any part of the house, save the chapel and hall. Each chaplain and clerk on admission was to swear to be faithful to the statutes and rules, and to continue in personal residence.

On the Canonical Chapter of Lyons

The Cathedral of St John the Baptist in Lyons

The canonical chapter of St John’s Cathedral in Lyons long distinguished itself as one of the most powerful and most liturgically dedicated cathedral chapters in Christendom. It was principally due to the efforts of these canons, who had to learn the entire Office by heart in order to be accepted into the chapter, that the mediæval Lyonese use survived until the 18th century. In this extract, the eminent liturgist Archdale King describes the characteristics of the Lyonese chapter:

The Church of Lyons has been distinguished through the centuries for its loyalty to liturgical tradition. St. Bernard (ob. 1153) in his reproof to its canons for their adoption of a new feast (Conception of our Lady) reminds them of their customary conservatism: ‘Among all the churches of France the church of Lyons is well known to be pre-eminent for its dignity, sound learning, and praiseworthy customs. Where was there ever so flourishing strict discipline, grave conduct, ripe counsels, and such an imposing weight of authority and tradition? Especially in the offices of the Church, has this church, so full of judgement, appeared cautious in adopting novelties, and careful never to permit its reputation to be sullied by any childish levity.’

A similar homage was paid to the Church of Lyons in the 17th century by Cardinal Bona (ob. 1674): ‘A Church which knows nothing of novelties, clinging tenaciously, in the matter of chant and ceremonies, to ancient tradition.’

This laudable conservatism was due in great measure to the unprecedented authority exercised by the canons. In the 12th century, they numbered seventy-two in remembrance of the disciples of our Lord, but after a certain amount of fluctuation their numbers were reduced to thirty-two by a charter of King Philip V in 1321. This arrangement was confirmed by a bull of Clement VI (1342-52) in 1347. In 1173, the canons of the primatial church of St. John had been granted the temporal jurisdiction of the city by Guy, count of Forez, and at the same time the title of ‘count’ was conferred on them. Lyons came under the control of the king of France in 1312, but Philip the Fair expressly maintained the nobility of the canons, who, in 1745, were authorized by Louis XV to wear a cross of white enamel over their mozettas. This qualification of ‘count’ ceased with the Revolution, but the cross is still worn. Spiritual authority was in no way impaired by the loss of temporal power. In 1230, the chapter even defied the Pope by declining the proposal of Gregory IX (1227-41) that Peter of Savoy should become one of their number. Peter, however, accepted the non placet of the canons, and consoled himself with marriage! When Innocent IV (1243-54) in 1244 expressed his intention of appointing personally to certain of the prebendal stalls, the canons told him that his nominees would be thrown in to the Saône, if they presented themselves.

Other officers in the primatial church included four guardians (two for the parish and two for the cathedral), representing the four evangelists; seven knights for the Apocalyptic ‘seven spirits of fire’ [1]; thirteen perpetual chaplains in place of Christ and the apostles [2]; forty assistant priests; twenty inferior clerics; and twenty-four altar and choir boys. In addition to these, the statues of 1330 mention one hundred and twenty supernumeraries. There were altogether one hundred and thirty persons in the choir.

The archbishop ranked as a ‘perpetual’, and, although accorded reverence by reason of his office, his powers were limited. He pontificated no more than four times in the year—Christmas, Holy Thursday, Easter, and Pentecost. Like the canons, he took an oath to keep, respect, and defend the rights and privileges of the chapter, and, although the dean vacated his stall for him, the primate, when in chapter, did not appear in pontificals. It was the capitular cross, not that of the metropolitan, which was carried before him at ceremonies. A cleric had taken the archbishop’s cross at the threshold of the cloister, and ‘hidden’ it behind the altar, until such time as he had quitted the primatial church. The archbishop exercised authority over the chapter in the time of Leidrade and Agobard, but by the 13th century he was no more than the first of the perpetual chaplains [3], and he was to be little more than a ‘guest’ in his own cathedral church until the 18th century. Attendance at choir was strictly enforced, and an absentee was precluded from assisting at the capitular Mass on the following day. When the archbishop pontificated, it was necessary for him to officiate at first Vespers, and, if he failed to do so, the dean took his place at the altar. In 1743, on the occasion of the jubilee of the church (St. John), Cardinal de Tencin went to see a display of fireworks, and in consequence absented himself from Matins on the following day without the permission of the chapter, whereupon the canons refused to allow him to assist at either Mass or Vespers. So late at 1757, it was the chapter, not the archbishop, who gave faculties for the hearing of confessions in the churches of St. John, St. Stephen, and Holy Cross.

The jealous attachment to rights and privileges, with a constant fear lest they should be infringed by the archbishop, is signified by the two crosses which may be seen today against the wall behind the high altar: ‘When the archbishop raises his cross, the canons raise theirs on the other side.’ This must surely be the explanation of the two crosses, rather than a reminder of the union of the Western and Eastern Churches at the second council of Lyons in 1274, when the Latin and Greek crosses were set up behind the altar during the solemn Mass celebrated by Pope Gregory X. In the last quarter of the 18th century we find a denial of the privileges of the chapter, and they were also rescinded by the Parliament of Paris. About this time also, the archbishop, Mgr. de Montazet, substituted the neo-Gallican missal of Paris for the authentic Roman missal of Leidrade and Agobard.

[1] These knights were incorporated into the ranks of the clergy in the 16th century.

[2] The perpetual chaplains had charge of the chant and ceremonies, and also the maintenance of the secular traditions of the church. They were at one time removable, and a change in this respect may have caused them to be styled ‘perpetual’.

[3] Tredecim capellanos perpetuos inter quos et praecipuus Archiepiscopus, qui representat Dominum Jesum Christum inter apostolos existentem. Stat. 1337.

Archdale A. King. Liturgies of the Primatial Sees. Longmans, Green and Co, 1957, pp. 18-21.