America’s First Mass

When was it, where was it, and who said it?

Editor’s note: View a map of all the locations mentioned in this article.

When and where was the first Mass offered in America? No one living today knows the answer to this intriguing question. But we can summarize what we do know about the first Masses in various parts of the New World.

Some legendary accounts of the life of St. Brendan, who was a priest, say he set off in a small boat on a journey to the Isle of the Blessed, sometime around A.D. 512, along with 14 monks and priests. After they landed on Saint Brendan’s Island—wherever that was—he celebrated Mass. There are people who say that elements of the legends of the journey demonstrate that the Irish did have some knowledge of the northeast Atlantic coast of America, so if St. Brendan or some other Irish seafaring priest did arrive there, he would certainly have offered Mass, as he is said to have done in nearly every other place he visited (including, as the legend goes, on the top of a whale in mid-ocean).

Remains of a Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows, on the island of Newfoundland, were discovered and excavated in the 1960s. The settlement dates from around A.D. 1000. It was probably not the only settlement the Norse set up in the region, and it was likely that it served as a sort of permanent outpost for shipping lumber and furs to Greenland and perhaps further east. The size and number of buildings suggest that as many as 150 people lived there.

Icelandic bishop Eric Gnupsson, who had been based in Greenland since 1112, “went to seek Vinland” in 1121—presumably to minister to some of his far-flung Catholic flock—but nothing more was reported of him. If he succeeded, he surely offered the first Mass in the New World, perhaps at L’Anse aux Meadows or at another Norse settlement. With the approval of the Norwegian king, a bishop for Greenland was set up and the see was established in the settlement of Garðar. The first bishop, Arnaldur (Gnupsson’s immediate successor in Greenland), arrived there in 1126 and began construction of a cathedral, devoted to St. Nicholas, the same year. The last bishop served until 1378. Archaeologists have excavated the ruins of the cathedral, a cross-shaped church built of sandstone.

The first American Mass for which a record exists took place during the second voyage of Columbus, on the feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 1494, at a temporary shelter that would serve as a church at La Isabela, 30 miles west of what is now Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic. Five priests accompanied the expedition: Benedictine Father Buil, Jeronymite Father Ramone Pane, and three Franciscan missionary priests. Fr. Buil celebrated the Mass. The settlers built a church on the site, the foundation of which has been excavated (another church building is now at La Isabela). The original settlement was abandoned by 1498 and its settlers moved to the newly established Santo Domingo on the south side of the island.

There is some solid but as yet inconclusive evidence that in that same year of 1498 the first Mass may have been celebrated on the North American continent (apart from the Norse settlements). The second voyage of John Cabot is believed to have reached a harbor in Newfoundland and included a group of reformed Augustinian friars led Fr. Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis, who established a religious community there, building a church (which they may have named San Giovanni a Carbonara, after a church in Naples) and, of course, offering Mass. The site was at the present-day town of Carbonear on Newfoundland.

The first Mass recorded on continental South America occurred when Portuguese nobleman Pedro Álvares Cabral’s expedition reached the coast of Brazil and, at Porto Seguro, Franciscan Fr. Henriques Soares de Coimbra offered Mass and erected a cross on April 26, 1500, naming the place Vera Cruz, and claiming it for the King of Portugal. Earlier Spanish expeditions along the continental coast appear to have been occupied with charting and mapping, and with stopping to trade with natives for gold, pearls, and lumber.

In March 1509, Juan Ponce de León, with a group of colonists, including priests, landed in Puerto Rico at “Caparra” (now Pueblo Viejo in Guaynabo) and established a settlement there (the ruins remain and are a U.S. National Historic Landmark). That group’s first Mass would have been the first Mass we can say was offered on what is now U.S. territory.

On the west coast of South America, Vasco Núñez de Balboa’s expedition reached the Pacific Ocean at the shore of the Bay of San Miguel on September 29, 1513, at the sight of which the expedition’s chaplain Fr. Adrés de Vera chanted the Te Deum.

Dominican priest Fr. Vicente de Valverde and secular priest Juan de Sosa accompanied Pizarro’s expedition to Peru in 1533 and offered Mass along the way. Pizarro’s earlier expeditions, from 1527-1531, may also have had priests accompanying them.

A priest named GonzÁlez accompanied the expedition of Juan de Grijalva in 1518 that landed briefly at Yucatan and further along the coast of Mexico, as described by Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who did not, however, record that Mass was offered there. Indeed, the priest appears in the narrative only to have assisted in helping the expedition locate and collect gold images of native deities that were then carried away.

On Easter Sunday, in April 1519, Fr. Bartolomé de Olmedo, the chaplain of HernÁn Cortés’s expedition to Mexico, offered a high Mass in commemoration of the landing of the expedition two days prior at the site of the settlement they founded, the town of Vera Cruz.

In early 1522, Ponce de León attempted, from Puerto Rico, to establish a settlement near Charlotte Harbor, on the west coast of Florida. But he was unable to do so, owing to the hostility of natives, who attacked and drove away the Spaniards, fatally wounding Ponce in the battle. The disaster occurred almost immediately upon their landing, but the brief account of the expedition by Gonzalo FernÁndez de Oviedo y Valdés, in his Historia general y natural de las Indias suggests that some days elapsed between their landing and the attack, during which time the priests accompanying the expedition tried to preach to the natives and come to terms with them, but to no avail. If the priests were indeed onshore for a few days, as Oviedo suggests, before being driven away, they may well have offered Mass there, at Charlotte Harbor, which would have been the first Mass offered on what would become the continental U.S. But if they did so, it was not noted in the spotty records that remain of the expedition.

In June 1526, two Dominican priests, Antonio Montesino and Anthony de Cervantes, accompanied several hundred colonists under the leadership of Lucas Vasques de Ayllón from San Domingo and attempted a settlement upon the Atlantic coast of the mainland north of Florida. They first made land at Cape Fear (near present-day Wilmington, North Carolina) but chose to sail on, looking for a more salubrious spot, which they found and established the small settlement of San Miguel de Guandape (or Gualdape) where, during the summer and fall of 1526, they certainly did offer Mass. After the death of Ayllón in October, the colony abandoned the country and returned to San Domingo. But the problem is locating where the settlement was. The original Spanish sources are conflicting about which direction the expedition took after it decided not to land at Cape Fear. One of the sources says that the settlers sailed north and located the settlement in precisely the same spot in Virginia that the English would later establish Jamestown. However, another source has them going south, which would locate Miguel de Guandape settlement perhaps around Georgetown, South Carolina, or even Sapelo Island, Georgia.

Panfilo de Navaez (including Alvar Nuñez Caveza De Vaca) put ashore at present day Stump Pass near Englewood on the Gulf Coast of Florida on Good Friday, April 10, 1528, and the landing party was resting at an evacuated Indian village there on Easter Sunday, where Franciscan priest Juan Suarez would almost certainly have celebrated Mass.

In 1559, Don TristÁn de Luna y Arellano commanded an expedition of 1500 soldiers and settlers, including Dominican priests, from Vera Cruz to the northern shore of the Gulf of Mexico, intending to establish a settlement there. He landed a portion of the expedition onshore, including the priests, and they offered Mass there on August 15. The place has long been thought to have been at present-day Pensacola, but close reading of the expedition’s papers has lately made it likely that the first landing—and therefore the August 15th Mass—was at present-day Pascagoula, Mississippi (within a couple of days, the entire expedition moved east to relocate, perhaps to Mobile Bay or to Pensacola Bay). A month later, even before most of the supplies had been unloaded, a hurricane hit and destroyed most of the ships and their cargo. The colonists struggled precariously through the winter, but abandoned the site and sailed away the following spring.

On August 28, 1565, the feast day of St. Augustine, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés put an expedition ashore on the northern Atlantic coast of Florida and established St. Augustine there, and Fr. Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales celebrated Mass on September 8, at a site that was lost for a while but was rediscovered a few decades ago and is probably within what is now (and had been at the time of its rediscovery) the Ponce de León Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. The first Mission Nombre de Dios was built by Franciscans at that site in 1587, and this has lately been reconstructed, after a fashion, as part of the tourist park, although the Mission Nombre de Dios itself has been rebuilt more than once and relocated four blocks away since the first settlement.

On the West Coast of what is now the continental United States, Carmelite friar Fr. Antonio de la Ascension, accompanying explorer SebastiÁn Vizcaíno, whose ships struggled up the coast of Baja California offered the first Mass in present-day California on November 12, 1602 at a site at Point Loma in present-day San Diego, and continued up the coast to a site at Monterey Bay, where he celebrated another Mass on December 16.

Joshua Flesche, a secular priest, accompanied the French settlers who established Port-Royal in present-day Nova Scotia in 1604. He must have celebrated Mass soon after they arrived, for he was not at all inhibited from a rather expansive demonstration of his Catholicism, despite the fact that many among the settlers were Calvinists. The Jesuits who followed him to Port-Royal criticized him for rounding up local Mi’kmaq natives and baptizing them without catechizing them beforehand or afterwards. In May 1613, French Jesuits, including Frs. Pierre Biard and Edmond Masse, established the first French mission in America at what is now Fernald Point near the entrance to Somes Sound on Mount Desert Island, Maine. They waded ashore, named the place Saint Sauveur, offered Mass there, and set about planting crops and building a fort. In July, an English force from Virginia arrived by ship, killed three of the priests, wounded three more, took the rest of the settlers prisoner, cut down the cross the French Catholics had planted there and burned the buildings they had erected. Some of Fernald Point is now a part of Acadia National Park.

On November 22, 1633, Leonard Calvert, his brother George, and 150 other settlers, including three Jesuits—Andrew White, John Alcome, and Thomas Gervais—sailed from the Isle of Wight across the Atlantic to Maryland, under the proprietorship of Lord Baltimore. Their two ships, the Ark and the Dove, landed on an island in the lower Potomac River on March 25, 1634. They named the island Saint Clement’s Island for Pope Saint Clement I, patron of mariners. On the day they landed, Fr. White offered Mass there, after which they raised and planted a wooden cross while reciting the Litany of the Holy Cross. Saint Clement’s Island is now a Maryland State Park and is accessible in the summer by tour boat. The settlers spent about three weeks there before negotiating the purchase of land at what is now St. Mary’s, farther down the Potomac near where it empties into the Chesapeake Bay.

On July 16, 1741, a Russian Orthodox Divine Liturgy was held on the St. Peter, one of the ships in the Vitus Bering expedition, anchored offshore of Alaska, at Kayak Island. This was probably the first Orthodox Divine Liturgy in America.

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About John B. Buescher 14 Articles
John B. Buescher received his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia. From 1991 to 2007 he was the head of the Voice of America's Tibetan Broadcast Service. His books include The Other Side of Salvation: Spiritualism in the Nineteenth-Century Religious Experience (Skinner House Books, 2004), The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear: Agitator for the Spirit Land (University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), and The President's Medium: John Conklin, Abraham Lincoln, and the Emancipation Proclamation (Richard W. Couper Press, 2019).

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