The image of the puritans, a decidedly non-Catholic bunch, sitting down with the Indians for the first Thanksgiving in 1622 is fairly well-documented in most U.S. history books. However, there were at least two Catholic Thanksgivings that pre-dated this event by at least 20 years.
As I was growing up in San Antonio, Texas, our Thanksgiving dinners were always prefaced by a prayer that had been passed down over generations. I never paid much attention to the origin of that prayer, having other things on my mind. But as I look back on it I realize this prayer came from what was probably one of the first Thanksgivings on the newly-discovered continent.
My family on my mother’s side came from Spain, landed in Mexico (then called Zacatecas, Nueva Espana). My ancestor, Pedro Gomez Duran y Chavez, joined a group, led by Don Juan de Onate, northward on a quest to claim New Mexico for the King of Spain in 1598. Such journeys were undertaken with the purpose of both gaining territory and spreading Christianity.
The expedition traveled over 800 miles through unknown territory and finally came to the banks of El Rio Bravo (the Rio Grande River) almost exhausted. Onate nailed a cross to a tree and took formal possession of the new land, called New Mexico, “in the name of the Heavenly Lord, God Almighty, and the earthly lord King Philip II”. On April 30, 1598, Father Alfonso Martínez, the Commissary Apostolic, led the members of the expedition in a Mass of Thanksgiving.
After the Mass that day, the Franciscan priests blessed the tables laden with fish, ducks, geese and items from the expeditions’ stores. No mention of Turkey though, as it was not likely a local staple. As they feasted, a play was performed recounting the conversion and baptism of the local Indians.
The prayer of Thanksgiving that I heard growing up goes like this:
“Open the door to these heathens, establish the church altars where the Body and Blood of the Son of God may be offered, open to us the way to security and peace for their preservation and ours, and give to our king and to me in his royal name, peaceful possession of these kingdoms and provinces for His blessed Glory. Amen“.
There are still some descendants of the Chavez clan in New Mexico that celebrate the feast of Thanksgiving on April 30th each year…. not necessarily with feasting but at least with a remembrance.
Although often disputed among some members of our clan, there is another claim to the first Thanksgiving, and that is Saint Augustine, Florida. Again, it was a Catholic event: a celebration between the Spanish and the local Timucuan Indians on September 8, 1565. Sadly, my ancestors and I will have to settle for second billing, as St Augustine would appear to be the real first Thanksgiving in the New World.
So….as Paul Harvey used to say….now you know the rest of the story!