Meet the Franciscan friar who baptized St. Juan Diego
A painting of Franciscan missionary Pedro de Gante with Juan Diego, whom the friar baptized along with Diego’s wife in 1525. / Credit:
By Francesca Pollio Fenton
CNA Staff, Dec 9, 2023 / 06:00 am (CNA).
Many are familiar with the story of St. Juan Diego, whose feast is celebrated on Dec. 9 in the worldwide Church. However, the story of the Franciscan friar who baptized this beloved saint is less well known.
In 1521, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortes defeated the Aztec empire, tore down the pagan temples, and in their place built Catholic churches. Franciscans were the first missionaries to arrive in the region and began their work sharing the Gospel with the native people in 1524.
One of the first three Franciscan missionaries to arrive in Mexico was Brother Pedro de Gante, also known as Pieter van der Moere. Originally from Ghent, Flanders (present-day Belgium), Gante was trained in the choral style of the low countries — Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. He took this musical foundation to Mexico where he trained the Indigenous singers who worked at the cathedral in Mexico City.
Gante believed that education and religion should be natural parts to one’s everyday life. He studied the native language of the Indigenous people and was able to teach them in their own dialect as well as Spanish.
During this time, Juan Diego — who was a member of the Chichimecas but lived in the region that was part of a vast Aztec empire — and his wife began to attend Mass at the Church of St. Diego. In 1525, at the age of 50, he and his wife were baptized by Gante and took new names: Juan Diego and Maria Lucia. The two are considered one of the first native couples to be baptized in Mexico.
In 1526, Gante founded San José de los Naturales to teach Indigenous boys reading, writing, music, and the Catholic faith. The school also taught them Spanish artisanal skills, which led to many painters and sculptors helping adorn the many churches that were built.
The friar published “Christian Doctrine in the Mexican Language” in Nahuatl, the Aztec language in 1528.
Gante was never ordained a priest and remained a brother his entire life, dying on April 19, 1572, in Mexico City.