Sung Catechisms in the Jesuit Missions

Missionaries must be creative in the ways they communciate the Gospel to those under their care, whether pagans in far off lands or lukewarm Christians in their midst.

In Michael Kenny’s 1934 The Romance of the Floridas on the history of the Jesuit missions to the southern United States, we read about an interesting method utilized by the Jesuit missionaries for imparting Christian doctrine and morals to the people—catechism lessons set to music. In this essay we will review various instances in the history of the Jesuit missions where sung catechism lessons were utilized.

Fr. Martínez Tames A Crew of Rowdy Spaniards

Fr. Pedro Martínez was the head of the 1566 Jesuit mission to Florida. When the mission left Spain, Fr. Martínez was disappointed to find the sailors aboard his ship as one might expect—boorish and uncouth, given to drunkenness, fighting, gambling, and blasphemy. Fr. Martínez considered this unacceptable for a vessel engaged in such a holy purpose and resolved to correct the manners of the coarse Spanish sailors. This he first attempted by the imposition of penalties for misbehavior. Kenny relates:

Insistent on purifuing [the ship] of vileness and blasphemy, he administered pledges against cursing and obscenity, and he arranged with the captains and sailing master a list of penalties for delinquents: loss of their noonday drink for some offenses in language, of their dinner for others, and in some cases a fine was affixed for each oath. (1)

The penalties were of limited success, however, and Fr. Martínez soon realized the sailors’ real problem was they lacked any catechesis. He resolved, therefore, to take a different approach:

Perceiving [the sailors’] lack of religious knowlegde, Father Martínez found a way of imparting it with pleasure as well as profit. He arranged for the singing of the catechism every afternoon on all the ships until they had all of it by rote, and they were singing snatches of it on deck instead of sailor ditties of other tenor. His pithy instructions, turned to mariner mentality, made confessions frequent and public prayer and religious exercises popular. Soon the penalties [for cursing] were dropped, and every ship seemed a mission house and the voyage took on the aspect of a pilgrimage. (2)

So effective was the method of Fr. Martínez that the Admiral of the expedition later said that compared with other fleets he had commanded, the sailors under Fr. Martínez’s influence were saintly. We see that Fr. Fr. Martínez’s method of putting the catechism to music and teaching the men to sing it was enormously effective in inculcating good habits and piety among even the roughest of men.

Catechizing Sanlúcar With Song and Bells

Sadly, Fr. Martínez would not get the opportunity to put his evangelical skills to work in the mission fields of the New World, as he was martyred on Cumberland Island in Georgia on his very first encounter with the natives of that place (1566). Another Jesuit expedition was set to depart for Florida in 1568, but was delayed for a month at the harbor of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. During their month delay, the Jesuits took it upon themselves to evangelize the people of Sanlúcar. Fr. Antonio Antonio Sedeño describes their method in a letter to St. Francis Borgia in November of 1568:

We catechized in our usual way, that is, marching through the streets with a cross and a handbell and singing as we went. The catechists did this very well and with great recollection and devotion. It is consoling to see how this way of singing the catechism strengthened the fervor of the people and attracted many to the instruction. (3)

It is noteworthy that Fr.  Sedeño describes the method of singing with the handbell as “our usual way” of catechizing. This indicates that singing the catechism was not unique to Fr. Martínez or Fr.  Sedeño, but was considered the standardized way employed by the Jesuits for catechizing groups of people.

Singing in the Face of Danger

The same Fr.  Sedeño describes how, once the expedition put to sea and entered the waters off the coast of the Americas, great fear fell upon the crew. Five ships of French Huguenot corsairs had been prowling about the area, preying on Spanish ships. They were ruthless, known to put to death the entire crews of captured vessels—sometimes by binding their victims’ hands and tossing them overboard. Knowing they could face certain death, the crew of the Spanish ship fortified themselves with prayer and confession. Again, Fr.  Sedeño describes how this was accomplished with the aid of song:

[The Jesuit fathers] set the sailors singing their prayers and teachings, and soon put a stop to cursing and blasphemy, for when a man swore through thoughtlessness he promptly marked a cross on the deck and kissed it, and this he did whether captain or seaman. (4)

God heard their prayers; they had smooth sailing and reached Florida without encountering the dreaded French corsairs.

Catechizing the People of Havana

When the Jesuits reached Cuba, they spent several weeks in Havana preparing for their mission. Despite being the most important city in the Spanish Indies at the time, in 1568 Cuba faced a dearth of missionary priests. The Jesuits resolved to do here as they had done elsewhere and took to reforming the habits of the citizens. They preached, heard confessions, baptized Negro slaves, and administered sacramental marriage among both slaves and Spaniards. These works bore marvelous fruits, and Fr. Sedeño reported that the people of Havana grew so enthusiastic about the faith that—

…all the singing now heard in the streets is the singing of the catechism and the hymns that the children learn along with it. (5)

Havana, early 17th century

The Natives of Biscayne Bay Evangelized Through Singing

This custom of teaching the catechism through song was still in use by the Jesuits almost two centuries later, when the missionary expedition of Spanish fathers Joseph Maria Monaco and Joseph Xavier Alaña arrived in Florida in 1743. Landing in Biscayne Bay in what is now Miami-Dade County, Fathers Alaña and Monaco visited the Miamis, Santaluces, Mayacas, and other tribes of southwest Florida. These tribes had received missionaries in the past and nominally embraced the faith but had since relapsed into paganism, even offering child sacrifices!

Though Fr. Monaco persuaded them to give up the ritual slaughter of children, the missionaries made little headway amongst the relapsed natives. The good fathers decided it was best to focus their efforts on inculcating the rudiments of the faith in the youth, in hopes that when they got older they would be kindly disposed towards the Gospel and the Jesuits. In Michael Kenny’s chapter on the Jesuits of the 18th century Florida missions, we read:

Father Monaco explained in their own language the supreme need and value of the Christian  teachings he was bringing them. Realizing the slight impression they had made, they used their best efforts to instruct the children, teaching them to sing the prayers and lessons in their own tongue. (6)

The priests gradually had more success, establishing a reducción (missionary settlement) among the tribes.

Singing the Faith

We have seen how the Jesuit missionaries made ample use of singing as a means of evangelization. Having considered these accounts spanning almost two centuries, what can we say about the manner this practice was utilized?

(1) Singing was used as an evangelistic tool amongst both lukewarm European Christians and Native Americans receiving rudimentary instruction in the faith. It seems to have been used when the Jesuit fathers were tasked with evangelizaing large groups of people quickly (e.g., the entire crew of a ship, the people of a city, the children of a tribe).

(2) The Jesuits valued it because of its mnemonic potential; i.e., as a tool of memorization. They drilled their pupils in the songs until “they had all of it by rote.”

(3) It was particularly valuable for reformation of morals and the driving out of bad habits.

(4) According to Fr. Sedeño, the customary way the method was used in urban settings was for the Jesuits to walk down the streets singing and using a handbell. On vessels, we see Fr. Martínez drilling the crewman at fixed times every afternoon.

(5) The content of the songs consisted of catechism lessons and prayers. We may assume they were original compositions of the Jesuits, as Fr. Fr. Sedeño specifically differentiates them from “hymns,” which were also part of religious instruction.

(6) We do not know what sort of tune the lyrics were put to, but we may assume they repurposed popular folk melodies that would have simple and familiar, at least to Europeans

(7) Finally, it should be noted that this practice was not confined to the Jesuits of the Spanish missions; the Jesuits of New France, too, put catechism lessons and prayers to music for the benefit of the Huron and other allied tribes. The method was also utilized by other missionary orders in various ways.

All stories and quotes in this article are taken from Michael Kenny, The Romance of the Floridas: The Finding and the Founding (1970)

(1) Michael Kenny, The Romance of the Floridas: The Finding and the Founding (New York: AMS Press, 1970), 175
(2) Ibid. 176
(3) Ibid. 218
(4) Ibid. 219
(5) Ibid. 223
(6) Ibid. 338

Phillip Campbell, “Sung Catechisms in the Jesuit Missions,” Unam Sanctam Catholicam, May 14, 2023. Available online at