First recorded Mass in the Americas: January 6, 1494 at La Isabela, Dominican Republic

November 9, 2017

Columbus on his voyage

Columbus’s second fleet of seventeen assorted ships carried between twelve hundred and fifteen hundred men and was organized to establish a permanent colony that would serve as a base for trade with the people of this new land. The fleet left Cádiz on 25 September 1493 and arrived in the Caribbean in November. Columbus was anxious to return to La Navidad, the settlement he had inadvertently established in December of the previous year, 1492, after the Santa María was wrecked off the north coast of what is today Haiti….

The forty crew members of the ill-fated Santa María had been left at the town of the Taíno Indian chief, Guacanagarí, with instructions to obtain gold and find its source. Columbus was understandably eager in the fall of 1493 to be reunited with them.

The fleet arrived too late. When Columbus reached La Navidad on 28 November he found the fort and the Indian town burned, and all the Spaniards dead. Guacanagarí claimed that some of the men had died of disease or through fighting with one another, some had left to explore the interior and died there, and the rest had been killed in an attack by a rival chief, Caonabo….

First Church in the new world at La Isabela in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. Photo by Reimarhoven.

Beset by doubt, confusion, and probably some despair, Columbus and his men left La Navidad on 7 December and sailed eastward along the north coast of Hispaniola, looking for a more hospitable location. It took nearly a month of indecisive tacking to sail the 160 kilometers and choose the site that was to become La Isabela. The fleet dropped anchor on 2 January 1494, and the first Mass on land was celebrated on 6 January, marking the official establishment of the colony.

Kathleen A. Deagan and Jose Maria Cruxent, Archeology at La Isabela: America’s First European Town (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002), accessed July 2, 2017.

Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 600


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