A review of: Cacique: A Novel of Florida’s Heroic Mission History by Robert J. Baker, Bishop of Charleston, SC (with Tony Sands)
A review by Mary C. Gildersleeve
In the early 1600s, the Spanish colonists welcomed a new group of émigrés to (what would become) northern Florida – Franciscan missionary priests sent out to evangelize the Native Americans. The start of these missions coming out from St. Augustine was slow, but steady.
So begins Bishop of Charleston, South Carolina, Robert Baker’s newly published historic novel, Cacique: A Novel of Florida’s Heroic Missionary History. Based on facts uncovered in High Springs, Florida, Cacique (pronounced “ka – SEE – kay”) is full of heroism, action, sorrow and joy. But most of all, the story is one of unceasing faith in God. The novel lovingly describes the lives of the inhabitants of the Potano Indian village and the priests that come to convert them. Through his strong faith, the young Father Tomas (based on the real-life Father Martin Prieto) is instrumental in helping the Cacique, leader of the village, learn to understand and believe the truths of Catholicism. Soon, many of the villagers also come to embrace Catholicism. The Gospel spreads to nearby tribes.
Spanning just over 100 years of Florida history, the Franciscan missionaries’ story is one of undaunted courage and faith in the face of paganism, fear and cruelty. An additional faction comes into play when English colonists from the Carolinas encourage uprisings among the Florida Native Americans in order to push the Spanish (and their religion) out of Florida. In fact, so successful was the Carolinians’ campaign that the story of the Franciscans in northern Florida lay buried and basically forgotten until 1986 when University of Florida archaeologists began to find evidence of the missionaries and their work with the Potano and other local Indian tribes.
I’ve always been fascinated by the Catholic missionaries who helped to spread the Gospel and Western Culture to the American natives. Growing up in San Francisco – a city named for the Mission that is still a vibrant parish almost 400 years after its founding – I learned all about the Franciscan missionaries that settled missions up and down the coast of California. The Jesuits in the North and Pacific Northwest, the Franciscans in the West and Southwest, and various others are often written and spoken of; those courageous men and women who dared to spread Catholicism throughout the land.
But, I’d never heard of the Franciscans in Florida – until Bishop Baker’s recent publication of this very readable novel of their story. I’m always a bit skeptical about reading a book by a person famous for things other than writing. After all, Bishop Baker is a wonderful bishop (in fact, he’s my bishop), but what credentials does he have to write a historical novel about Florida? It turns out that this native of Ohio, Bishop Baker worked for many years in Florida – both as a parish priest and a high school history teacher in St. Augustine, Florida before being sent to the bishopric of Charleston. Bishop Baker has created an exciting and loving portrait of both the Franciscans and the Indians they converted.
Bishop Baker’s hope is that the history of the Franciscan missionaries in Florida will no longer be buried in the sand and memories of Floridians. Obtained directly from Saint Catherine of Siena Press or from Bishop Baker's site, Cacique would make a wonderful addition to any middle- or high school American history curriculum.