Twelve priests and friars were among Hernando de Soto’s expedition that made landfall 470 years ago at Tampa Bay.
Standing on the banks of the Manatee River near where De Soto is thought to have landed, Bishop Frank J. Dewane paid tribute Thursday in an open-air Mass to those priests and all who followed them over the centuries.
The bishop of the Diocese of Venice, his vestments billowing in the breeze, said the sea journey to reach Florida had been grim, and De Soto’s party was undoubtedly happy to be back on land.
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Little could they know their trek north in an unsuccessful search for gold would claim De Soto’s life and many of the explorers who accompanied him. De Soto was buried in the Mississippi River as survivors attempted to keep his death secret from Native Americans, with whom they had clashed.
The hardships would serve to deepen the faith of the missionaries, Dewane said.
But he noted that Christians are not a people who just look back.
“We’re a people of hope, looking forward,” he said, recognizing a crowd of 110 who attended, including students from St. Joseph Catholic School in Bradenton.
The Mass was held at the Holy Eucharist Monument at De Soto National Memorial, overlooking a cove where sailboats bobbed in the tide.
The Mass was part of the Year of Celebration, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Diocese of Venice and the Year of Priests, designated as June 19, 2009, to June 19, 2010, by Pope Benedict XVI.
Dewane said the Year of Priests is not just for priests, but for anyone who has been given the gift of faith.
Alex Martinez, 12, a student at St. Joseph Catholic School, said he was impressed that Dewane would acknowledge his school and classmates.
“I thought it was nice our principal and teacher took us out to Mass,” Martinez said.
Judy Scott, a parishioner at Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church, called the Mass a blessing. “What a glorious day. God is smiling,” she said.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 745-7021.