Gante, Pedro de

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Franciscan missionary, founder of the first school in Mexico; b. Ayghem-Saint-Pierre, Gante, Flanders, 1486;d. Mexico City, April 1572. He studied first with the Brothers of the Common Life (whose emphasis on broad humanistic principles probably strongly influenced his own pedagogical principles), and later studied also at the University of Louvain before he entered the Franciscans as a brother. He stammered, and this defect may have restrained him from becoming a priest. However, while his fellow friars claimed they could not understand him in either Spanish or Nahuatl, the indigenous people never had that difficulty. Hence Pedro often served as an interpreter and frequently, on Sundays when a priest was not available, preached to the natives in their own language. His special realm was that of teacher, and modern authors have called him the "first teacher of the Americas." The revolutionary regime of modern Mexico, planning its program to teach the indigenous people to read and write, restudied Pedro's methods and applied them to modern circumstances.

Fray Pedro arrived in Veracruz, New Spain, Aug. 13, 1523, with the Franciscan friars Juan Dekkers and Juan Van der Auwera. He established his Colegio de San José (called also Colegio de San Francisco) in Texcoco. Late in 1526 or early in 1527 it was transferred to a site next to the Convento de San Francisco in Mexico City. At the time it was customary to have a doctrinal school in each Franciscan friary in Mexico. This particular school was a school of doctrine, but from the beginning it was something much more for the 800 to 1,000 students it housed and fed. In the mornings the pupils were taught reading, writing, and singing. The afternoons were devoted to learning Christian doctrine and to rehearsals of the sermons, songs, or plays that selected young men would present on the following Sunday or feast day in a neighboring pueblo. Because of the shortage of priests, Pedro had selected about 50 of the students to act as catechists. Whenever he heard that the pagans were to have a festival, he prepared songs or a tableau on Christian themes, trained his students, and led the group to the fiesta to counteract pagan influences and to arouse interest in the Catholic faith.

By 1529 Pedro wrote that he had built more than 100 churches in the environs of Mexico City. To build, ornament, and staff them, he expanded his curriculum. Latin was added, as was instrumental music, to supply the chanters and musicians needed for Church services. Painting, sculpture, and embroidery were introduced to supply the vestments and images; and among other crafts, carpentry, iron working, leather working, and stonecutting were taught. By 1533 there were at least 13 courses being taught successfully to more than 1,000 natives. A hospital had been added in which natives could be trained in European medical practices while refining the use of their older medicinal herbs. The chapel these students built for their schoolCapilla de San José de los Naturaleswas for many decades the largest and best in Mexico. Even though it was the parish church of the natives, the Spaniards liked to use it for their greater festivals.

After the death of Archbishop Zumárraga, Pedro de Gante wrote in one of his letters that he was tempted to return to Europe to prepare for death. The affection of the native people drove away this idea, and he remained with them as their friend and protector. Archbishop Montúfar, Zumárraga's successor, once exclaimed: "I am not the archbishop of Mexico; Fray Pedro de Gante is." He is buried in San Francisco church; his statue is in the monument to Columbus on the Paseo de la Reforma.

Bibliography: v. m. gracia, Fray Pedro de Gante, primer maestro del continente iberoamericano (Valencia 1989). p. r. vÁzquez, Fray Pedro de Gante: El primero y más grande maestro de la Nueva España (Mexico 1995). j. c. castellanos, El catecismo en pictogramas de fray Pedro de Gante: Estudio introductorio y desciframiento del Ms. Vit. 26-9 de la Biblioteca Nacional de Madrid (Madrid 1987). r. c. carvajal, La obra educativa de Pedro de Gante en Tezcoco (Tezcoco 1986). Cartas, compiladas de diversas obras, ed. f. de j. chauvet (Mexico City 1951). e. a. chavez, El ambiente geográfico, histórico y social de fray Pedro de Gante, hasta el año 1523 (Mexico City 1943); El primero de los grandes educadores de la América, fray Pedro de Gante (2d ed. Mexico City 1943).

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