When Columbus discovered America in 1492, he was not just looking for a new route to the Indies, but he was also hoping to discover new sources of wealth to finance another Crusade against the Muslims and also to ally with leaders in the Far East to help against the Muslims in the Middle East. When he encountered the non-Christian natives of the New World, his religious inclinations predominated again, as he and Ferdinand put forth efforts to protect, convert and educate the Native American Indians.
Spanish priests began to accompany the explorers and conquerors. A bishopric was established at Santo Domingo in 1512 (now the capital and largest city in the Dominican Republic, and the second largest in the Caribbean). Bartholomew Columbus, brother of Christopher Columbus, founded the settlement and named it after Saint Dominic.
Another bishopric was established in Cuba in 1522, and then others followed in rapid succession. The University of Mexico and the University of San Marcos (in Lima, Peru) were both founded in 1551. Others were built in Latin America as well. When you consider that the Spanish usually sent their sons back to Europe for their education, you realize that these New World institutions were mainly for the training of the natives.
Although it is true that the Spanish also oppressed and mistreated the Indians over the centuries, it is also true that the church put forth sincere and expensive efforts to protect the natives in the early days. Shortly after the death of Martin Luther, the Spanish settled Florida (St. Augustine, 1565). From there, they went to New Mexico and Texas. In fact, they were establishing their missions in California while Jefferson was writing the Declaration of Independence. Portuguese settlement in Brazil began in 1532, so the Roman Catholic church was established there as well. All of Latin America and part of the U.S. responded to religious efforts of Spanish and Portuguese priests.
The French, on the other hand, were not able to establish a permanent colony until 1608, which was in Quebec, Canada. The scarcity of French settlers in the New World, inadequate colonial policies, and the defeat of French forces ultimately brought an end to the French Empire in North America in 1763, as well as the effects of French Jesuit work, except for Quebec and Louisiana.
(Information for this article is from “Exploring Church History,” by Howard F. Vos, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994. Some information is from Wikepedia.)