Honoring Florida’s martyrs

Three bishops — two diocesan bishops and one retired bishop, all of Florida — will be among the participants in a Mass opening the cause for canonization of the martyrs of La Florida on Oct. 12. The martyrs are a mix of missionaries and Native American converts killed at various sites in Florida between 1549 and 1706. The site of the outdoor Mass is the 78-acre site of the Shrine of the La Florida Martyrs in Tallahassee, Florida.

“This is an exciting moment,” said Bishop Felipe Estévez of the Diocese of St. Augustine, who will join with Pensacola-Tallahassee Bishop Gregory Parkes to speak at the La Florida Martyrs’ Mass. “The foundations of the Catholic Faith in America were so heroic, and the launching of the cause and building of the shrine will help more Americans know about this important history.”

René Gracida, 92, who served the Pensacola-Tallahassee diocese as its first bishop from 1975-83 and is now retired, will concelebrate the Mass, which will be open to the public.

When the cause opens, the martyrs will be known as Servants of God, Antonio Cuipa and 81 Companions. The martyrs include Dominican, Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries; their killers were typically non-Christian Indians sometimes working in conjunction with English Protestants and French Huguenots (Protestants) making incursions into Spanish territory from the north.

Andrew Dinan of Florida’s Ave Maria University, who helped research the martyrs, admits that the killing was partly political — to push the Spanish out of Florida — but also due to the hatred of the Catholic Faith. Dinan said, “I think we have the proof we need to demonstrate this.”

Dinan teaches Latin and Greek, and offered his language skills to translate documents found in university libraries and archives in Cuba, Spain and Rome. He recently returned from a two-week research trip to Rome, which took him to four different archives.

Having researchers with Dinan’s language skills is crucial, as none of the documentation of the martyrs is in English.

Stories of martyrdom

Although many European missionaries are among the slain, Indian convert Antonio Cuipa was chosen as the lead martyr because his story was particularly compelling, said Lynn Mangan, member of the committee for the cause of canonization. “He suffered and lost everything,” she said. “But Antonio’s is also a story of inspiration and hope.”

Antonio was an Apalachee Indian convert at Mission San Luis (Tallahassee) brought to the Catholic Faith by Franciscan friars. He was a carpenter and helped build the mission; his studies of Latin and grammar suggest that he planned to study for the priesthood.

An English governor in the Carolinas recruited a large number of Creek Indians and began a series of raids into La Florida, wiping out Catholic communities throughout what today is northern Florida. The Indians nailed Antonio to an outdoor Station of the Cross and set him on fire. Onlookers say he claimed to see an apparition of Mary as he died.

While not a missionary, Antonio is significant, Dinan believes, because he and his fellow converts are “the fruit of a 150-year effort to preach the Gospel to the natives in this part of the New World.”

Other notable martyrs in the group of 82 include Dominican protomartyr (first martyr of a group or in a country) Father Luis Cáncer, who was slain by Indians near Tampa Bay in 1549. Father Pedro Martínez was the Jesuit protomartyr, killed by Indians working with Huguenots near Jacksonville. Franciscan friars Juan de Parga Araujo and Tiburcio de Osorio were killed by Indians working with the English near Tallahassee in 1704, along with Antonio and other Indian converts.

Advancing the cause

The American martyrs quickly came to the attention of Rome. In 1704, Pope Clement XI directed that sworn testimony be taken regarding the Tallahassee martyrs. In 1743, King Philip V of Spain established Oct. 3 as a day to commemorate the Florida martyrs. Franciscan, Dominican and Jesuit communities each instituted their own days of remembrance for the martyrs of their orders. In 1939, Bishop John Mark Gannon of Erie, Pennsylvania, initiated a cause for canonization of 106 North American martyrs, including some in Florida, but the effort was stalled by World War II.

Florida martyrs
A cross stands on the site where some of the Florida martyrs are believed to have given their lives for the Faith. Courtesy photo

Bishop Gracida was the next to become involved, opening the cause for canonization of 16 Florida martyrs in the early 1980s.

It was the bishop’s long-time interest in America’s first martyrs that led to the initiation of the cause. He said, “As a boy, I was fascinated by the stories of the North American martyrs.”

When he became a professed Benedictine in 1953, Bishop Gracida requested and received the religious name of René Goupil, a French Jesuit lay missionary martyred by the Iroquois Indians at present-day Auriesville, New York, in 1642.

After he became bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee, his vicar general, Msgr. William Kerr, first told him the story of the Franciscan friars who had converted the region’s Indians, and of how Catholicism was wiped out in the area by the martyrdoms. The bishop said, “I was horrified by the history.”

Momentum for the cause was lost, however, when Bishop Gracida was named to the Diocese of Corpus Christi in 1983.

Despite living out of state, Bishop Gracida still supports the cause financially. People are surprised at the hundreds of thousands of dollars required to advance a cause, the bishop said, but “research is done by people who need their expenses paid. They’ll spend days and weeks in archives in Havana, Madrid and Rome poring over musty old documents that haven’t been looked through in years.”

“It’s a humongous cost requiring donations from all over the United States,” he added. The shrine has established a website, gofundme.com/floridamartyrs, where people wanting to help can make donations.

The successful canonization of martyr St. Isaac Jogues and his companions, the bishop believes, is due to New York’s greater wealth and larger Catholic population. St. Isaac Jogues was martyred by Mohawk Indians in Auriesville, New York.

A place of honor

The current impetus for the martyrs’ canonization began a decade ago when Mangan, Heather Jordan and a third friend visited the shrine site. “We said, ‘So, we have martyrs, we should build them a shrine,’” Mangan said.

The trio formed a committee, began researching the martyrs and the site, and organized the team necessary to begin the canonization process.

They secured the services of canon lawyer Waldery Hilgeman of Missio Pastoralis in Rome to serve as postulator. In addition to funding the cause itself, funds are also being sought to purchase and create the Tallahassee shrine, located near a site where some of the martyrs may have been killed.

The property was once the home of a wealthy couple, who built a mansion there in the 1950s. The couple died the following decade, and the property was slated for development. Five “holding families,” including Mangan’s, were able to purchase the property in 2005. An estimated $1.5 million is needed to purchase and renovate the property; it will become a nonprofit entity operating in conjunction with the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee.

Renovation plans include converting the mansion into a museum and building a chapel dedicated to St. Joseph, a patron to the Indian converts. Once complete, Jordan said, “the shrine will ensure that the story of the martyrs will not be forgotten, and that their stories can be told in one place.”

Bishop Gracida believes the heroism of the La Florida martyrs holds a lesson today as many Catholics overseas are facing martyrdom. He said, “The numbers of martyrs we saw in past centuries in Florida has increased exponentially today in the Middle East, Africa, India and other parts of the world. With the threat of martyrdom in many parts of the world today, the story of the La Florida martyrs takes on a special significance for us.”

Jim Graves writes from California.