Georgia martyrs died defending Church teaching

Forty-two years before John Smith arrived at Jamestown, and 55 years before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock, Spaniards founded St. Augustine, Florida, the first permanent European settlement in the present-day United States.

Heroic missionaries crossed the Atlantic Ocean out of a desire to preach the Gospel in the new territory of La Florida, as it was then known. In the years following the founding of St. Augustine in 1565, Jesuits launched missionary efforts.

In 1573, nine Franciscan friars arrived. Father Maynard Geiger (1901-77), a prominent Franciscan historian, noted that “at the height of activity there were 50 friars in 44 mission centers working for the welfare of 30,000 converted Indians.” The Franciscan missions, like La Florida itself, extended into modern-day Georgia.

Mission to the Guale

One year after he founded St. Augustine, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, the Spanish governor, traveled to St. Catherines Island, Georgia. In time, the Spaniards established Mission Santa Catalina there to evangelize the Guale (pronounced “Wally”) Indians.

“Although the Jesuits failed, their energetic Franciscan successors built some of the first churches in what is now the United States, mastered numerous native languages and wrote the first dictionaries based on Indian dialects,” said David Hurst Thomas, curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, in his work “St. Catherines: An Island in Time” (University of Georgia Press, $16.95). “Friars provided instruction not only in catechism but also in music, reading and writing.” By 1597, friars had established several other missions to the Guale.

In September 1597, a Guale revolt began. Within a week, five friars from Mission Santa Catalina and three other area missions were dead, and a sixth friar was enslaved. On Oct. 4 of that year, Mission San Pedro, also located in Georgia, was attacked, but converts from the Mocama people were able to defend the mission successfully.

On that day, Father Pedro Fernández de Chozas, who was stationed at Mission San Pedro, learned of the fate of his confreres. “What you see here is all that is left of that priest,” said a Guale ruler as he lifted up the hat of a slain friar. “Now there is no Christianity, since it was our very own [g]od who had permitted this to happen.” Later that day, Father Fernández described the attack in a letter to the governor in St. Augustine.

That letter (see sidebar) is among the historical records of the friars’ deaths included in J. Michael Francis and Kathleen Kole’s “Murder and Martyrdom in Spanish Florida: Don Juan and the Guale Uprising of 1597,” a remarkable collection of documents published by the American Museum of Natural History in 2011 and available for free online.

Francis, a history professor at the University of South Florida, and Kole, a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame, conducted extensive research at the General Archive of the Indies in Seville, Spain, which houses a treasure trove of documents from the period.

In the months that followed the October 1597 letter, the governor’s officials conducted an investigation and saw the remains of missions that had been set ablaze. In retaliation, they set Guale villages on fire. In July 1598, the governor was able to secure the release of the enslaved friar.

Sainthood cause

Francis and Kole’s research is the culmination of more than a century’s worth of work by American scholars who, relying on Spanish-language sources, have investigated what happened in 1597. Two of these scholars — Father Alexander Wyse (1912-98) and Father Conrad Harkins, a professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville — played an active role in the friars’ sainthood cause throughout the past three decades.

The path to the canonization of a martyr is different from that of other saints. First, a bishop begins the investigation of the life of the murdered person to find out whether his or her death is a true martyrdom — that is, whether he or she voluntarily accepted death inflicted out of hatred for the Christian faith. At this stage, the sainthood candidate is known as a Servant of God.

If the bishop approves, then the Congregation for the Causes of Saints continues the process in Rome. If the Congregation concurs that the death is a true martyrdom, then the pope may accept its decision and issue a decree on the martyrdom of the Servant of God. At that point, the martyr may be beatified and given the title “Blessed,” with public liturgical veneration limited to certain areas, such as a diocese, a nation or a religious community. No miracle is required for the beatification of a martyr.

If there are reports of a miracle granted through the intercession of the Blessed, then the Congregation may conduct an additional investigation. If the Congregation determines that the healing is a true miracle, then the pope may accept its decision and issue a decree on the miracle of the Blessed. At that point, the martyr may be canonized and given the title “Saint,” with public liturgical veneration extended to the entire Church.

The sainthood cause of the five slain friars — the Servants of God Pedro de Corpa and his companions (Blas de Rodríguez, Miguel de Añon, Antonio de Badajoz and Francisco de Beráscola) — is now in the second stage. In 2007, Bishop J. Kevin Boland, then bishop of Savannah, Georgia, concluded the cause’s diocesan phase, and the cause is currently under consideration in Rome.

The paper trail

According to documentation provided to Our Sunday Visitor by the Diocese of Savannah, the historical commission that investigated the friars’ deaths relied primarily on three sources that point to the friars’ martyrdom out of fidelity to Christian teaching on the monogamous nature of marriage.

The first source dates from 1598 and recounts the Spanish governor’s investigation into the friars’ deaths. During interrogations of seven young Guale, five agreed that the friars were killed because of their witness to Christian teaching in the face of polygamous practices. After being threatened with torture, one of the youths testified that he knew beforehand of the plan to kill one of the friars; this youth was subsequently executed.

The second source is “La Florida,” a poem written in the first decade of the 1600s by a Franciscan friar who had served in St. Augustine. Although “La Florida,” according to the diocesan documentation, has “undeniable drawbacks and deficiencies” because of “imaginative flourishes,” it testifies to the martyrdom of the friars, several of whom the poem’s author knew.

The “most authoritative” source, according to the diocese’s documentation, is Father Luis Gerónimo de Oré’s “Martyrs of Florida,” which was published around 1619. During visits to La Florida in 1614 and 1616, Father Oré, a Franciscan scholar and administrator who would later become a bishop in Chile, gathered information about the details of the friars’ deaths. Father Oré wrote that the friars were killed after one of them rebuked a convert for taking a second wife. The convert’s name was Juanillo, who was heir to a chiefdom, and the events of September 1597 subsequently became known as Juanillo’s Revolt.

The documents discovered by Francis and Kole raise questions about Oré’s account. “The root cause [of the friars’ deaths] turned out to be the underlying tensions and competition between indigenous Georgia chiefdoms, each jockeying for position and astutely playing the Spanish to further their own localized political purposes,” David Hurst Thomas writes in his book.

“Most modern interpretations of the 1597 uprising agree that Franciscan interference in Guale political and religious affairs, most notably their efforts to abolish the Guale practice of polygamy, provided the incendiary spark,” Francis and Kole wrote. They add, however, that “based on the evidence available, it is unlikely that we will ever know with certainty the specific reasons for the murders, who committed them or the precise circumstances that surrounded the five friars’ deaths.”

Mission Santa Catalina ceased to be a Franciscan mission when British troops came to the region in 1680. Whether or not the Church ultimately raises the five Servants of God to the altars, their heroic example of evangelization endures.

J.J. Ziegler writes from North Carolina.