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Florida's martyrs

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The boat has docked in a lush and unknown place. The long and rugged voyage to the New World has led the sailors to the shores of the “Tierra de Pascua Florida” (Flowery Easter land). Father Pedro Martínez, along with a small group, decides to venture into the wooded thicket of Tallahassee to find groups of indigenous people in order to fulfill the mission that has taken him to the ends of the known world: announce the Gospel of Christ.

It is the month of August in the Year of Our Lord 1566 and the young Jesuit, born in Teruel, took advantage of the time at sea to catechize the crew with his songs, his testimony and, above all, with the joy of a contagious faith that brought all sailors to the sacrament of penance.

They are unaware that they have arrived in hostile territory, where the Huguenots have instigated in the indigenous a deep hatred against the Spanish Catholics. While Father Martínez waited for the rest of the entourage, a group of indigenous surrounded him and there, on the shore, his blood moistened the land that he had come to save for Christ. He was the first Jesuit martyr for the faith in the New World.

This religious man, together with Dominicans, Franciscans and a large number of indigenous converts, have been declared Servants of God as the process of their beatification begins, on the initiative of the bishops of Florida. More than 80 evangelizers and thousands of indigenous were martyred out of hatred for the faith in this corner of the southeastern American territory.

From 1549 to 1706, important religious orders carried out intense missionary work. In 1549, the Dominican Luis Cancer was assassinated near the Suwannee River, along with a group of companions from the order who came from missions in Puerto Rico and Guatemala.

In mid-1571, eight Jesuits were martyred, and the Society of Jesus decided to postpone their mission in Florida for another time.

In 1611, Franciscan Vicente Ferrer de Andrade was martyred along with 17 indigenous.

In the area of Apalachee, Tallahassee, three Franciscans, nine converted indigenous, and the family of the governor of the missionary settlement were tortured and burned alive; they also took the unborn baby from the pregnant wife. Almost all the churches that the Franciscans had erected were reduced to ashes. Another Franciscan, Fray Luis Sánchez, born in Cuba, was martyred in 1696, along with his two indigenous altar servers, for refusing to renounce the faith of the Church.

In mid-1704, the British, along with a large group of whites and indigenous, crucified the elderly military man Baltasar de Francisco. At that time, the Franciscans Juan de Parga Araujo and Father Tiburcio de Osorio, born in Havana, Cuba, were murdered along with their companions.

In 1705, the Floridian Father Agustin de Leon tried to rescue two of his acolytes who had fallen captive to the British; he offered himself as hostage in exchange for the freedom of the two young indigenous. All were killed at once, along with the guide who had volunteered to accompany him.

The strongest persecutions and murders occurred between 1704 and 1706, when the troops commanded by Colonel James More — some 50 soldiers — with the support of more than 1,500 indigenous, destroyed with blood and fire all the communities founded by the Franciscan missionaries. They savagely tortured and murdered Catholic priests and indigenous, among them chief Don Patricio de Hinachuba, perfect connoisseur of the Spanish language, who five years before had written to the king of Spain to denounce some abuses; a letter that the monarch responded to in 1700, ordering the civil authorities to give the indigenous good treatment, aid, protection and defense.

The number of converted chieftains killed during this terrible period was more than 20, and probably thousands of indigenous were martyred for defending their faith: beaten, dismembered, burned alive or their throats cut. The survivors were reduced to slavery and sold to the British in the Carolinas and Georgia.

In 1704, Pope Clement XI created a commission to analyze and document the martyrdom of indigenous and missionaries in Florida. The following year, the pope entrusted Lucas Alvarez de Toledo, the commissary general of the Indies, to write a report and collect testimony about the martyrs.

Bishop Augustin Verot, the first bishop of St. Augustine, began to collect data that allowed him to study and to value the memory of the Floridian martyrs. Later, Bishop John M. Gannon (of Erie, Pa.) made the first attempts to introduce this process — to obtain the declaration of the Church on the martyrdom and heroism of these indigenous and missionaries — and presented important documentation to the Holy See, but the whole process was postponed due to the Second World War.

Already in 1980, the cause of beatification of these Florida martyrs received the strong support of Bishop Rene Gracida, then bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee. Now the current prelate of the diocese, Bishop Gregory Parkes, together with Bishop Felipe Estevez, of St. Augustine, have opened the diocesan phase of the process of beatification of all these Florida martyrs. They did so with a solemn Mass, celebrated Oct. 12, 2015, on land east of Tallahassee, where they hope to be able to erect in the future a shrine dedicated to Mary, Queen of the Martyrs of La Florida.

Dr. Waldery Hilgeman, a member of Missio Pastoralis, an organization based in Rome, will be the General Postulator in charge of promoting the beatification and ensuring the process soon comes to fruition. Due to the expanse of the cause, four vice-postulators have been appointed: for the Dominican Order, Father Alberto Rodriguez; for the martyred indigenous, Father Wayne Paysse; for the Franciscans, Father Bill Wilson; and for the martyred Jesuit, Sixto J. Garcia.

These martyrs are valuable witnesses of the faith and fidelity to the Church, European religious who worked to inculturate the faith. To achieve this they learned the indigenous languages and catechized using the local culture. Their commitment to faith in Christ was absolute. Thanks to them, there were people speaking and praying as Christians in these lands of the North American southeast many years before the arrival of the pilgrims on the Mayflower.

Comments from readers

William VanderWyden - 11/28/2016 04:19 PM
Thank you for this very informative article. I have read much of this period of Florida history as a student at UF and having read Michael Gannon's books, "Cross in the Sand" and "Rebel Bishop." Little is known generally about these heroic Florida fathers in the Faith, and it is wonderful to see this brought to our attention.

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