Friday, November 30, 2012


Scattered along the Georgia coast lie the nearly forgotten sites of pioneering 16th-century Franciscan missions. Here, more than 400 years ago, five Spanish friars were slain while bringing the Catholic faith to the native Guale people.

Guale was an historic Native American chiefdom along the coast of present-day Georgia. During the late 17th C.and early 18th C., Guale society was  devastated by extensive epidemics of new infectious diseases as well as warfare from other tribes. Some of the surviving remnants migrated to the mission areas of Spanish Florida while others remained near the Georgia coast. Joining with other survivors, they became known as the Yamasee, an ethnically mixed group that emerged in a process of ethnogenesis.

Guale village

Few people today are familiar with the dramatic events of this area's earliest Catholic history. The first of these friars, Fray Pedro de Corpa, came to Spanish Florida in 1587 and was sent to the Guale village of Tolomato, near modern-day Darien, Georgia.

Conflict erupted there in 1597. Fray Pedro insisted that those who were baptized must be faithful to Church teaching about the sanctity of marriage. But Juanillo, the local native chief's nephew, openly took a second wife. The missionaries reminded him that when he had become a Christian, he had made a solemn promise to forsake the Guale custom of taking multiple wives.

Juanillo refused to listen to the friars. They responded that they could not support his desire to succeed as chief. Enraged, Juanillo left the mission, gathered a band of warriors from the countryside, and proceeded to murder Fray Pedro and his four missionary companions who resided at three other mission sites along the coast.

Dr. Paul Thigpen believes that the martyrs will find "friends" not only in Georgia, but also across the country and beyond.  "In fact, all Americans concerned with protecting the nature of marriage in today's society can draw courage from the witness of these men. Their witness strengthens the moral fiber of all. They remind us that some truths are worth dying for."

Bronze by Marjorie Lawrence,  St. Simon's Island
The five martyrs are:
Pedro de Corpa, priest. One of his companions described Pedro by saying, “Since he was a wise and holy man, the love of God burned in his heart, and by means of prayer, abstinence, and self-discipline he gave good example to the Indians of the West whom he strove to convert."

Miguel de Anon was a priest.

Francisco de Verascola was a man of great physical stature and strength and served as bodyguard to officials visiting the area (despite being an ordained priest), and easily interacted with the Guale youth who included him in their athletic games and sports. Through his witness, many were brought to Christ.

Antonio de Badajoz  was a lay brother who  immediately learned the Guale language and served as interpreter and translator for the mission priests, and following their example, played an important role in evangelizing the Guale.

Blas de Rodriguez, a priest said:  "My sons, for me it is not difficult to die. Even if you do not cause it, the death of this body is inevitable. We must be ready at all times, for we, all of us, have to die someday. But what does pain me is that the Evil One has persuaded you to do this offensive thing against your God and Creator. It is a further source of deep grief to me that you are unmindful of what we missionaries have done for you in teaching you the way to eternal life and happiness."    (Homily at his last Mass)

Following the death of the Franciscans, the Guale missions were disbanded, to be resumed seven years later in 1605. They prospered for nearly a century, instructing and converting the native Indians, until English colonists arrived in 1702 and destroyed the missions.

If raised to the altar, these Spanish missionaries would join the three 17th century Jesuits martyred near present-day Auriesville, NY as the only beatified martyrs slain on American soil.

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