Martyrdom in Coastal Georgia 420 Years Ago

martyrs

The Spanish successfully established colonies and missions along the eastern coast of Florida and Georgia in the sixteenth century.  Though this territory collectively called “La Florida” was not rich in gold and silver, it was a strategic location since Spanish galleons full of riches sailed back to Europe along the coast.  Fearful of British attacks and unfriendly natives along the coast, the Spanish had an interest in colonizing the region.  After the successful founding of Saint Augustine in present-day Florida in 1565, the Spanish founded a string of missions along the coast, both on the mainland and barrier islands.

By 1597 there were five missions in Coastal Georgia where Franciscan friars preached the Gospel, learned the indigenous Guale language, and lived peacefully with the native population.  Most Guale natives not only embraced Christianity but also welcomed European goods such as glass beads, metal tools, various cloths and other luxury items.   The friars lived among the Guale without any military presence, giving evidence to the good relations between the Guale and the missionaries.

Friar Luis Geronimo de Oré (a Peruvian Franciscan friar) recorded in 1618 after visiting La Florida, that on September 1597, the friar assigned to the mission of Tolomato (near Eulonia, Georgia) did not allow a baptized, Guale man to take a second wife.  Juanillo, who was the heir to a Guale chiefdom, opposed Friar Pedro de Corpa’s fidelity to Christian teaching on marriage and killed him on September 14th, 1597.  Juanillo and the men he assembled continued to the other missions to kill all the friars.

Before arriving to Saint Catherines Island, Juanillo ordered the chief of the island to execute the two friars stationed there, Friar Miguel de Añon and Friar Antonio de Badajoz.  Unwilling to carry out the order, the chief begged the friars to flee south to the mission on San Pedro Island (present day Cumberland Island).  The friars refused to believe the rumors of coming murder.  Once Juanillo and his men reached Saint Catherines, the two friars were brutally killed after they prayed fervently inside the mission, today marked by twelve palm trees.  The Guale men also killed Friar Blas de Rodríguez near Darien and Friar Francisco de Veráscola as he returned by canoe from Saint Augustine to his mission on present-day Saint Simons Island.  A sixth friar, Francisco de Avila, was kidnapped and experienced horrible tortures until he was liberated months later.

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Site of Santa Caterina de Guale Mission on Saint Catherines Island. The palm tress mark the outer wall of what was the church.

The diocesan process for the beatification of Pedro de Corpa and Companions, or the Georgia Martyrs as they are commonly called, is already complete.  At the present moment Father Giovangiuseppe Califano, OFM, the Postulator of the Cause, is overseeing the redaction of the final historical document which will be presented to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints next year.  There is currently a need for greater devotion to these martyrs and also more awareness about their story.  These five men left everything that was familiar to them in Spain to share the Good News of Jesus Christ in distant lands.  They died as witnesses to the Christian faith as they shared with others what they themselves had received.  At a time when the institution of marriage must be strengthened and upheld, the witness of Fray Pedro de Corpa and Companions fills us with great hope.  The presence of Spanish missionaries in Georgia over four hundred years ago also encourages the many Latino Catholics who now call Georgia home.

Picture of the Five Georgia Martyrs from Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church in Jasper, Georgia.  Check their great website here.

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