Franciscan Martyrs of Georgia
FRANCISCAN MARTYRS OF GEORGIA
The title refers to five Friars Minor—Pedro de Corpa, Blas Rodríguez, Miguel de Añon, Antonio de Badajóz, and Francisco de Veráscola—who were slain in 1597 in the territory of the present-day Diocese of Savannah. Though the territory was then called La Florida, to distinguish these missionaries from others martyred in territory that is now part of the state of Florida, the term "of Georgia" is used to identify them.
These five Spanish missionaries—four priests and one lay brother—were laboring in the region then known as Guale. The event that occasioned their slaying was the polygamous infidelity of Juanillo, the son of a Guale cacique. A baptized Christian sacramentally married, Juanillo had openly taken a second wife. Called to task by the missionary in Tolomato, the headstrong young man took offense at the correction. Fearing that he would be impeded in succeeding to the position of cacique of the tribe, he organized a revolt against the authority of the missionaries. He rounded up a group of nonbaptized natives, who, under cover of night, came to Tolomato. On the morning of Sept. 14, 1597, Juanillo and his followers invaded the house where Fray Pedro was preparing for the celebration of Sunday mass for his flock. Without further ado, he slew the priest with blows of a stone-hatchet.
The following day the rampant natives moved on to the nearby settlement of Tupiquí, where they found Fray Blas preparing to offer mass with his people. The invaders allowed him to celebrate mass, after which he spoke words of farewell and exhortation to the faithful who had gathered. Though the friar sought to persuade the rebels to desist from their bloody intention, they refused to abandon their plan, beyond postponing action for two days. They then bashed his head with clubs and threw his body to the vultures.
Crossing the channel, the rebels came to St. Catherines Island (then called Guale). They had previously sent word to the cacique of the island to slay Fray Miguel and the lay brother Fray Antonio, the two friars missioned there. Hoping to save them, however, the cacique planned to send them to another island, where he knew that the faithful natives would give them safe haven. The warning did not arrive in time to save them from the rebels. The priest offered a last mass and gave viaticum to his assistant. The rebels slew both Fray Miguel and Fray Antonio with blows from a tomahawk.
The slaying of the fifth victim, Fray Francisco, took place on a date not explicitly indicated in the sources. For some days he had been absent from his mission on Asao (now St. Simons Island) when the revolt broke out and his brethren had been slain. Pressured by the rebels, the natives on the island, who had not embraced the Gospel in any great number, were persuaded to join the revolt. When within a few days the friar arrived back at his post, a group of young braves who had formerly been his friends overpowered him as he pulled into the land. On the shore of the island they clubbed him to death. Thus within the period of one week all five missionary friars working in Guale were put to death.
From the time of their martyrdom there was a constant recognition that their death was a witness to Gospel values. Their cause for canonization was formally opened in the Diocese of Savannah in 1983, and ten years later forwarded to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome for consideration.
Bibliography: m. geiger, The Franciscan Conquest of Florida (Washington 1937). m. habig, Heroes of the Cross (Paterson, N.J. 1947). j. t. lanning, The Spanish Missions of Georgia (Chapel Hill, N.C. 1935).