June 6, 2008

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Possible saints: The martyrs of Virginia

John F. Fink(Second in a series of columns)

The North American Martyrs who were killed by the Mohawk Indians from 1642 to 1649 were canonized in 1930.

But 75 years before St. Isaac Jogues was killed in upper New York, eight Jesuits were martyred by Indians in what is now Virginia. They are still on the list for possible canonization.

Their story begins with the Spanish discovery of Chesapeake Bay, which Captain Angel de Villafane named the Bay of the Mother of God. Explorers returned to Spain with an Indian boy they named Don Luis de Velasco. He was baptized and educated in Spain.

In 1570, Jesuit missionaries led by Father Juan Bautista de Segura returned to this territory, disembarking near the future site of Williamsburg. The other members were Father Luis de Quiros; Brothers Gabriel Gomez, Sancho Zeballos and Pedro Linares; and novices Gabriel de Solis, Juan Bautista Mendez and Cristobal Redondo. They brought Don Luis with them since he knew the language and customs of the Powhatan Indians, and a young boy named Alonso Olmos.

After they arrived, Don Luis set off in search of his relatives while the Jesuits built a cabin with a chapel—the first Catholic chapel in Virginia. They opened a school for Indian boys and the three novices were professed.

Father Segura became concerned when Don Luis failed to return. Soon he learned from the Indians that Don Luis had returned to native ways and was living an immoral life. Father Segura sent intermediaries to persuade his convert to return, but to no avail.

On Feb. 4, 1571, Father Quiros and novices Solis and Mendez went in search of Don Luis. They found him, and Don Luis promised to follow the Jesuits back to the village. Instead, he and several other Indians overtook the missionaries and killed them, shooting them with arrows then beating them to death with clubs.

On Feb. 9, Don Luis and his fellow Indians arrived at the Jesuits’ cabin. Father Segura was overjoyed to see Don Luis after many months and welcomed the Indians. The Indians asked for axes with which to cut wood. Once they received the axes, they killed all the remaining missionaries except the boy, Alonso, since he was not a missionary.

Several months later, a Spanish supply ship arrived. The sailors aboard noticed that some of the Indians were wearing the Jesuits’ cassocks. A battle ensued, during which the Spanish captured two Indians. They reported the deaths of the Jesuits and the capture of Alonso. Eighteen months later, the governor of Cuba arrived to investigate and to successfully rescue Alonso.

Alonso reported the facts of the Jesuits’ deaths and several Indians corroborated his story.

The cause for these martyrs’ beatification and canonization is still open, and there is a postulator in Richmond, Va., but it seems doubtful at this late date that they will be canonized. I suspect that the French Jesuits made more of an effort to get the North American Martyrs canonized than the Spanish Jesuits did for the Virginia martyrs. †

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