June 13, 2008

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Possible saints: The martyrs of Georgia

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

Last week, I wrote about the Jesuit martyrs who were killed by Powhatan Indians in Virginia in 1571.

Twenty-six years later, in 1597, Guale Indians killed missionaries in the coastal area of Georgia. This time the missionaries were Franciscans. Their

50-mile mission stretched from St. Catherine’s Island in the north to the Cumberland Island in the south.

The Indians’ rampage began after Franciscan Fathers Pedro de Corpa and Blas de Rodriguez decreed that the Indian Juanillo should not be permitted to succeed his uncle as chief because he had married two women and his practice of bigamy would undermine the faith in the mission. Juanillo organized opponents of the new religion.

One night the Indians sneaked into the village of Tolomato where, at daybreak, they found Father Corpa praying quietly at the Mission Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe. They tomahawked him, decapitated him and put his head on a spear at the canoe landing area.

Juanillo gave a speech, saying, “He would not have been killed had he let us live as we did before we became Christians. Let us return to our ancient customs.”

From Tolomato, the Indians went to Mission Santa Clara at Tupiqui, where they told Father Rodriguez that they had come to kill him. He asked if he could say Mass before he died, and the Indians permitted him to do so. They also allowed him to live for two more days.

During that time, he told them, “My sons, for me it is not difficult to die. Even if you should not cause it, the death of this body is inevitable. All of us have to die some day. But what does pain me is that the evil one has persuaded you to do this offensive thing against your God and creator.”

The Indians tomahawked him to death on Sept. 16 and threw his body where dogs might eat it. But faithful Indians recovered the body and buried it.

There were two missionaries at St. Catherine’s Island. The chief there warned them that Juanillo was on the warpath and even offered a canoe to escape. For whatever reason, they refused. When the Indians arrived, they first killed Brother Antonio, then Father Miguel de Anon.

Father de Verascola had gone to St. Augustine for supplies, unaware of what was happening. When he returned, the Indians went to the shore as if to welcome him, but then sprang on him. He was a strong man, but they overpowered him, bound him and put him in an animal’s cage. After three days, they hacked him to death with an axe.

Father Francisco de Avila was still left. He hid in the forest, but eventually was captured. The Indians decided to keep him as a slave, which they did for nine months.

The Spanish governor at St. Augustine sent soldiers to find the rebels. Juanillo was caught and killed. Father Avila was rescued and returned to St. Augustine where he wrote down the events as he knew them. †

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