June 16, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Who was the first martyr in what is now the United States?

John F. FinkIf you think you know who the first U.S. Catholic martyr was, I’ll bet you’re wrong. No, it wasn’t Rene Goupil, the French Jesuit missionary who was killed by Mohawk Indians in present-day New York in 1642. A century before that, Franciscan missionary Juan de Padilla was killed by Indians in Kansas.

Father Padilla was from Andalusia, Spain. He traveled to Mexico in 1528, and made missionary trips among the Mexican Indians. He founded several convents and eventually the monastery at Tulantcingo, which he governed until 1539.

He resigned as superior that year to join Father Marcos de Niza, the discoverer of Arizona and New Mexico, and the explorer Vasquez de Coronado on the search for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold, reaching the Upper Rio Grande in 1540. They didn’t find any gold.

Father Padilla continued with Coronado as he explored what is now the southwestern United States, and was one of the first Europeans to observe the Grand Canyon.

Then an Indian the Spanish called “the Turk” told Coronado about a civilization farther northeast called Quivira where the chiefs drank from golden cups. So Coronado resumed the expedition with more than 300 Spaniards, including Father Padilla and three other priests, led by the Turk.

Coronado learned from some Indian tribes he met that the Turk was taking them in the wrong direction. Eventually, though, they found Quivira in central Kansas, which Coronado described as the best land he had seen during his trek from Mexico. But again, there was no gold.

After spending 25 days in Quivira, Coronado decided to return to New Mexico, and then back to Mexico. Father Padilla returned to New Mexico with Coronado, but in 1542 returned to Quiviri to evangelize the Wichita Indians there. He established the first Christian mission in the present-day United States.

After meeting with some success, he decided to reach out to other tribes. Accompanied by a Portuguese soldier named Andres da Campo and four Mexican Indians, he set out for the northeast. They soon encountered a band of Indians that attacked them and killed Father Padilla while he knelt in prayer.

Exactly when and where this happened is uncertain, but the date assigned for his martyrdom is Nov. 30, 1544. Some historians believe he died in eastern Colorado or western Kansas, but that’s conjecture.

Father de la Cruz and Brother de Ubeda, who had been Father Padilla’s companions in New Mexico, were later martyred at the instigation of some Indian sorcerers at the missions there.

There’s a myth associated with Father Padilla called “the miracle of the rising of the coffin of Padre Padilla.” The story is that some Pueblo Indians discovered his body and took it to Isleta, N.M., where it was buried under the sanctuary of the church. The Indians of New Mexico thought that it was able to rise from the ground at certain times.

The truth is that the body buried there is indeed a Franciscan priest named Father Juan Jose de Padilla. However, this Father Padilla lived two centuries after the first martyr, and he died a peaceful death in Isleta. †

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