June 23, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesuit martyrs were killed by Indians in Virginia in 1571

John F. FinkLast week, I wrote about the first martyr in what is now the United States—Father Juan Padilla, in 1544 in Kansas. But there were other Catholic martyrs before the English started to settle the East Coast. This story happened well before the Puritans settled in Virginia in 1607.

The Spanish discovered Chesapeake Bay in 1561. They returned to Spain with the usual products discovered there—fruits and vegetables—but also with an Indian boy named Paquiquineo. He converted to Christianity, and took the name Don Luis de Velasco.

In 1570, Don Luis returned to this territory with Jesuit missionaries led by Father Juan Bautista de Segura. The other missionaries 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 also brought along a young boy named Alonso de Olmos.

After they arrived, Don Luis set off in search of his relatives while the Jesuits built a chapel and opened a school for Indian boys and the three novices who were professed into the Society of Jesus—the first religious profession in the United States.

Don Luis didn’t return. The Indians told Father Segura that he had abandoned Catholicism and returned to native ways. He married several Indian women, 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 Gabriel and Juan went in search of Don Luis. They found him, and Don Luis welcomed them to his village. He listened to them and promised to follow the Jesuits back to the mission. The missionaries were to go on ahead, and he would follow. Instead, he and several other Indians overtook the missionaries and killed them, shooting them with arrows and then beating them to death with clubs. Juan managed to escape, but was found the next morning and killed.

On Feb. 9, Don Luis and fellow Indians arrived at the Jesuits’ cabin. Knowing nothing about what had happened to Father Quiros and the two novices, Father Segura enthusiastically welcomed them. The Indians offered their help and asked for axes with which to cut wood. Once they received the axes, they killed all the remaining missionaries except the boy Alonso, since it was the Indians’ practice to adopt boy captives into their tribe.

Several months later, a Spanish supply ship arrived. The sailors aboard the ship became suspicious when they noticed that some of the Indians were wearing the Jesuits’ cassocks. Suddenly, two boats with armed warriors appeared. 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 with soldiers to rescue Alonso. Alonso managed to escape and swim to the Spanish ship. He reported the facts of the Jesuits’ deaths and several Indians corroborated his story. Twelve of the Indians were tried for murdering the Jesuits. Five of them were released, and seven were hanged. But Don Luis was never found.

(John Fink’s recent series of columns on Church history is now available in book form from Amazon. It is titled How Could This Church Survive? with the subtitle, It must be more than a human institution.)

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