June 30, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

The Franciscan martyrs of Georgia killed in 1597

John F. FinkLast 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 five Franciscan missionaries in the coastal area of Georgia.

Father Pedro de Corpa was the regional superior of a 50-mile mission area. Father Blas de Rodriguez lived at the same mission.

The Indians’ rampage began after the two priests decreed that the Indian Juanillo should not be permitted to succeed his uncle as chief. Juanillo had married two women, and the priests decided that the practice of bigamy would undermine the faith in the mission. This enraged Juanillo, who organized opponents of the new religion.

One night, the Indians found Father Corpa praying quietly at Mission Tolomato. 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.” The Indians then raped the Christian women and looted the mission.

From Tolomato, the Indians went to Mission Santa Clara, where they told Father Rodriguez that they were going 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 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, Fla., for supplies, unaware of what was happening. When he returned, the Indians sprang on him. He was a strong man, known by his brother missionaries as “the giant from Cantabria,” but the Indians overpowered him, bound him and put him in an animal’s cage. Eventually, they hacked him to death with an ax.

Father Francisco de Avila was still left. He learned what was happening and hid in the forest by his mission, now Jekyl Island. He was captured and 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.

By 1605, nine years after the massacre, the Franciscan missions were operating again.

(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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