Era of the Spanish Missions in the American Southeast
The Spanish missions on the southeast American continent – what Juan Ponce de León discovered in the Easter season of 1513 and named La Florida – initially extended from the Florida Keys along the Gulf of Mexico west to Texas and then north to the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada.
By the end of the 16th century Spanish influence over most of this area had diminished, but colonies were well-entrenched in northern Florida and coastal Georgia: from a base on the east coast in St. Augustine, missions stretched west across the peninsula to Tallahassee and north along the coast to the Island of St. Catherine (Santa Catalina).
The pinnacle of the Spanish missionary age arrived in 1667 when 70 missions served by 40 priests and brothers were active from Florida as far north to St. Catherine’s Island. It had a longer life-span and involved an even greater numbers of religious and converts than its more famous counterpart in the American west a century and a half later under the “Apostle of California,” Fr. Junípero Serra. This era ended in 1742 when the English Lord (later General) James Oglethorpe defeated Spanish troops at the Battle of Bloody Marsh on St. Simon’s Island.
Life in the Missions
The Spanish missions of coastal Georgia were trying: salt marshes and tidal freshwater wetlands abounded; stone was scarce, and the soil was poor, wet, and acidic, making crops difficult to grow; in the submerged saw-grass terrain mosquitoes buzzed and bit constantly.
Spanish families were reluctant to settle there, preferring the more hospitable lands of Cuba and Mexico to the south. Soldiers considered assignments in the area hardship duty.
One tribe of aborigines controlled the terrain along the 100-mile strip of land and islands that would become the Georgia coast. This group of semi-nomadic worshipers of sun and sky practiced polygamy, wore little clothing, and were lazy, erratic, and warlike. These natives were disinclined to accept Christianity, showing open contempt and even violence: priests who greeted them with charity were not-infrequently slaughtered.
The Indians supplemented their diet of wildlife by planting crops of maize, beans, and tobacco. They built villages of wattle, daub, and tabby for maintaining their farms, but they did not live permanently in them. Each village was ruled by a chief, or mico; over all the micos was a mico mayer, or head chief. In their native tongue they called themselves the Guale (pronounced by the Spanish “Walley”), which was the title of their chief and the name of their main village. The Spanish applied the term to their land as well.
The beginning of the missions among the Guale is credited to the Jesuits, who began their efforts in 1569; one of the missionaries, Domingo Augustin, also wrote a grammar of the Guale language. The unpredictability of the natives and the migratory life of neighboring tribes proved too much for the few Jesuits to serve, however, and a year after a 1571 Indian uprising and massacre the Jesuits withdrew from that mission field.
In 1573 missions were resumed by the Franciscans, who had greater success. The main Franciscan mission was based in the Guale capital on St. Catherine's Island. Deep into the wilderness, far from the safety of military protection, these preachers of the Gospel built missions, taught and catechized, administered the sacraments, and offered the sacrifice of the Mass.
Catechizing the Guale was a slow process, but in time the missionaries taught the Indians the catechism in their native tongue, introduced them to European methods of agriculture, and reminded them of the necessity of wearing clothes, working diligently, and living peacefully. Though the Franciscans adapted themselves where they could to many Indian customs, they held firm that a Catholic man could not divorce, and that he could have only one wife. The missionaries would not baptize a Guale adult who refused to promise to live in a permanent marriage with only one spouse. Through entreaties, patience, and gifts the friars converted a number of the Guale, who were baptized, confirmed, and buried as Catholics.
In 1595, during the reign of Spain’s King Philip II, the Guale Christians numbered 1,500 souls when they received a new community of friars.
The recent arrivals were escorted by the local governor to the several missions. At each village the governor reverently knelt to kiss the hands of the missionaries in the presence of the assembled Indians, an act that made a great impression on the inhabitants. A new mission was soon established at the important Guale village of Tolomato, just north of present day Brunswick. The spot was named Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe de Tolomato -- Our Lady of Guadalupe of Tolomato.
The Franciscans’ work continued with no little success, and two years later 22 Guale tribal chiefs traveled south to St. Augustine to pledge their allegiance to the governor. This jewel in the crown of the Franciscan missionary efforts meant that friars could be sent safely almost anywhere among the Indians from the southern tip of Florida north to the border of English-held lands.
Then came a sudden Indian revolt with bloodshed. The ensuing problems had far-reaching consequences which precipitated a change in Spanish rule and marked the beginning of the end of Spanish sovereignty in that region of the New World.
The instigator was Juanillo, a belligerent son of the Tolomato mico. Juanillo married a second wife, and to the great scandal of the Indian Christians he refused the admonitions of the Franciscan in charge of the Tolomato mission, Fr. Pedro de Corpa, a wise and holy Castilian preacher and confessor. A Catholic can have only one wife, the friar said: if a man would remain a Christian he must give up the life of the polygamist as he had promised at his baptism.
Juanillo scoffed at and ridiculed Fr. Corpa. The young Indian’s status as a village leader meant that his recalcitrance endangered the spiritual well-being of the entire mission. Taking counsel with Fr. Blas de Rodríguez, the Spanish superior of all the Guale missions, Fr. Corpa deprived Juanillo of his right to succeed his father as the Guale mico mayer. The right of succession would instead descend upon a relative.
Martyrdom of Fray Pedro de Corpa
The furious Juanillo gathered about him a group of conspirators. Several days later, on the morning of September 14 – the feast day of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross – while Fr. Corpa prepared for morning mass, Juanillo and his men, adorned in war-paint, rushed the priest and killed him with their macana, or stone hatchets. They severed Fr. Corpa’s head and impaled it on a stick by the river amid pagan celebrations. The body was exposed to the elements for several days before being buried in an unmarked grave in the woods.
Martyrdom of Fray Blas de Rodríguez
The next day Juanillo recruited other Guale chiefs to his cause. The marauders sent word to the Guale chief on St. Catherine’s Island to kill the missionaries there. Juanillo himself remained on the mainland, and with his enlarged force he moved north to the village of Tupiqui. Here lived the Alcantaran Fr. Blas de Rodríguez, with whom Fr. Corpa had conferred. Fr. Rodríguez was surrounded by Juanillo’s men and told that his death was at hand. The friar was held hostage for two days. On September 16 he offered a last Mass and gave a sermon.
My sons, for me it is not difficult to die. Even if you do not cause it, the death of this body is inevitable. We must be ready at all times, for we, all of us, have to die someday. But what does pain me is that the Evil One has persuaded you to do this offensive thing against your God and Creator. It is a further source of deep grief to me that you are unmindful of what we missionaries have done for you in teaching you the way to eternal life and happiness.
After the Mass Fr. Rodríguez distributed his belongings to his faithful children and gave them instructions to always obey God’s law. The priest was bound, and in this posture he watched the Indians profane the chapel. Having reduced the chapel to ruins, the Indians turned their rage on the helpless priest, whom they clubbed to death. Fr. Rodríguez’s body was left in the woods for several days until it was buried by a Guale Christian; the remains were later recovered by Spanish soldiers.
Martyrdom of Fray Miguel de Añon and Fray Antonio de Bádajoz
The missionaries on St. Catherine’s Island were Fr. Miguel de Añon, a Spanish noble with a reputation as a preacher who was in charge of the St. Catherine’s mission, and his assistant and interpreter Br. Antonio de Bádajoz. Although sympathetic Indians warned the two missionaries of the impending attack, they did not flee; perhaps there was not time, or they did not believe the warning, or they hoped for martyrdom – none today can say. Rather than seek escape, they offered a Mass. Fr. Añon gave Br. Bádajoz communion, and then they were killed, the lay-brother first and then the priest. The date was September 17 – the anniversary of St. Francis’s reception of the Stigmata. Their mutilated bodies lay under the hot the sun until Christian Indians buried them at the base of a large wooden cross that Fr. Añon had erected.
Martyrdom of Fray Francisco de Veráscola
Juanillo’s war party proceeded south to St. Simon’s Island. There they killed Fr. Francisco de Veráscola as he was returning in a canoe from St. Augustine with supplies. The Indians, much afraid of Fr. Veráscola’s great physical strength – he had been nicknamed the “Catabrian Giant” – feigned friendship: two of the warriors took him into their arms at the riverbank while the rest set upon him with their stone axes. After killing Fr. Veráscola – the date is uncertain, but fell before the end of September – the warriors mutilated and buried his body. Father’s Franciscan hood and sombrero were later retrieved from the Guale who had claimed them as trophies, but his body was never found.
Passion of Fray Francisco de Avila
The Indians continued south in search of Fr. Francisco de Avila, who dwelled in the Talapo mission on present-day Jekyll Island. When Juanillo’s band arrived with news they said they carried a message from Fr. Rodríguez. Having received word of the death of Fr. Corpa, Fr. Avila refused to come outside. The Indians broke into Fr. Avila’s hut; the priest attempted to escape, but he was pierced by three arrows and captured. Wounded and beaten, Fr. Avila was forced to walk a long distance to an Indian village where he was tortured further and condemned to die. The Indians abruptly changed their minds, however, and decided to keep the friar as a slave.
Fr. Avila was mistreated in captivity for nine months: in pain from his wounds, he was forced to serve even the village children. He endured cold and hunger, living off what food he could forage for himself in the bleak terrain and wearing only scraps for clothing. To spite the priest’s faith, the Indians tried to make him take a wife and perform other acts against his vows.
There the friar would have died, abandoned to the malice of his enemies, but he was rescued by a Spanish military patrol. Father was borne to St. Augustine, where he recovered his health. The lone survivor of the Guale massacres, Fr. Avila invoked clerical immunity when the Spanish governor asked him to testify: the friar feared that his words would be used as grounds to execute his abductors, and he was unwilling to incriminate them. It was only years later, after Fr. Avila went to Havana, that he wrote of his ordeal, and even then he did so only under obedience to his superior.
The initial slaughter grew into a general uprising, which was put down by Spanish soldiers in a great battle at Cumberland Island. Subsequent retaliatory raids against the Indians finally reduced them to total submission in 1601. By the end of 1603 the mission among the Guale were completely restored, though Spanish rule had been shaken and its forces depleted.
After the uprising a Spanish military force exhumed the remains of Fr. Añon and Br. Bádajoz on St. Catherine’s Island. The relics we transported to St. Augustine, where they were re-interred at the central friary with great honor and ceremony. Today that building is now the National Guard Armory, and is known as “The St. Francis Barracks.” A skull that could be that of Fr. Corpa was discovered by archeologists in 1950.
In 1612 the superior of the custody of Saint Helen (Santa Elena) reported to the Spanish king:
Although the Indians did not martyr the friars for the faith (that is, because of any doctrine or article of faith which they preached), it is certain that they martyred them because of the law of God which the religious taught them. This is the reason the Indians themselves gave and still attest to...
The Guale and the other coastal tribes remained under Spanish governorship for the next 75 years. These subject tribes were finally dispersed at the end of the 17th century by English-armed Indians on slave raids for the Charles Town traders. All surviving Guale were incorporated into the growing Creek Indian Confederacy.
St. Catherine’s Island Today
St. Catherine’s is now owned and operated by a private foundation: one can travel to the beaches, but visitation to the interior is not permitted. The island serves as a zoological sanctuary for breeding endangered species: the subtropical haven now hosts colonies of lemurs, gazelles, zebras, hartebeests, parrots, cockatoos, and Madagascar turtles.
Archeologists have visited the island to search for remains of the Indian villages and Spanish settlements. After copious excavation, the mission chapel was unearthed, and numerous medals, rosaries, crucifixes, and other artifacts were discovered. The archaeologists also discovered a large cemetery beneath the floor of the mission chapel. Upon completion of the excavation, the site was re-covered; the location of the site is not publicized to discourage unauthorized digging.
The Cause for the Georgia Martyrs
Four centuries later, the cause for canonization of the five Franciscan martyrs has been submitted to Rome by the Archdiocese of Savannah. If raised to the altar, these Spanish missionaries would join the three 17th century Jesuits martyred near present-day Auriesville as the only beatified martyrs slain on American soil.
* The Cross in the Sand by Michael V. Gannon (1993, 3rd printing, University Presses of Florida)
* St. Catherine’s Island: An Island in Time by David Hurst Thomas (1988, Georgia Endowment for the Humanities)
* The Franciscan Missions of Coastal Georgia by Gillian Brown (1985, The Cause of the Georgia Martyrs)
* “Man seeks sainthood for 16th-century friars” by Russ Bynum (April 08, 2007, Associated Press)
* “The Five Franciscan Martyrs of Georgia” web site - http://www.georgiamartyrs.org/