AMARILLO, Texas — He's the first Catholic martyr in what is now the United States — and hardly anybody knows who he is.

But now Franciscan Father Juan de Padilla, who joined the Spanish exploration into North America in the 16th century, may leave the haze of history and be raised to the altars.

This is the hope of Bishop John Yanta of Amarillo, whose study of Franciscans in the New World led him to the rediscovery of the friar who traveled north from Mexico on an expedition with the Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. Father Padilla died in 1542, about 100 years before the Jesuit martyrs of North America.

Father Padilla was the focus of an international symposium held in September by the Amarillo diocese on the topic “Franciscan Presence in the Borderlands of North America.” The symposium featured addresses by more than 20 scholars and a Mass celebrated in the scenic Palo Duro Canyon, where Father Padilla is believed to have offered a Mass of thanksgiving on the feast of the Ascension, May 26, 1541.

“Father Padilla, being the proto-martyr, should be well known,” said Bishop Yanta in an interview. “I didn't even know him when I was a priest and auxiliary bishop in San Antonio. It's high time we recognize him for what he is.”

The Franciscan order has “verbally pledged” to Bishop Yanta to pursue his cause for canonization, the bishop said.

In the late 1520s or early 1530s, during the Spanish conquest of Mexico, Father Padilla followed the missionary impulse to the New World and was working in the area of Michoacan. From there, he joined an expedition led by Beltran Nuño de Guzman, who tried to surpass the exploits of his archrival, Hernan Cortez, the conqueror of the Aztecs. Guzman was arrested and delivered back to Spain for his mistreatment of the Indians, but Father Padilla remained behind.

“Records don't reveal this, but I suspect that the friar may have rebelled against the excesses of Guzman,” said symposium organizer Felix Almaraz, a history professor at the University of Texas-San Antonio.

Father Padilla then joined Coronado on a new northward expedition to find the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola and, in particular, a mythical place called “Gran Quivira.” In 1537, another Franciscan priest, Marcos de Niza, had traveled north and reported the distant sighting of a golden city, but he was afraid to enter it because his companion, a Moorish slave, had been assassinated near there.

The Coronado expedition was huge, composed of some 300 soldiers, a contingent of several friars, including Father Niza, and wives of soldiers who served as cooks and laundresses, Almaraz said.

“Professor Herbert Bolton called it a ‘pageant in the wilderness,’” he said. “They all went with great expectations that they would come back wealthy men.”

They were initially disappointed, as the “golden city” proved nothing more than a dusty adobe Indian pueblo. When the soldiers began making threats against Father Niza for deceiving them, Coronado dispatched him to Mexico City under guard for his protection, and Father Padilla took his place as chief of chaplains, Almaraz said.

The expedition traveled east to the Rio Grande, followed it north and established a winter camp north of what is now Albuquerque. From there, Coronado sent forth smaller expeditions. Father Padilla traveled with Coronado's group, which went east across the Pecos River, and ascended Cap Rock, from which they could see endless miles of flat prairie. They continued their search for Gran Quivira, proceeding across the Texas panhandle, stopping at Palo Duro and veering north to what is now Oklahoma and Kansas.

He Went Back

Finding no treasure, the group admitted defeat and returned to Mexico City. But on the way, Father Padilla decided to go back to the Plains area, where he could evangelize the natives. Coronado advised against it, but as chief of chaplains, Father Padilla was free to decide, Almaraz said. Remaining with the priest were some natives who followed the Franciscan rule, two other friars and a Portuguese soldier.

They were not there long before they were attacked, either by the Indians they were evangelizing or an enemy tribe.

“When the marauders approached the place of camp, Father Padilla urged the others to flee for safety, and he would stay,” Almaraz said. “He became then the victim. From the witness accounts, he seemed to be welcoming the celestial crown that was awarded him.”

He knelt to receive the arrows, which pierced him “like a pincushion,” killing him. Later, he was buried in a hole covered with a loose pile of stones. Whether he was buried by the natives or his own companions is not clear in the accounts.

Very little of Father Padilla's character is known, except for some complaints that he was stubborn and cantankerous, Almaraz said.

Franciscan Father Barnabas Diekemper, a Latin American historian whose address was the keynote at the symposium, said many details of Father Padilla's life have yet to be confirmed, but may yet be discovered from the archives kept in Mexico City or Spain.

“It would be good to have more research, even if it's negative knowledge — ‘there ain't nothing’— that's also knowledge,” he said.

Father Padilla was one of the earliest martyrs in the Western Hemisphere, since his 16th-century death preceded more widely known martyrdoms in Central and South America during the 17th century. The first North American martyrs are three children — Cristobalito, Juan and Antonio — who were killed at the ages of 12 and 13 by pagan natives in 1527 and 1529 in Tlaxcala, Mexico.

“It's important to keep this level of consciousness up high, because it points out that the Catholic Church in the United States did not start on the East Coast, and the Catholic Church is universal,” Almaraz said.

Just as the Texas symposium was meeting, a new Catholic association promoting awareness of five other Spanish Franciscans who lost their lives in North America was announced. The Friends of the Georgia Martyrs was established in the Diocese of Savannah to promote the cause of canonization of Father Pedro de Corpa and four companions. They were killed in 1597 by Indians near Darien, Ga., after Father de Corpa insisted that those who had been baptized abandon polygamy.

Bishop Yanta has his own reasons to honor the proto-martyr Father Padilla and the Franciscan order. Just prior to the Jubilee Year 2000, the bishop traveled to Guadalajara, Mexico, to recruit friars and religious to his priest-starved diocese. Today, seven Franciscans serve in Amarillo, including the former Guadalajaran provincial.

Ellen Rossini writes from Richardson, Texas.