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Hundreds of Martyrs Sow the Seeds of Faith in the United States
Their causes advance in witness to their holiness.
By Peter Jesserer Smith
TALLAHASSEE, Florida — A small group of Catholic faithful in Florida never imagined that a simple inquiry into a mysterious plot of land in Tallahassee would reinvigorate a dream shared over three centuries by the king of Spain, two popes and U.S. bishops: the canonization of a great treasury of native and missionary martyrs in the U.S.
More than 1,000 Catholics, priests, religious and lay faithful — both European and Native American — associated with the Spanish mission territory of La Florida shed their blood for the Catholic faith from Florida all the way to Virginia from 1549 to 1763.
The cause of the La Florida Mission Martyrs has passed its own May 31 deadline to gather the historical evidence documenting 43 martyrdom events, which include Jesuits, Dominicans, Franciscans, but also more than 100 Native American laymen, women and children, whose final testimony to Jesus Christ is as noble and heroic as the martyrs of the early Church. These known individuals could end up recognized as canonized martyrs.
“We see it in so many of these stories,” Lynn Mangan, one of the vice postulators for the La Florida Martyrs’ cause, told the Register.
Antonio Cuipa, the lead martyr, died for the faith at the hands of English settlers from the Carolinas, backed by their non-Christian native allies, who demanded he and his companions renounce their faith, accept slavery or die.
Cuipa and his companions refused and experienced gruesome tortures tied to the cross at the La Concepcion de Ayubale Mission. According to testimony, they encouraged their fellow Catholics to persevere unto death, saying they had the joy of dying like Jesus and would soon see God. In his final moments, Cuipa said the Virgin Mary had come to console them and be with them as they entered paradise.
Another martyr with Cuipa was Franciscan Father John Parga from Galicia, who chose to stay with the Apalachee rather than seek safety, saying he “must go and die with his children.”
Mangan explained that their lead martyr truly died as he had lived: a holy Catholic husband and father, with two children, and an inija (second to the chief) in the Apalachee nation who served as a catechist and translator. He worked as a carpenter with a tremendous devotion to St. Joseph and was a musician.
“He evangelized with music and would decorate reed pipes with symbols of creation,” Mangan said. More importantly, he recognized that the Catholic faith was the full revelation of the God they knew in their religion: “He would explain that the God they already knew, the God who created all things, had a son, and his name was Jesus.”
Mangan said Cuipa’s motto was: “Patience and perseverance.”
“It’s a model for evangelization, and it is good advice today.”
Another among the causes was a holy Native youth named Manuel, who attempted to rescue the Eucharist from the chapel set on fire by the Protestant English and their allies. Because he would not stop proclaiming his faith, his teeth were knocked out, his arms were cut off, and he was finally drowned.
“He wanted to be a Franciscan priest when he grew up — he always helped them at Mass. He’s a strong intercessor and an amazing martyr,” Mangan said.
If successful, the beatification of the La Florida Mission Martyrs will exponentially increase the number of recognized saints for not just the United States, but all of North America.
Seeking to Make Them Better Known
The attempt to recognize the martyrs of La Florida began shortly after Col. James Moore (d. 1706), the English governor of the Carolinas, took 50 English colonists on an expedition with Creek nation allies to wipe out entire villages and missions and either enslave the native Catholics or exterminate them if they would not renounce their Catholic faith.
King Philip V of Spain, who reigned 1700-1724 and 1724-1746, was shocked by the martyrdoms. He notified Pope Clement XI, who then ordered the Franciscans to document everything. The Spanish ruler later ordered the commemoration of the martyrs to be maintained throughout the Spanish Empire on Oct. 3.
Attempts to recognize them were made by U.S. bishops starting in the late 1930s and again in the 1980s, but each time, they ran aground with various rule changes at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
Heather Jordan, the secretary for the La Florida Mission Martyrs’ cause, told the Register that the cause has never been completely forgotten and has tended to pop above the surface every 20-30 years. But this time around, the cause gained momentum a dozen years ago, when a few Catholic parents with no historical background in the La Florida Martyrs tried to understand the significance of a parcel of open land on the east side of Tallahassee.
Jordan, for instance, a home-schooling mother who had begun her search for the martyrs so she could teach her children about them, once encountered the fragrance of church incense on the open parcel. She said, “It felt like a gift from God, a sign that this place was special.”
Then-Bishop Gregory Parkes later visited the property to see for himself and celebrate Mass. In October 2015, he and the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee officially opened the cause on the site, which hopefully will become the home of the Mary, Queen of Martyrs Shrine.
Once the historic commission for the La Florida Martyrs has wrapped up the task of translating documents and verifying identities, each of the commission’s seven members will have to submit sworn testimony proving the martyrs were killed in odium fidei (hatred of the faith) to the diocese’s three-member tribunal. Once the final list has been determined, the names will be sent to Rome. “Since the cause has been vetted before, our postulator in Rome has indicated that the Roman phase may go quickly,” Jordan said.
When the Congregation for the Causes of Saints finally verifies the documentation proves they were indeed martyrs, Antonio Cuipa and all the named martyrs will be beatified, without the need for a proven miracle. After that, one verified miracle due to the intercession of any one of those martyrs, or a declaration from the Pope, will be needed for them all to be canonized together.
The Church’s Living Blood
Echoing the famous line of Tertullian, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church,” Pope Francis has said the martyrs are the “living blood of the Church,” and the Church needs their witness more than ever.
“[W]e also need those who have the courage to accept the grace to be witnesses until the end, until death,” the Holy Father said in an April 2017 homily commemorating the martyrs, old and new.
“They are the witnesses who carry forward the Church; those who witness to the fact that Jesus is risen, that Jesus is alive, who witness to him with coherent lives and with the strength of the Holy Spirit they have received as a gift.”
Pope Francis will formally acknowledge the first martyrs of North America with three indigenous children in Mexico, when he canonizes the Child Martyrs of Tlaxcala: Blesseds Cristóbal, Antonio and Juan.
The landscape of North America has actually had martyrs in every century, but most Catholics are unaware of them, particularly in the U.S. and Canada.
More than 80 years ago, the U.S. bishops, led by Bishop John Gannon of Erie, Pennsylvania, sought to recover this “glorious early history.” They knew that it would not only enrich the Church in the U.S. to know the blood of holy men and women, priests, religious and lay faithful had been spilled from coast to coast, but the martyrdom cause would effectively rewrite the history of the United States as a Protestant country.
The National Catholic Welfare Conference (one of the predecessors of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) made a determined push with the martyrs of the United States’ cause. Bishop Gannon lead the bishops’ charge for the Vatican in 1939 to recognize 116 cases of martyrdom documented in three massive volumes sent to Rome. But World War II intervened, and despite the personal encouragement of Pope Pius XII in 1948, the Congregation of Sacred Rites eventually ruled that the U.S. martyrs’ cause would have to follow a different procedure.
But Dr. Mary Soha, a pediatrician who worked on the St. Kateri Tekakwitha cause and is a vice postulator for the La Florida Martyrs, told the Register that with the causes of saints and martyrs, the timing truly does belong to the Holy Spirit.
The current cause has been able to find approximately 100 more laymen, women and children martyrs of all walks of life thanks to massive amounts of documentation they discovered to which Bishop Gannon did not have access at the time. This does not count hundreds of other indigenous men, women and children who gave their lives for the faith but whose individual identities remain known now only to God.
Now they will serve to provide models for the lay faithful in North America about living the call to holiness.
Soha said the Native martyrs also reveal in a variety of cultural expressions a North American Catholic spirituality that occupies a middle ground in the Church that combines the East’s emphasis on mysticism “with the tangibility of the West.” The documentation, she said, showed these martyrs knew the faith and freely chose to accept death rather than renounce it.
“That’s an evangelization that goes way beyond what the majority of Catholics are prepared to do with their belief in God today,” she said.
As the U.S. Catholic bishops recently convened a “Convocation of Catholic Leaders” to discuss how to form missionary disciples in the 21st century, rediscovering the U.S. story of martyrdom could provide a deep well of holy models to draw from in our country’s history.
Jeannine Marino, assistant director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Evangelization and Catechesis, told the Register that American holy men and women, especially the saints, “Blesseds,” “Venerables” and “Servants of God” already recognized, can help Catholics live out the virtues of faith, hope and charity heroically “in our cultural context.”
“The men and women whose causes of canonization are open provide the faithful with a powerful witness on how to live out our Catholic faith,” she said.
However, the promotion of saints’ causes underway in the U.S. Church is so decentralized that these men and women often become obscure to a wider audience of Catholics that would draw inspiration from their stories. While the bishops’ conference approves a diocese moving forward with a cause, the USCCB does not maintain a list of active causes that would serve as a reference point, and dioceses within the same state may not coordinate among themselves.
For example, with the Seven Jesuit Martyrs of Virginia cause, the Register contacted both the Dioceses of Arlington and Richmond and found they did not have any active collaboration in promoting devotion to them.
Great Lakes Martyrs and Saints
The Church in North America has even more possible martyrs to recognize that would inspire the faithful today, particularly laypeople trying to live the call to holiness in everyday life.
Father Henry Sands, director of the Black and Indian Mission Office, which is supporting the La Florida Martyrs’ cause, told the Register that he believed its success could be the “catalyst” for more groups of lay faithful to rediscover stories of holiness in North America, particularly from Native Americans and their Catholic spirituality, and propose others.
“Causes for canonization develop among people that learn about various people whose holiness they want to investigate.” He said they get off the ground when “groups of people just like this” bring them forward to their bishop or a group of bishops and ask them to sponsor a cause for canonization.
Although the Church canonized the eight Jesuit martyrs of North America, most Catholics are unaware of the incredible success of that mission in producing native saints and martyrs, whose faith was characterized by common prayer, devotion to the Rosary, frequent confession and going to Mass and receiving Holy Communion.
St. John Paul II actually cited the “heroic manner” in which the Huron-Wendat protomartyr Joseph Chiwatenhwa, his wife, Marie Aonetta, and their family witnessed to their faith and evangelized, saying that they “provide even today [for the Church] eloquent models for lay ministry.”
Other potential martyrs are the three Huron Catholic warrior-guardians of St. Isaac Jogues, whom he witnessed heroically meet their deaths in the Mohawk forts near Auriesville, New York: Eustace Ahatsistari, Paul Ononhoraton and Etienne.
Hundreds of Huron Catholics who were captured and adopted into the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee (commonly known as the Iroquois) spread the faith to the Iroquois, along with the Jesuits, who would continue to minister to them.
The community of Haudenosaunee Catholics that St. Kateri Tekakwitha joined produced other impressive men and women of holiness and four martyrs, who chose torture and death rather than give up the Catholic faith: Etienne (Stephen) Tegananokoa, the first Mohawk to die for the faith; Françoise (Frances) Gonannhatenha, a wealthy woman of the Onondaga; Marguerite (Margaret) Garongouas, daughter of the Tododaho, the most influential chief of the Five Nations council; and Etienne (Stephen) Haonhouentsiontaoet, a young Mohawk warrior. They gave their lives for Jesus Christ in modern upstate New York.
“I think it always of great value to recognize people who have made this ultimate sacrifice, which demonstrates the very sacrifice Our Lord made for us,” Father Sands said. “It is the source of our life in so many ways.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.
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