Martyrdom sought for friars slain by Indians in Georgia

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ST. CATHERINES ISLAND, Ga. - Their last moments must have been lonely.

A group from Savannah made a pilgrimage to St. Catherines Island and held a mass at the site of the Santa Catalina Mission.  Morris News Service
Morris News Service
A group from Savannah made a pilgrimage to St. Catherines Island and held a mass at the site of the Santa Catalina Mission.

Surrounded by a mob of angry Indians, five Franciscan friars from Spain died trying to bring Christianity to the coast of Georgia.

More than 400 years later, leaders of the Catholic Diocese of Savannah are working to have those missionaries declared martyrs, and someday, possibly saints.

After 23 years of research by church officials, the Rev. Conrad Harkins, a historian at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, hand-delivered documents to the Vatican in April - marking the official start of the argument for martyrdom for the friars.

The documents include letters to King Philip III written after the slayings and records on the investigation that followed by the governor of Spanish Florida.

The next step in the process is an official decree from the Vatican saying the page numbers and signatures on the documents had been checked for accuracy.

As of Saturday, the Rev. Harkins still hadn't received the notice.

"I don't think we should sit on the edge of our chairs and wait for this to happen," he said Saturday during a daylong pilgrimage to the site on St. Catherines Island where two of the missionaries died.

The process could take years, or even decades to complete, he said.

Bishop J. Kevin Boland led a Mass on Saturday within a rectangle of palm trees planted to mark the perimeter of the former Santa Catalina de Guale church.

More than a dozen church leaders and supporters of the cause participated in the Mass.

"I've wanted to do this for years," said Paul Thigpen, the leader of Friends of the Georgia Martyrs, a network of about 300 supporters. "This has really been a moving experience for me."

According to the historic records, Fray Pedro de Corpa had ministered to the Guale village of Tolomato near modern Darien for 10 years.

He angered a chief's nephew, Juanillo, by rebuking the man for taking on a second wife.

Juanillo conspired with a group of Guales and on Sept. 14, 1597, launched a three-day attack on de Corpa and other missionaries stationed in the area.

A Spanish-led investigation into the slayings documents that the friars were all bludgeoned to death with a tomahawk. De Corpa was also decapitated, and his head was placed on a pike at the village landing for several days until it was finally buried.

On St. Catherines Island, the rebels killed two missionaries stationed there, Antonio de Badajoz and Miguel de Anon. A chapel, house and mission compound were ransacked, and the bodies were later buried.

Several years later, the remains were unearthed and transported to the Franciscan friary at St. Augustine, Fla., but then were lost.

The remains of Blas Rodriguez and Francisco de Verascola stationed at missions on modern St. Simons Island and at Eulonia were reported to have been buried but were later lost.

After the Mass, the Rev. Harkins also shared with the group information about a skull believed to be that of Pedro de Corpa.

The skull had been found in the 1950s on Fort King George and kept on a shelf until a few years ago, when it was moved to the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta.

Researchers at Arizona State University are trying to extract DNA evidence indicating the ethnic origins of the skull. Preliminary analysis suggests severe cranial trauma, violent decapitation from the spine and exposure to sunlight before being buried, the Rev. Harkins said.

"All of that is paramount to what we know about Pedro de Corpa's skull," he said.

The final decision over martyrdom is up to the Vatican, and ultimately the pope.


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