Cultivating the memory of the Georgia Martyrs

Originally Appeared in : 9815-7/19/18

In what is now the Catholic Diocese of Savannah, comprising the southern 60 percent of Georgia, the largest American state east of the Mississippi River, Roman Catholics have been few in number since the establishment of the British colony of Georgia (1733), from which “Catholics, slaves and lawyers”—as well as liquor—were to be excluded by laws enacted by the British Parliament. To be fair, the colony’s founder, General James Oglethorpe, a Scotsman who had been baptized a Catholic at the insistence of his pious mother, did not initiate the ban on Catholics. Parliament insisted on the ban, concerned that the southernmost of the 13 British colonies were being established, in part, to provide a sort of Utopia, a second chance to debtors imprisoned in British “gaols” (Oglethorpe’s original idea) and, in part, to provide a buffer zone between the largely Protestant (except for Maryland) 12 English colonies to the north and the Spanish Catholic colony of Florida to the south (Parliament’s idea).


As Michael Powell and Jürgen Horn note in the 2016 edition of their book, Savannah For 91 Days, “It wasn’t the Catholic belief in transubstantiation that earned [Parliament’s] distrust, but because they [Catholics] might be Spanish spies." They add that General Oglethorpe’s “vision for an idyllic society didn’t last long. Like any American kid up until the age of 21 could tell you, banning liquor just makes you want it more.” They write, “The ban on slavery was noble, but sadly ahead of its time. Slavery was legal in South Carolina, and nearby Charleston was flourishing. Jealous of their neighbor’s wealth, it didn’t take long for unscrupulous Savannahians to revolt against their leader’s decree. Soon enough, affable society folk were lounging on the front porches of their plantation houses, sipping Chatham Artillery Punch while getting rich off the labor of others.” If you don’t know what Chatham Artillery Punch is, please Google it before you imbibe any.


Powell and Horn also comment, “And the decree against lawyers? Please, that one never had a chance. An aspiring lawyer probably just sued, until the city realized they’d need a lawyer to defend their anti-lawyer law.”


General Oglethorpe’s victory over the Spanish at Bloody Marsh (1742) put an end to Catholic colonization in the area. With the success of the American Revolution, the new State of Georgia abolished the prohibition of Catholics within its borders, by including freedom of religion in the enumerated rights of its citizens (1777).


But two centuries before these dates, what is now Georgia was explored and evangelized by Catholics hailing from Spain.


Not long after Christopher Columbus claimed the most of the Western Hemisphere for the “Catholic Kings” of Spain —Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille and Leon—and for their God, Juan Ponce de León led the initial Spanish exploration of the coasts of modern-day Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina in 1513. In 1539, Hernando de Soto began his famous expedition through the interior. In 1540, Catholic priests in the latter’s expedition performed the first baptisms of Native Americans near what is now Macon.


Soon missionaries followed. Father Pedro Martínez, a Jesuit, was the first Georgia martyr when he was attacked and killed by Indians on Cumberland Island in 1566. After the Spanish destroyed a French Huguenot settlement on the site of St. Augustine, they began the colonization of the East Coast in 1565. Other Jesuits followed Father Martínez along the Georgia coast among the Guale Indians.


Franciscan friars soon succeeded the Jesuits in the evangelization of Georgia. By 1577 Fray Alonso de Reynoso and then Fray Juan de Silva led groups of friars in evangelization of the Guale, in what is now the State of Florida. In 1587, Franciscan Friars came into present-day Georgia when Father Pedro de Corpa founded a mission dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe at Tolomato, near present-day Darien. At the same time, Father Blas de Rodríguez established another mission in honor of St. Clare 10 miles further north. Their efforts led to the conversion of more than 1,500 Indians. In 1595 three more missions were founded, headed by Father Miguel de Añon on St. Catherines Island, by Father Francisco de Beráscola on St. Simons Island, and by Father Francisco de Avila on Jekyll Island. Brother Antonio de Badajoz, who was fluent in the Guale language, aided Father Miguel on St. Catherines Island. All but one of these six missionaries to the Guale in Georgia were martyred by order of Juanillo, heir to the cacique or chief of the Guale, who had been reminded by the friars that as a Christian, he could not take a second wife. Christian Indians said that Juanillo told his followers: “Now the friar (de Corpa) is dead. He would not have been killed had he let us live as we did before we became Christian”—that is, polygamously, with the men taking multiple “wives.”


The five friars’ martyrdoms began on September 13, 1597 with the murder of Pedro de Corpa, and ended with that of Francisco de Veráscola a few days later. Their cause for beatification and eventual canonization has been introduced. The Congregation for Saints is seeking evidence of popular devotion to Pedro de Corpa and Companions, the Georgia Martyrs. By means of this article, I would ask all members of our Savannah diocesan family to spread devotion to these brave Catholic men, Franciscan friars all. Please pray for their cause [English and Spanish prayers can be found in the in gallery at left]. They were martyred for upholding the sanctity of marriage, a cause as relevant today as it was in 1597, if not more so.


Father Douglas K. Clark is pastor of St. Matthew Church in Statesboro.


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