Mission continues to make Santa Catalina de Guale a shrine

Saint Catherines Island--Thirteen priests and a handful of diocesan staff ventured by boat on a pilgrimage of discovery Sept. 9 to St. Catherines Island the site of a potential shrine to two of the Franciscan friars killed there in 1597.

According to their story, which is well-documented but not widely known, these friars—also known as the Georgia martyrs—lived among and evangelized the island’s indigenous people known as the Guale.

Royce Hayes, senior director of development of the privately owned island, led the group to the mission site.

As the pilgrims lounged in the back of modified pickup trucks parked beneath the shade of the pines, palms and hardwoods bordering the mission established by the friars in 1566 Hayes presented the findings of Dr. David Hurst Thomas, an archeologist from the New York-based American Museum of Natural History, who discovered Mission Santa Catalina de Guale in the 1982.

According to Hayes, remnants discovered by Thomas and his team from the island’s 5,000 years of civilization constitute the largest collection of post-Columbian artifacts in North America.

“It was just very moving to visit and to remember to think about what was going on 200, 300, 400 years ago, not only with what was happening here but also the history in Europe that drove the missionaries in many ways and that caused the collapse of the Spanish mission...” reflected Father Michael J. Kavanaugh, pastor of Saint Peter the Apostle Parish in Savannah, who participated in the pilgrimage.

Following a Q&A period, an altar was prepared on the original spot within the bounds of the mission’s historic sanctuary and rustic benches served as pews for participants during one of the few Masses held on the island since the discovery of the mission. Father William McIntyre, OFM, pastor of Saint Peter Claver, Macon, said in his homily during the Mass, which was celebrated by J. Kevin Boland, Bishop Emeritus of Savannah, that the friars were drawn to the Guale because it gave them the chance to “begin again.”

Diocesan archivist Katy Pereira cantors at the Sept. 9 Mass on St. Catherines Island. Photo by Michael J. Johnson.

Unlike the European continent from which the friars had traveled, the Americas—where Santa Catalina was based—and the people who inhabited them, were in Father McIntyre’s words, “uncorrupted,” just like Adam and Eve before the Fall.

The friars, whose methods Hayes likened to the modern day Peace Corps, then seized the opportunity to teach the Guale people the doctrines of the Catholic faith but in a manner both protective of and sensitive to their indigenous culture and language.

Drawing a parallel between the manner in which the friars lived their ministry and the advice—“be present, give hope and teach doctrine”—recently given to newly appointed Los Angeles Bishop Robert Barron by Archbishop Jose Gomez, Father McIntyre explained how the friars not only taught “a pure Gospel” but were also present and attentive to the Guale people.

“The friars were with the people as they were martyred and they stood with the people and the people stood with them,” Father McIntyre said.

More than just a leisurely excursion, the field trip offered the pilgrims—among them diocesan archivist Katy Pereira and diocesan director of development Joseph Stong—the background to further promote the canonization cause of the martyrs, now awaiting the consideration of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

One of the pilgrims, Father Mark Van Alstine, pastor, Saint Joseph Church in Augusta, described the trip as a “wonderful opportunity to be part of a living history.”

“We’re not just remembering but we’re continuing something...” he said.


More photos from the trip can be viewed at

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