Updated: Jun 3
Deus Meus et Omnia ☩ My God and My All.
In the peace of His Majesty, our Lord Jesus. May Our Lady de la Leche, the Immaculate Queen of Florida, together with her martyrs, pray for us. Ave Maria! In the St. Therese of Liseuex, she compares human souls to flowers. I understood that every flower created by Him is beautiful, that the brilliance of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not lessen the perfume of the violet or the sweet simplicity of the daisy. I understood that if all the lowly flowers wished to be roses, nature would no longer be enamelled with lovely hues. And so it is in the world of souls, Our lord's living garden (Story of a Soul). Perhaps this is why Ponce de Leon prophetically named this place “La Florida” which translates to “land of flowers.” As time would tell, this would be more than a homage to a flowery Eastertide celebration in Spain. Florida would prove to be a land of beautiful flowers, with its countless accounts heroic and devout acts of faith, hope, and charity. Florida has a deep Catholic history that has long been forgotten and arguably suppressed. It is for this reason and for the love of God, that I will share some of these accounts with you. In two parts, the first part is meant to tell the accounts of the Martyrs who died in order to Christen Florida and conquer this land for Christ. The second will tell the story of the Martyrs of Catholic Florida who died defending the faith against English aggression. The first known Christians who shed their blood for the faith in Florida was Dominican Fray Luis de Cancer and his companions. Father Cancer was a highly successful evangelizer in the Caribbean and Central America. After hearing of Florida, Father Cancer and Fray Gregorio de Beteta requested permission from their superiors to travel therw and “plant the Gospel in the land of Florida.” They set sail in 1549, landing in Cuba and recruiting two Dominican priests Fray Juan Garcia, Fray Diego de Tolosa and one brother, Brother Esteban Fuentes. They landed on the shores of Bradenton near Tampa. When they landed Father Cancer knelt in prayer and many of the natives who came to greet them mimicked his actions. They later travled further into the bay and landed in present day Safety Harbor. Things soon changed, when the natives invited the party to travel inland with them. Father Cancer counseled against this, but Father Tolosa and Brother Fuentes opted to go with them. They were both apprehended and killed at the order of the tribal shaman. This was confirmed when a Spanish solider named Munoz, who had been enslaved by the natives during an earlier expedition, escaped and fled towards the direction the two priests came. He told Father Cancer of the fate of his two Dominican brothers. Father Cancer ordered the remaining two priests and crew to return to flee to Cuba. Father Cancer however chose to stay in the land "hallowed by the life blood" of his brothers. As the ship left, they saw a group of natives approach Fray Luis de Cancer. Father Cancer knelt in prayer and was clubbed to death. Father Beteta is responsible for recoding their Martyrdoms. The next missionary to shed his blood for the faith would be the Spanish Jesuit Father Pedro Martinez. St. Francis Borgia commissioned a Jesuit Mission to Florida and named Father Martinez the superior. In 1566, Father Martinez with two other Jesuits, arrived in Florida near Jacksonville. Father Martinez and a small group went ahead before the others, in search of supplies. They landed on present day Cumberland Island. While there they stumbled into the territory of the Saturiba nation, the Spanish crew was attacked. The Saturiba were close allies to the Protestant French Huguenots who filled them with hatred for the Catholic Faith and offered them rewards for the bodies of any Catholic Priests. Father Martinez was pulled off the boat, dragged to shore, and clubbed to death. He is the first Jesuit to be Martyred in the Americas. Eight more Spanish Jesuits would be martyred during a pagan revolt in Virginia in 1571. After these events, the Order of Preachers (Dominicans) and the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) would both close their Missions to Florida. The conversion of Florida fell into the hands of the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans) in 1573. The Franciscan Order had already been in Florida as early as 1565, when they arrived in St. Augustine with Pedro Menendez. Within ten years the Franciscans established nine Missions along the Atlantic coast of Florida and within less than one hundred years the Franciscans had over one hundred Missions throughout all present-day Florida. In 1597 five Franciscans would be the first to be martyred with for Florida Missions but in present day Georgia. The first known Franciscan to shed his blood for the faith in Florida, was the first missionary to the Apalachee in the Florida panhandle. Fray Garcés Marcos, who journeyed from St. Augustine to the area of present-day Tallahassee in 1604. Father Marcos’ preaching was widely accepted by the Apalachee. While Father Marcos was with them a rival tribe attacked the Apalachee and apprehended Father Marcos. The shaman among the rival tribe ordered Father Marcos to remove his habit and trample upon his Rosary. When he refused, they attempted to scare him with threats of death. Father Marcos told his attackers of his profession to religious life and that the Cross was the greatest representation of the faith of Jesus Chris, and that if they wanted to kill him for that, they should do so already, because he would be with God in heaven more quickly than he was hoping. Fray Garacos Marcos is the first martyr of the Florida Panhandle. His martyrdom left an impressive impression on the Apalachee who would request Friars to come and teach them. Unfortunately, the request wasn't answered until 1633. Two priests, Fray Pedro Martinez and Fray Francisco Martine, arrived in Apalachee and between 1633 and 1635 more than 5,000 Apalachee people were baptized. This mass conversion would not come without its resistance. Spanish Missions began to spring up in the Apalachee territory, to the great nuisance of the Apalachee shaman. In 1647, the Shaman staged a pagan revolt at the newly consecrated Mission of San Antonio de Bacuqua in Leon County. Countless Catholic Apalacheea were killed, along with three Franciscan friars, Fray Juan Nieto, Fray Diego de Figueroa and Fray Juan Garcia. As was the Spanish Lieutenant Governor of West La Florida, Claudio Luis de Florencia and his wife, Juana de Leiva y Arteaga, and their two daughters, Antonia and Maria de Florencia. Maria was married and pregnant, though her husbands name is not known, he was also martyred along with their born infant son. The savage pagans even cut her open in order to sacrifice her unborn baby to their idols. Antonia, the younger teenage daughter, was tied to the bell tower of the church and her tongue was cut off for her proclamation of the “Law of God.” After she fearless rebuked the Shamans for their idolatry. The vast majority of the Catholic Apalachees, priests and Spanish settlers survived. A Spanish force comprising of mostly Catholic Apalachee braves swiftly put down the revolt. This group of braves would later become the confraternity of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary because of the banner they carried into battle depicting Our Lady of the Rosary. Despite the resistance, Catholicism continued to thrive in Apalachee. In 1665 the Mission of San Luis, placed under the patronage of King St. Louis, would be established upon a hilltop in present-day Tallahassee. This would become the mother of all Apalachee Missions and the capitol of Spanish western Florida. The final Martyr during the evangelization phase was Fray Luis Sanchez and his companions. In 1696, in a Mission south of presdent-day Orlando, Father Sánchez was offering Mass. An anti-Christian revolt had began at another village and a group of armed pagans came into the Mission Chapel while the Father Sánchez was still at the altar. With Father Sánchez were two native altar servers, the group ordered the two servers to renounce the faith, return to paganism, and kill the priest. These two young men refused and were killed with arrows. The cross was removed from Father Sánchez necklace and as a blasphemy, the pagans told Father Sánchez to ask the Cross to save him. He took the cross, kissed it, and forgave his assailants. He was then killed by them with spears. These are certainly not all the Martyrs of the Christening of Florida, merely a few of the accounts which are known on this side of heaven. All of the martyrs listed hold the title of Servant of God as of 2015. The next part will be the Florida Martyrs of English aggression. Holy Mary, Lady de La Leche, Immaculate Queen, together with the Holy Martyrs of La Florida, pray for us now and at the hour of our death. Amen.