The Friends of the Georgia Martyrs
Scattered along the Georgia coast lie the nearly forgotten sites of pioneering sixteenth-century Franciscan missions. Here, more than 400 years ago, five Spanish friars were slain while bringing the Catholic faith to the native Guale people.
The Friends of the Georgia Martyrs was established in the Diocese of Savannah to promote the cause of canonization of these five missionaries. The group was formed as a project of The Stella Maris Center for Faith and Culture, a local lay initiative whose goals include the education of area residents about the Catholic Church’s rich heritage in Georgia.
In expressing his support for the mission of the association, the Most Reverend J. Kevin Boland, Bishop Emeritus of Savannah, noted: “Knowledge and appreciation of our inspirational heritage gives us the courage to recognize that the faith we profess today is ultimately God’s gift, passed down from one generation to the next. How privileged we are that the blood of martyrs was poured out on the soil of Georgia in defense of the sacredness of marriage.”
Members are asked to support the cause through prayer, testimony of favors received, and efforts to make the Georgia martyrs’ story more widely known.
Those who join the Friends receive occasional literature about the martyrs and are kept up to date on their cause through the association newsletter, The Palmetto. The publication is so called because the palm is the traditional symbol of Christian martyrdom (from the ancient sign of victory), and the cabbage palm (palmetto) is the one palm that is native to the Georgia coast. The palmetto frond, then, seems a fitting symbol of the Georgia martyrs.
This occasional publication features historical information about the men and their mission, news of recent developments in their cause, and devotional helps. Here are links to past issues of The Palmetto:
The Friends have promoted the cause through a number of articles published in various newspapers and magazines (see the links below), as well as through TV, radio, and podcast interviews. We also hosted a pilgrimage to one of the mission sites on St. Catherines Island on September 15, 2007, the 410th anniversary of the martyrs. Bishop Emeritus Boland celebrated Mass where the altar of the mission once stood. The Friends hope to sponsor additional pilgrimages in the future.
A Brief History of the Georgia Martyrs
Few people today are familiar with the dramatic events of this area’s earliest Catholic history. The first of these friars, Fray Pedro de Corpa, came to Spanish Florida in 1587 and was sent to the Guale village of Tolomato, near modern-day Darien, Georgia.
Conflict erupted there in 1597. Fray Pedro insisted that those who were baptized must be faithful to Church teaching about the sanctity of marriage. But Juanillo, the local native chief’s nephew, openly took a second wife. So the missionaries reminded him that when he had become a Christian, he had made a solemn promise to forsake the Guale custom of taking multiple wives.
Juanillo refused to listen to the friars. They responded that they could not support his desire to succeed as chief.
Enraged, Juanillo left the mission, gathered a band of warriors from the countryside, and proceeded to murder Fray Pedro and his four missionary companions who resided at three other mission sites along the coast. The martyrs’ anniversaries are September 14, 16, and 17.
The Canonization Process
On February 22, 1984, the Bishop of Savannah, Raymond W. Lessard, officially opened the Cause of Beatification for the Georgia Martyrs. Work on the cause continued to advance with the endorsement and encouragement of his successor, Bishop Emeritus J. Kevin Boland.
After 23 years, the Diocesan Inquiry — which is the first stage of the canonization process — at last came to a close. The inquiry was the informative phase of the cause, whose main purpose was to gather information related to the life, deeds, martyrdom, and enduring reputation of sanctity of the missionaries.
The official Acts of the Process run nearly 500 pages, each one carefully notarized to ensure their authenticity. This official document was hand carried to the Congregation of the Causes of Saints in Rome in late March 2007 by Father Conrad Harkins, OFM, the vice-postulator of the cause. There the Congregation, and ultimately Pope Benedict XVI, will make the final judgment concerning the genuineness of their martyrdom.
If that ruling is favorable, they will need no miracle to be beatified — that is, declared “Blessed.” But full canonization — which would result in their designation as “saints” — is a still further process, during which the Church would look for a single miracle in confirmation of their holiness.
Fr. Conrad Harkins, O.F.M., the Vice Postulator for the Cause of the Georgia Martyrs, thinks it’s fitting that the Cause is being advanced today.
"I think the time for recognizing the Georgia Martyrs has come,” he observed. “It would be wonderful if Hispanic Americans had Hispanic-American saint-heroes. French missionaries from Quebec have long been recognized. Hispanic Americans can rightly be inspired by the courage of these missionaries who first brought the Gospel to America and were willing to die for it.
“In fact, all Americans concerned with protecting the nature of marriage in today’s society can draw courage from the witness of these men. Their witness strengthens the moral fiber of all. They remind us that some truths are worth dying for."
Meanwhile, some reports have been received about extraordinary healings obtained following the intercession of the martyrs. All such incidents should be reported to Fr. Harkins, because all claims need to be carefully investigated and documented by the Church.
Dr. Paul Thigpen, executive director of The Stella Maris Center and coordinator of the association, believes that the martyrs will find “friends” not only in Georgia, but also across the country and beyond.
“In our day, when the sanctity of marriage is so severely challenged, we desperately need the example, the courage, and the help of these heroic Christians. Because of their love for God, they gave their lives for the truth about marriage.”
For more information: Go online to:
“The Georgia Martyrs: Heroic Witnesses to the Sanctity of Marriage”
“Bishop Leads Pilgrimage to Georgia Martyrs Site”
“Forging Case for Georgia Martyrs”
“Anthropological Contributions to the Cause of the Georgia Martyrs”
“Pilgrimage to Site of Georgia Martyrs”
To join the Friends of the Georgia Martyrs: Send your name and email address to firstname.lastname@example.org.