February 3, 2016 — Almost 450 years ago, Jesuit Father Pedro Martínez was killed off the coast of Florida, making him the first Jesuit martyr of the New World. Now, a group of Floridians is seeking canonization for Fr. Martínez and 85 other martyrs.
A native of Spain, Fr. Martínez was born in 1533 and joined the Society of Jesus at a young age. He served the sick and dying and taught children on the streets, but also had a desire to become a missionary.
In August 1566, Fr. Martínez set sail with a fleet for the New World. The young Jesuit, always filled with joy and energy for the Lord, traveled from ship to ship, catechizing through songs and poems that he composed, leading prayers and hearing confessions. The admiral of the fleet would later credit Fr. Martínez’s joy and holiness for “transforming his sailors into saints.”
At the time, the French Huguenots and Catholic Spanish were at odds, and the rift had spread to the settlements of the New World. When Fr. Martínez’s group got lost along the coast of Florida, they unknowingly entered a hostile village. While his fellow travelers went into the village, Fr. Martínez stayed with the boat and natives surrounded him. Fr. Martínez was killed after being dragged to shore and clubbed.
Among the other martyrs are Dominican and Franciscan missionaries and Native American converts killed at various sites in Florida between 1549 and 1706. Sixty-one of the 86 candidates are Native Americans, including the lead martyr, Antonio Cuipa. Speaking on behalf of the cause, Bishop Gregory Parkes, of the Pensacola-Tallahassee Diocese, said the high numbers of Native Americans serve to “highlight the many — over 1,000 — Native Americans killed for the faith whose names are lost in history.”In October 2015, a Mass was celebrated to open the cause of the Martyrs of La Florida, and the martyrs were declared to be Servants of God by the church. Attending the Mass were Bishop Parkes; descendants of survivors of the massacres; Bishop Feliz Estévez of the St. Augustine Diocese; and other key members of the cause.
Bishop Renè Gracida, who served as the first Bishop of the Pensacola-Tallahassee Diocese and led the cause for canonization in the early 1980s, believes it has resonance for today’s world.
“The numbers of martyrs we saw in past centuries in Florida has increased exponentially today in the Middle East, Africa, India and other parts of the world,” he said. In this light, “the story of the La Florida martyrs takes on a special significance for us.”