Witnesses to the Truth: Statements and Opinions

Statement of Fray Pedro Fernández de Chozas

Isla de San Pedro: October 4, 1597

On October 4, 1597, less than three weeks after the slaughter, Fray Pedro Fernandez de Chozas, the priest in charge of the mission at Puturiba on the Isle of San Pedro, wrote to the Governor General of La Florida, Gonzalo Méndez de Canzo, apprizing him of the facts (as then known) of the slayings. It is significant that this is the very first written reference to the martyrdom that was made; it has been textually preserved in an authenticated copy forwarded by Méndez de Canzo in his report dated January 12, 1598. The Governor's complete report is still preserved in the Archivo General de las lndias, Audiencia de Santo Domingo, 224, in Seville.

The document has been edited and published by Fray Ignacio Omaechevarría, in Missionalia Hispanica, No. 35, pp. 291-293. It constitutes the first item in the Governor's report dated January 12, 1598, which extends to page 311 of the printed text in Missionalia Hispanica, under the rubric "lnformación juridica sobre los sucessos de la província de Guale, de la rebelión de los indios y muerte de cinco religiosos de San Francisco." While the original autographed copy of Fernández de Chozas is not known to be extant, this authenticated copy of the Governor to the King cannot be dismissed as of less value.

This letter was the first intimation given to the civil and ecclesiastical authorities in San Agustin regarding the tragic events which had taken place in the outlying mission field to the north of the capital city. Although not perfectly exact in every last detail (among the friars said to have been slain appears the name of Fray Francisco de Avila, while Fray Antonio de Badajoz is reported to be alive and in captivity), the information it brought was shocking and ominous. Giving vent to his fraternal pain, the writer of the letter expresses his reactions with words of deep emotion and faith. One especially moving section is worthy of being cited to show his sentiments:

All told, five religious were martyred. Proof (of the slaughter) are the precious things which they (the slain friars) left them (the Indians who slew them): their cowls and their religious habits. Divided into portions, these things the Indians shared among themselves, with the same lack of human feeling as (was the case) with the Most Innocent Lamb (Jesus)! How they must have been lonely, Señor General, these little lambs, at the moment of martyrdom! The very thought of them overwhelms me, so that I am not able to continue. I envy them the crowns of glory which await us in the future. In this desert-land I await whatever our divine Lord in His mercy may have prepared for me! …May God be pleased to grant a decent place of burial to these blessed dead ones!

Two things are worthy of note in this portion of Fray Pedro's letter communicating the startling news to the Governor, who would be expected to share the contents of the letter with the Franciscan community, the religious family of the slain religious. The friar refers to the deaths of the slain missionaries by the traditionally consecrated term: they were martyred (martirizados); their death was a martyrdom (martirio). And he refers to the slain religious by the term traditionally used and theologically consecrated to refer to those souls who are believed to be in God's presence (beatos defuntos) who are judged to have received the crown of glory (coronas de gloria).

”Rule of l221," ch. 16:10-11, in The Writings of Saint Francis, trans. Ignatius Brady (Assisi: Edizioni Porziuncola, 1983) 77. Henceforth, Brady.

St. Bonaventure, Major Life of St. Francis, chap. 12: I, trans. Benen Fahy in Marion A. Habig (ed.), St. Francis of Assisi: Writings and Early Biographies: English Omnibus of the Sources for the Life of St. Francis, 4lh rev. ed. (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1983), 721. Cited henceforth as Omnibus.

Ibid., chap. 3:1, pp. 646-47.

Thomas of Celano, The First Life of St. Francis, chap. JO: 29, trans. Placid Hermann in Omnibus, 247.

Ibid., chap. I 5, p. 258.

Bonaventure, Major Life, chap. 9:5, in Omnibus, 701.

St. Francis, "Letter Addressed to the Whole Order," in Brady, 121.

Isla de San Pedro: Between October 17 and 23, 1597

Having received on October 7 Fray Pedro's communication dated October 4, and having dispatched that very day a small contingent of soldiers to protect the two missionaries on San Pedro (Cumberland Island), within a few days the Governor himself set out for that island, where he arrived on October 17. The following day he began his official investigation of the happenings, during which various persons gave testimony as to what they knew of the events. In addition to some government personnel who had accompanied the expedition from San Agustin, local witnesses were also heard: the cacique of San Pedro, Don Juan; the chief lndian of the village, Antonio López; and Jusepe, a Christian Indian of some standing in the community. These depositions were recorded and form part of the lengthy "Información juridica sobre los sucessos en la provincia de Guale," dated January 12, 1598. The whole extensive document covering the visitation is preserved in the Archivo General de las Indias, Audiencia Santo Domingo, 224. It has been edited and published by Father Ignacio Omaechevarría, O.F.M., in Missionalia Hispanica, Num.35, pp. 291-311.

A written statement (certificación) from Fray Pedro de Chozas, which is found on pages 300-301, was admitted to the official report of the Governor's visitation. Though no date appears on this statement, from internal evidence it is clear that it was prepared some time after October 17 (for the author mentions the Governor's arrival on that date.) From its inclusion amid the other documents connected with the visitation, it is quite certain that it was written before the departure of the Governor's entourage on October 24. As a religious, Fray Pedro enjoyed the clerical privilege of immunity from the necessity of swearing to his deposition; his written report would be equally valid as a sworn testimony.

In his written statement Fray Pedro describes the October 4 attack made by the rebel Indians on the Island of San Pedro, where he was in charge of the mission at Puturiba, on the northern side of the island. He recounts the taunts and the boastings of the rampaging Indians who appeared offshore that morning, and the shocking revelation they made that five friars had been killed and one other taken hostage. The religious habit and cowl of Fray Francisco de Veráscola, along with his sombrero, were displayed as proof that the friar in charge of the mission on Asao (St. Simons Island) had indeed been killed. All these evidences of what had taken place impelled Fray Pedro to communicate what he had learned to the Commissary and the Governor in San Agustin. That startling information it was that had galvanized the immediate response of the Governor and explained his presence now ten days later on San Pedro Island.

Though writing at the behest of the Governor and under the impact of the disquieting events, and in the awareness that he was composing a statement intended primarily for secular consumption and non-religious purposes, Fray Pedro did not fail to include a reference to the spiritual dimensions of the tragedy and to the sacredness of the friars' deaths:

From all this I conclude and infer that they (the Indians in revolt) have slain him (Fray Francisco de Veráscola) as a martyr (haberle martirizado), as also the other (four) blessed (beneditos) religious.

The use of the two words martirizado and beneditos is a clear testimony to the belief on the part of the writer, Fray Pedro Fernández de Chozas, that the slain friars had given their lives in testimony to the Faith which they had come to La Florida to announce, and that for their sacrificial death they were deservedly to be considered as already crowned with the reward of heaven.

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The First Georgia Missions: Our Southern Catholic Heritage, Dr. Paul Thigpen and Katherine Ragan. Illustrations by Pamela Gardner, based on the retablo by Dan Nichols. This retablo is part of the parish patrimony of Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church in Jasper, Georgia

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