Pilgrimage to Site of Georgia Martyrs

Conrad Harkins, OFM Features

Conrad Harkins, OFM, vice postulator for the Georgia Martyrs, submitted the report below.

SAVANNAH, Ga. – To mark the 410th  anniversary of the violent death of  five Franciscan friars known as the Georgia Martyrs, I accompanied Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Savannah on a pilgrimage down the Georgia coast to St. Catherines Island on Sept. 15.

The friars, now the Servants of God Pedro de Corpa and Companions, died in September 1597 when a baptized Guale Indian led a rebellion against them for insisting that Christians have only one wife at a time. The request for beatification, first made by the friars in 1936, produced a long diocesan process which opened in 1984 and closed last spring.

I delivered the Cause to the Congregation for Causes of the Saints on March 27. The destination of the pilgrimage  was the mission church discovered, excavated, and studied by Dr. David Hurst Thomas, director of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 1981.

At the request of Alexander Wyse, OFM, of Holy Name Province, then vice postulator of the Cause, I worked on these excavations in 1985-86.  It was a joy to return after 20 years. The trenches of the archeologists have been filled and the bones of the deceased, once removed for scientific analysis, have been again interred. Grass lawn covers the site of the church and friary, rebuilt after the Guale rebellion and stately palmetto palms mark the lines of the fallen walls.  Bishop Boland and the concelebrants offered Mass under a canopy on the site of the original altar, abandoned after the English siege of 1680.

The Bishop’s Words on the Martyrs
At the Mass in honor of Our Lady of Sorrows, Bishop Boland spoke of the heroic sacrifice of the martyrs, the sorrows of their families, and the need of courageous Christian witness today. It was at this mission that Fray Miguel de Añon, priest, and Fray Antonio de Badajoz, lay brother and catechist, were killed, despite the efforts of the local Guale chief to save them from the hostile band.  It was Sept. 17, then, as now, the Feast of the Stigmata of St. Francis, and the Gospel which they read that day contained the challenging words of Jesus: “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” The mutilated remains of the friars, buried by faithful Guale Christians and retrieved by Spanish soldiers, were delivered to the friars, and preserved with reverence and respect in the friary at St. Augustine. With the Spanish evacuation of Florida in 1763 and the conversion of the friars’ church into a military barracks–it is even  now the National Guard Arsenal– the remains have been lost.

In a brief seminar at the facilities of the St. Catherines Island Foundation, Randall Hayes, Island superintendent, explained the radical scientific method used to unearth the mission in the 1980s. He said that the preservation of the artifacts discovered made imperative their safe housing away from the low-lying Georgia coast inland at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta.  Dr. Paul Thigpen, founder of the “Friends of the Georgia Martyrs” and editor of its newsletter, The Palmetto, outlined the growth of the society and its work in making known in Georgia and elsewhere their heroic story.

Reporting on the Science

I recounted the events concerning the conclusion of the diocesan process and the opening of the Roman process on March 27.  I also reported on the scientific examination of a skull found at Forth King Georgia near Darien, Georgia, in the 1950s and identified at that time as probably the skull of Pedro de Corpa. Dr. Christopher Stojanowski of the Center for Bioarchaeological Research at Arizona State University has studied the skull for several years. In the present phase of Stojanowski’s work, biomolecules have been extracted for strontium, oxygen and carbon isotope analysis to gain indication of diet and geographical origin.  Traces of mitochondrial DNA have also been found for further analysis. Although it is most improbable that it could be proven that the skull is that of Pedro, it might be possible to prove that it is not. At any rate, it is untidy to point out a skull as “possibly” that of a servant of God on the basis of a 1950s conjecture.  Although relics are not required for canonization, they can be helpful. One miracle after beatification is required for the canonization of a martyr, and since people pray to various “saints” for cures, relics are of advantage when associating a healing with a particular candidate for sainthood.

Participating in the pilgrimage  were Msgr. William  O’Neill, rector of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist; and my frequent host in Savannah, Fr. Daniel Firmin, chancellor of the diocese and a Franciscan University graduate; Fr. Mark Ross, a judge of the tribunal; and various representatives of diocesan public relations and the Catholic Pastoral Center; members of the staff of the St. Catherines Island Foundation; and representatives of the Savannah Morning News, WTOC television, Georgia Public Radio; and other friends of the Cause of the Georgia Martyrs.

— Fr. Conrad, a professor of theology at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, is vice postulator for the Georgia Martyrs.