“Adjuva me, Domine!” Tampa Bay Claims the First Martyrdom in the New World | PART II

For four years, he ministered with incredible success in these territories, as attested to by Las Casas in his 1545 pastoral visitation.  In 1546, fray Luis asked his Vicar Provincial for permission to return to Spain to recruit even more missionaries.  After returning to Spain to recruit more missionaries, fray Luis returned with six Franciscan friars to Coban, in the heart of the Verapaz territories.  He had brought along with him from Mexico a group of musicians who would assist him in his ministry.

After meeting with Las Casas in what is today San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, he traveled with Bishop Las Casas to Mexico City.  The Spanish population of Chiapas was already in open opposition to Las Casas and the implementation of the “Nuevas Leyes de Indias” — the New Laws of Emperor Charles V, which gave full rights to the native populations.

The evangelization of Florida had become a growing concern among the Dominicans in Mexico.  Missionaries traveling along with four military expeditions had failed in their resolve to establish a missionary presence in the Florida peninsula.

During his stay in Mexico, fray Luis had many opportunities to discuss with other Dominican missionaries the possibilities of the pacifist approach to the evangelization of Florida.

In 1547, fr. Luis de Cancer traveled to the Spanish city of Aranda del Duero, a town near Caleruega, St. Dominic’s birthplace, to meet with the Council of the Indies, the royal board responsible for all the decisions concerning the new Spanish territories in America and Asia.  Fray Luis offered himself to the Council to lead a pacifist missionary expedition to Florida.  The Council members were reluctant to grant this petition, but the success of the Dominican efforts in La Verapaz territory of Guatemala was pivotal in obtaining their consent.  A royal decree of December 7, 1547, gave them approval and financial support.

In a letter fray Luis wrote to Las Casas and an official of the Council of the Indies, he remarked that the crown understood the recent history of exploration of the peninsula.  “…four tyrants had gone to Florida who, instead of accomplishing any good, had done so much harm, [that it was] thought advisable to assign its pacific conquest to friars and to give them assistance in their undertaking.”

Another document of December 28 of that year ordered that all the Indians who had been captured in Florida as slaves were to be surrendered to the missionaries to accompany them and be their translators.  This was a gesture intended to prove the good will of the expedition.

Fr. Luis found it difficult to recruit friars capable of accompanying him on this new enterprise.  He was looking for preachers willing “to eat raw corn or tortillas or biscuits or hard, moldy and smelly tamales, ready to drink swamp waters, and to eat wild fruits, having all these a presents from God’s hand moving them to praise and blessing.”

He found nobody in Spain willing to accept the challenge.  Only after his return to Mexico would he find some volunteers among the seasoned Dominican missionaries of the Mexican Province.  Even the Prior Provincial, fr. Domingo de Santa Maria, was willing to go, but his council opposed the idea.  In the end, fr. Gregorio de Beteta, fr. Juan Garcia, fr. Diego de Tolosa and an oblate named Fuentes were the elected ones.

The friars left Veracruz, Mexico in the late spring of 1549 aboard a ship called “Santa Maria de la Encina,” arriving in Havana some days later.  They stocked up on provisions and the Governor gave them a Christian Indian slave named Magdalena to be their translator.

A few days after they arrived at the coast of western Florida, the Dominicans landed close to Espiritu Santo Bay.  They were well received by the first Indians whom they met (who are variously identified as members of the Tocabaga, Timucuan and Caloosa Nations).  This open welcome did not last long, however.  After a few days, the Indians became more demanding and the missionaries had to appease them with presents.  The Indians were closely observing them, and assessing their strength.

Suddenly, the Indian interpreter, Magdalena, fr. Diego de Tolosa, and the oblate brother Fuentes disappeared from the shore.  When inquiring about them, they were told that they were visiting with the tribal chief and would be back soon.

One of the sailors tried to reach shore and was violently apprehended by the natives.  The next day some Indians approached the Dominicans with the intention of trading food for trinkets.  Later that same day, a Spaniard — who had been captured during the Fernando de Soto expedition of 1539-43 and was kept as a slave by the Indians -approached them and notified them that the two friars had been killed.  He reported that he had seen their tonsured scalps.  These two friars were the first two Dominican martyrs in our present United States.

The news caused turmoil among the sailors and missionaries who wanted to return to Mexico at once.  However, fray Luis de Cancer opposed this idea.  He reminded his companions of their commitment to this missionary project.

To be continued….