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Diocesan phase of Florida Martyrs’ cause closes; priest to take documents to Rome

Bishop William A. Wack of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., offers his remarks at an Oct. 12, 2023, Mass marking the closing of the diocesan phase of the canonization cause for Antonio Inija and 57 companions at the future site of the Shrine of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs in Tallahassee. The sainthood cause of the Florida Martyrs unites nine U.S. dioceses, and Bishop Wack serves as bishop of competency for the cause. (OSV News photo/courtesy Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee)
Bishop William A. Wack of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., offers his remarks at an Oct. 12, 2023, Mass marking the closing of the diocesan phase of the canonization cause for Antonio Inija and 57 companions at the future site of the Shrine of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs in Tallahassee. The sainthood cause of the Florida Martyrs unites nine U.S. dioceses, and Bishop Wack serves as bishop of competency for the cause. (OSV News photo/courtesy Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee)

By Jean Gonzalez

(OSV News) — For several years, lay Catholics and clergy have researched, chronicled and verified a piece of Florida’s Catholic history from more than three centuries ago in hopes it will become a piece of Catholic history for the universal church.

Now, eight years after this process officially began, a Mass recently marked the affirming, signing and sealing of documentation on the Martyrs of La Florida Mission — Antonio Inija and 57 companions — to be delivered to the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints in Rome for consideration of canonization.

The group of nearly 60 who were martyred in the name of God from 1549 to 1712 included Catholics who were Indigenous, many of the Apalachee tribe, in what is present-day Florida and missionaries who came to the region from other lands.

Sometime in November, Msgr. Michael Reed, chancellor of the Pensacola-Tallahassee Diocese, will escort the documents to Rome to deliver to the dicastery.

“They are not from some far-off lands. They are from this land right here. Maybe even this land where we are literally standing upon is where they spilled their blood, offered their blood for the Lord,” Bishop William A. Wack of Pensacola-Tallahassee said of these martyrs in his homily during a Mass celebrated at a site along El Camino Real in rural Tallahassee. “We are proud of that. Proud we can lift them up and make them known to the whole world.”

Some 650 supporters, including laity and clergy, members of Indigenous tribes and Florida residents, gathered for the Oct. 12 Mass, which marked the closing of the diocesan phase and the beginning of the Vatican phase of the cause.

“It is our hope they are declared martyrs by Rome because we want the whole world to be inspired by them … so that little children can read about them and stir their hearts like mine as they live for the Lord,” said the bishop, who recounted reading about stories of different martyrs from across the world who gave the ultimate sacrifice to proclaim the Lord. He said those stories stirred his young heart.

The cause of the Florida martyrs unites nine dioceses, including six Florida dioceses — Pensacola-Tallahassee, St. Augustine, Venice, Orlando, St. Petersburg and Palm Beach — along with the Archdiocese of Mobile, Alabama, and the dioceses of Savannah, Georgia, and Richmond, Virginia.

Since the site of the massacre of the lead martyr — Antonio Inija — occurred on the grounds within the Pensacola-Tallahassee Diocese, the eight other dioceses transferred the signing responsibilities to Bishop Wack.

The cause documents the historical accounts of what occurred, especially during the 1704 massacre when Inija and so many other Indigenous were captured, killed and, in some cases tortured, by Col. James Moore, governor of Carolinas, and his Creek allies in the name of Queen Anne of England.

The atrocious massacre offers further evidence that the missionaries established missions, not slave camps, among the Indigenous. While the Spanish fought side-by-side with Apalachees against the aggressors, there was not a large Spanish military force present to aid in opposing the English aggression.

“When the Indigenous were captured, they were given the opportunity to defame their faith and they chose horrible deaths rather than capitulating to denying the faith,” Father Len Plazewski explained to the Florida Catholic in 2022. The pastor of Christ the King Parish in Tampa served as one of the cause’s five vice postulators.

“Col. Moore went from mission to mission, wiping out all he could and took Native peoples who could not escape as slaves. … Col. Moore hated Catholics with a passion. The fact was that he did fight to advance the British Empire, but he was also attacking people he hated,” the priest said. “It was in present terms ‘human rights abuses,’ with his motivation coming from his hatred of the Catholic Church and Catholic faith. He wasn’t trying to make allies among people; he was trying to subjugate them.”

When Inija was captured, he was tortured by Moore’s forces. He and others were tied to stakes and their feet were set on fire when they refused to renounce their faith. Despite this torture, the Catholic Natives encouraged each other and attempted to evangelize their tormentors.

Those murdered in the massacres included individuals and missionary priests from Spain and Cuba of different religious orders — Dominicans, Jesuits, Franciscans and St. John of God. Non-Christian Indigenous peoples killed included men, women and children (including one unborn child) from the Apalachee, Aypaja, Guale and Timucua tribes.

Indigenous Americans were represented at the Oct. 12 Mass in support of the cause. On the altar was Deacon Andrew Orosco, Ipai-Kumeyaay, San Pasqual Band. He is the first Ipai-Kumeyaay/Tongva-Gabrielino ordained deacon serving the Diocese of San Bernardino, California, a diocese that has within its boundary 13 federally recognized tribes.

One of the readings was offered by Sister Kateri Mitchell, a Sister of St. Anne and member of the Akwesasne community. A religious for more than 60 years, she is the retired executive director of the Tekakwitha Conference, an annual gathering for those who minister to Native American Catholics.

One of the five vice postulators of the cause included Father Maurice Henry Sands, executive director of the Black and Indian Mission Office in Washington. He is an Indigenous person in Canada and the United States and a member of three tribes — the Ojibwe (or Chippewa), Odawa (or Ottawa), and Potawatomi, which are part of the Anishinaabe alliance and also known as the Three Fires.

“I was born in the First Nation community in Ontario. The name of the community is Bkejwanong, which means ‘Where the waters divide,'” the priest told the Florida Catholic, the news outlet for several of the state’s dioceses. “It is a group of islands on the delta of the big river (St. Clair). I belong to the community in Canada and a member of a tribe in Michigan — the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.”

Father Sands became familiar with the cause in 2014 during a history conference organized to discuss the martyrs. He was invited there and met one of his fellow vice postulators — Father Plazewski. When the cause first opened, Father Sands was involved with the canonization commission, as he had experience in other canonization causes for Indigenous people of faith. Later, he was invited to become a vice postulator.

He described the cause as “incredibly meaningful,” as Indigenous Catholics have much gratitude and pride” as the cause moves forward, and their stories and histories become “cemented in the universal church.”

“The martyrs lived lives of virtue and are looked up as role models and sources of inspiration,” Father Sands said. “They are worthy to be emulated.”

Indigenous people have faced persecution from different directions, including, at times from people of faith.

But Father Sands agreed with the findings of the historical commission that evaluated the history of the pastoral presence of missionaries within the Indigenous population in what is now North Florida as peaceful. The missionaries lived up to the tenant surrounding the nature of Catholic evangelization that God gives all free will and while shared, the Gospel should not be forced upon others.

Father Sands added if the missionaries were forcing the Gospel on the Indigenous, they would not be allowed to live within the community, which they did.

“Forcing the Gospel on others is not consistent with what the missionaries were taught. They were proclaiming the Gospel,” Father Sands said. “I am very impressed at how robustly these Indigenous people in Northern Florida embraced the faith, so much so they stood up for the faith in the face of being threatened with torture and death. I’m impressed how powerfully the Lord worked in their lives and they gave of themselves to the Lord.”

Jean Gonzalez is projects editor for the Florida Catholic Media in Orlando.

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