Canonization Cause opened on October 12, 2015. Martyrs declared Servants of God Antonio Cuipa and Companions

The History of the Cause of the Martyrs of La Florida

Only now is the extraordinary story of the Florida martyrs fully emerging. From an early date poets, artisans, chroniclers, religious superiors, a duke, a king, governors, and bishops had commemorated the saintly deaths of the Florida martyrs, and some had even anticipated their canonization. Yet despite these precious testimonies and the occasional prodding by a small number of historians to recognize this proud part of our American tradition, the story of the Florida martyrs lay largely dormant for centuries. Not until the 1930s and the efforts of John Mark Gannon, Bishop of Erie, was a formal effort undertaken for their canonization. This effort has slowly matured into the present cause. In 1939 John Wynne, S.J., who had been Vice-Postulator for the cause of the North American martyrs and was now Postulator for Kateri Tekakwitha, sent Bishop Gannon a letter that contained a list of 106 “bold martyrs on the soil of our country” (Wynne to Gannon, 6/24/1939). Bishop Gannon was surprised: “I never knew there were so many American martyrs until I received your enclosure. Why something has not been done in this matter before, is a mystery to me . . . I am fascinated with it all and will be glad to co-operate with you in any way I can” (Gannon to Wynne, 6/26/1939).

Gannon in fact eagerly took the lead in this task, which he would ardently champion until his death in 1968. Having received the support of the American hierarchy at their annual meeting in November 1939, Bishop Gannon assembled a team of preeminent ecclesiastical historians, which included representatives from the Jesuits (Fr. John Wynne of Fordham University, and Fr. Michael Kenny of Spring Hill College), Dominicans (Victor O’Daniel, the noted historian of the Dominican order, and then Fr. Reginald Coffey, the archivist of the Dominican House of Studies), Franciscans (Fr. Marion Habig of Quincy College, and Fr. Roland Burke of Warwick, New York, who was the Vice-Postulator of the cause of Mother Schervier, the foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis), and the secular clergy (Fr. Peter Guilday of The Catholic University of America). The secretary was Fr. (later Msgr.) James M. Powers of the Diocese of Erie. Members of the committee convened twice in early 1941 at the Commodore Hotel in New York City, where they assigned responsibilities and began to prepare a submission to Rome. The work was facilitated by an earlier “American martyrology” assembled by Fr. Habig, which would be the core of the submission. By the fall of 1941 the completed report had been signed by Cardinal Dennis Joseph Dougherty of Philadelphia. In November of that year, the Apostolic Delegate to the United States, Archbishop Amleto Cicognani, sent to Rome three handsome red volumes for Cardinal Carlo Salotti, the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, and three ivory bound volumes to be delivered to the Holy Father, Pope Pius XII. But more than three years would elapse before Bishop Gannon learned of the status of this submission. The Sacred Congregation of Rites had indeed received the report, and Monsignor Carinci, the Secretary, had issued a reply on August 8, 1943, but this reply never reached Bishop Gannon or, so far as we know, anyone else in the United States (Powers to Habig, 5/1/1945). Europe, of course, was already in the throes of war, which the United States would soon enter. Indeed, at the end of December 1941 Bishop Gannon wistfully, but not without hope, confided to Fr. Kenny: “I am afraid the war has cut across our intent to secure canonization for the martyrs of America. Nevertheless, our labor has not been in vain. A large part of the work has been done, especially the foundation built, and time, I am sure, will bring the glory [of the martyrs] we seek. If the result doesn’t come while we are still on earth, there may be an added joy and interest in watching the mortals work out an answer to the problem from the blissful skies above” (12/29/1941). Following the war there were occasional hopes that the cause might be revived (e.g., Habig to Powers 5/2/1945), notably in the mid-1950s when (now) Archbishop Gannon was preparing to publish The Martyrs of the United States of America (Erie, 1957). A crowning moment of his efforts came on September 14, 1948 when, during a visit to Europe on behalf of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, Bishop Gannon spontaneously proclaimed to Pope Pius XII the story of the American martyrs, to which the Pope responded “this cause is beautiful . . . most beautiful.” But other responsibilities and lack of funding slowed efforts to pursue the cause, and in the fall of 1957 Archbishop Gannon resigned his commission as head of the Bishops’s Committee that was seeking this cause.

At the very outset of their efforts Bishop Gannon had advised Fr. Wynne: “I think we should go slowly in the matter” (12/13/1939). He recognized the need, in an historical case, to assemble all of the relevant documents and testimonies in order to provide convincing evidence to each of the audiences identified in the ecclesiastical norms (Normae Servandae). Moreover, Bishop Gannon presciently recognized that much of this evidence would be found in Latin American archives, in Cuba and Mexico (Gannon to Habig, 3/28/1942). Bishop Gannon himself had inspected the valuable Jesuit archives in Havana, and Fr. Habig also undertook archival research in Cuba. But of course research there was soon to become more difficult, and many of the relevant documents remained unknown. Yet today, building on the foundation established by Bishop Gannon’s committee, and thanks in large part to recent, extraordinarily fruitful archival work in Spain and in Cuba, which has dramatically deepened our understanding of this era and has in fact revealed the stories of martyrs altogether unknown until now, the time is propitious for the resubmission of the cause for the Florida martyrs. Like a tree spreading its branches, the cause begun by Bishop Gannon was ultimately channeled by the Sacred Congregation of Rites into a diocese by diocese process. Thus far there have been three causes initiated, with each in a different stage. First, Father Habig’s zeal and perseverance launched the diocesan effort for the Cause of five Franciscans martyred in Georgia in 1597, which was submitted to Rome in 2007 by the Diocese of Savannah. Second, last decade the Diocese of Richmond undertook an inquiry into the case of eight Jesuits martyred in Ajacán (near Williamsburg, Virginia) in 1571. Finally, in the early 1980s the founding Bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee, René Henry Gracida, in cooperation with all of the Florida bishops, took steps to open the cause for sixteen Florida martyrs, including three Dominicans (1549), one Jesuit (1566), ten Franciscans (1647, 1704), and two native Indians (1704). In 1982 Bishop Gracida met in Rome with Father Antonio Cairoli, Postulator General of the Franciscans, and he worked with historian Monsignor William Kerr, who was to accept appointment as Vice-Postulator. Bishop Gracida was advised by Cardinal Palazzini, Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Cause of Saints and Divine Worship, to put the effort on hold because approval of a new set of procedures for historic causes was expected. Father Alban Maquire, O.F.M., Minister Provincial of Holy Name Province of Franciscan Friars in New York, wrote to Bishop Gracida: “Since in any case a process of canonization takes a considerable amount of time, we can afford to be patient for a few more months.” Yet Bishop Gracida testified that “there is an important story to be told . . . The martyrs have a place in history and are acknowledged by historians. The martyrs should also have a place in our religious memories, so that their lives might inspire and teach that service involves sacrifice” (1983 Report of Bishop Gracida to the Florida bishops).


In July 1983, however, Bishop Gracida was transferred to the see of Corpus Christi, Texas. His successor in Pensacola-Tallahassee, Bishop Symons, determined that funds were not available to continue the necessary research and notified the other Florida bishops. Yet, shortly thereafter, with the blessing and direction of Bishop John Ricard, the effort was renewed as a result of local devotion, including a lay effort to understand the history of seventy-eight acres of land on the east side of Tallahassee (now set aside as the future site of the Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Martyrs). The effort today has the support of all of the Florida bishops and is under the competency of Gregory Parkes, Bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee. Bishop Gracida, retired in Corpus Christi, remains an active part of the effort. 

Bishop Gannon’s efforts, it should be said, were anticipated and made possible by testimonies from those close to the events themselves. This is true for the Franciscan and Indian martyrs of northern Florida. King Philip V of Spain was so moved by the martyrdoms of the Apalachee Indians of the Mission of La Concepción de Ayubale (Tallahassee) that in August of 1704 he notified Pope Clement XI (r. 1700– 1721) that the Indians “gave their lives in the name of Jesus Christ Our Redeemer, imitating the glorious martyrs of the church, and may their names and veneration be worthy in time.” The Spanish Ambassador in Rome, the IV Duke of Uceda, responded that His Holiness the Pope “heard with great pain such a sad event and (yet) with consolation to see the determination with which they sacrificed their lives for the Faith.” Directed by the Pope, the Franciscans took sworn testimony about the martyrdoms of Franciscans and native Indians. Archival research has brought to light this as well as other rich testimonies. Finally, in 1743, King Philip V, “keeper of the Patronage of the Holy Catholic Church in my Kingdoms of the Indies, by virtue of the ius patronatus that was conferred on me through the successively issued Papal Bulls, to wit, Inter caetera, Eximiae devotionis, Ullius fulcite praesidio, and Universalis Ecclesiae, all of them set and confirmed by His Holiness Pope Julius II, of happy memory, and for all my dominions overseas,” established October 3rd as the day to commemorate yearly the martyrs of La Florida. King Ferdinand VI, succeeding Philip V, ordered the continued celebration of these holy martyrs.

Rich testimony also exists for the fama of the Jesuit and Dominican martyrs. As early as 1609, some four decades after his death, Fr. Pedro Martínez was listed in the Nomina Martyrum Ordine, and he appears in Jesuit Menologies later that century (Alegambe, Mortes Illustres; Nadasi, Annus Dierum Memorabilium). In the latter nineteenth century a Jesuit menology assigns Fr. Martínez to September 28 and the martyrs of Ajacán to February 3 and February 8 (Menology of the Society of Jesus, 1874). Poetry from the early seventeenth century anticipates the canonization of the Jesuit martyrs of Florida: “That day will come, when valiant Rome/ will adorn your blessed head with even greater honor” wrote the Belgian Jesuit, Gerard Montanus (1584–1632, Centuria Epigrammatum in martyres societatisIesu) about one of the martyrs of Ajacán. In the mid-twentieth century prayer cards were fashioned for these Jesuit martyrs, and for many years a large crucifix on the eastern side of Rte. 1, near Aquia (south of Washington, D.C.) has borne witness to the deaths of the valiant Jesuits of Ajacán. The Dominican Fr. Luís de Cancer, the proto-martyr of Florida, is the subject of a stained glass window in the Dominican church of St. Vincent Ferrer in New York City as well as in the church of Espiritu Santo in Safety Harbor, Florida. Fr. de Cancer appears early in Dominican menologies (Malpaeus, Palma Fidei S. Ordinis Praedicatorum [Antwerp 1635]).

These and other testimonies reveal that the fama of the martyrs of Florida has never entirely vanished, and many, beginning in the late 1500s, have believed that the blood of the martyrs would be responsible for the growth of the Church in the United States. Indeed Archbishop Gannon noted: “the Christian seed planted by the Catholic martyrs, tilled and watered by the Catholic piety of millions of immigrants, has matured into a great nation, whose Christian character is today best illustrated and defended by the [millions] of Catholic citizens, the legitimate and proud descendants of the early martyrs of the United States.”

The centuries-long chain to honor and remember the martyrs is comprised of strong links of stubborn insistence that gratitude to these great American heroes is due; and we claim these holy martyrs for our inspiration today. No less pertinent today are the words of Fr. Roland Burke, O.F.M.: “Possibly these soldiers of Christ will plead our national cause before the throne of The Almighty and be instrumental in restoring peace to our American people” (Burke to Gannon, 11/1/1941). 

Now united by the blessing of the Florida bishops, and bolstered by the discovery and transcription of over two thousand manuscript pages of supporting historic documents,the canonization effort took a great stride: On October 12, 2015, at an outdoor Mass on the land held to become the shrine, hundreds attended Mass and Bishop Gregory Parkes with Bishop Felipe Estévez, Bishop Emeritus Kevin Boland, and Bishop Emeritus Sam Jacobs, opened the cause, and the Church declared these men, women and children martyrs to be Servants of God, Antonio Cuipa and Companions.

Under the direction of the Postulator Dr. Waldery Hilgeman of Misio Pastoralis in Rome, the Tribunal is interrogating witnesses and the seven scholars of the Historic Commission are completing the research phase of the process.  With the help of God, the Cause prayerfully proceeds to beatification. 

The correspondence cited is taken from the Archbishop John Mark Gannon Collection of the Archives of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Erie, Pennsylvania, which the Reverend Father Justin Patrick Pino, STB, MDiv, Archivist/Historian graciously provided.