Bishops remember Florida martyrs at special Mass

By Carl Bunderson

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Mass for the Florida Martyrs. Credit: Benjamin Horbowy.

Three bishops celebrated Mass on Oct. 15 at the site of a planned shrine to the Franciscan martyrs of Florida, honoring those who took part in the “first evangelization” of the area.

“They...witnessed the depth of their faith to the point of giving their life in fidelity to the Lord in heroic love,” said Bishop Felipe de Jesus Estevez of the Diocese of Saint Augustine in his homily.

Concelebrating the Mass just outside of Tallahassee were Bishops Gregory L. Parkes of Pensacola-Tallahassee and Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix.

A shrine to the martyrs of Florida was first conceived by Bishop Rene H. Gracida and Monsignor William Kerr, both of the Pensacola-Tallahassee diocese.

Some 200 people gathered for the Mass, said outdoors in a wooded area dubbed the “Cathedral of the Oaks” by Msgr Kerr. In addition to a chapel, the shrine will include a retreat center and a cemetery.

The first martyrs of Florida were three Dominican missionaries from Spain, who were beaten to death in 1549. They were to be joined by many Franciscans and indigenous peoples, as well as Jesuit missionaries.

The Apalachee people of the Florida panhandle largely embraced the faith from Franciscan missionaries, and many were baptized.

In 1704, militias from the English Carolina colony massacred the Catholic Apalachee natives in two raids, in January and June. Thousands were taken as slaves and another thousand were martyred.

The last massacre occurred less than a mile from the shrine site. Martyrs were tied to the stations of the Cross and burned alive, while they invoked the Blessed Virgin. In addition to the 1,000 Appalachee martyred that day, six Franciscans died for the faith, including Juan Praga and Manuel Mendoza.

Bishop Parkes said that the Mass was the “perfect way to start the Year of Faith,” saying thank you to our spiritual benefactors in the faith, Lynn Mangan of Martyrs of La Florida Missions told EWTN News Oct. 15.

Bishop Estevez concluded his homily saying, “As we celebrate in deep continuity the mystery of faith at the site of the shedding of so many innocent martyrs' blood, we join their 'confessio fidei,' with the hope that we follow Jesus' way of loving to the end.”

On Sept. 3, Bishop Estevez celebrated another Mass to honor one of the colonial era martyrs, a Franciscan priest named Agustin Ponce de Leon. Father de Leon was martyred outside Saint Augustine by pagan Creeks while protecting the Guale natives on Sept. 3, 1705.

Martyrs of La Florida Missions are accepting donations to help the shrine become a reality.

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