Martyrs of the Commonwealth
“Because zeal for your house has consumed me, I am scorned by those who scorn you.”
- Psalm 69:10
On September 10th, 1570, decades before the English established Jamestown, the first bearers of the Christian faith, the Spanish Jesuit Martyrs of Virginia, arrived in the land then known as Ajacán. This brief and largely unknown episode may appear as little more than a footnote in history but for us Catholic Virginians it stands as so much more for it marks the beginning of the ancient faith in Virginia. Through their sweat, tears, and indeed blood these long unheeded martyrs, whom we ought to truly consider as our spiritual forefathers, planted and watered the seeds of faith and now aid us as models of sanctity and particularly, of the virtues of zeal and perseverance as we seek to carry out our Christian identity as missionary disciples.
The story begins with its first principal character in the late 1550’s when a Spanish exploration to La Bahía de Santa Maria, the Chesapeake Bay, adopted to their company a cacique from the Virginia Peninsula possibly from the Kiskiack tribe or the Chickahominy tribe. This man would spend the next several years traveling across the Spanish Empire, eventually converting and taking at his baptism the name of his sponsor, Don Luis de Velasco, the Viceroy of New Spain. Records note Don Luis as sanguine, loquacious, and somewhat prideful. Eventually he yearned to return home and to bring missionaries with him pledging himself as their guide and promising a positive reception. After a Dominican mission was turned back by a sea storm, he invited the Jesuits to make a second attempt, and this is where the other principal character of the story enters. Fr. Juan Baptista de Segura, Vice-provincial of the Jesuits in Florida, noted as devout, a true son of St. Ignatius, and for having a great concern for the welfare of Indians, accepted Don Luis’ invitation against the advice of several of his confreres who thought Don Luis too distrustful. Even now, he debated ending their Floridian missions because of a lack of positive gains in preference for starting missions in China. Fr. Juan Baptista nevertheless decided to make one last attempt before doing so. Thus, he assembled a company in Santa Elena, in modern South Carolina, which in addition to the two above mentioned men consisted of another priest, three professed brothers, three lay catechists, and a local colonist. On August 5th they departed into the unknown and unknowingly into destiny.
Upon reaching Ajacán on that blessed September day they made landfall near Newport News Point to offer mass in thanksgiving for their safe arrival. They then sailed up the James River establishing their mission in the vicinity of where Williamsburg now stands. Don Luis quickly reconnected with his family who, while joyful for his return, bade him the bad news that famine afflicted the whole district causing many deaths and a good portion of the population to migrate elsewhere. This presented a problem for the Jesuits who had only brought limited supplies following the promise of a bounteous land and now faced the approaching winter unprepared. Moreover, the apprehensive locals only skeptically engaged with them. However, this failed to deter them as Fr. Luis de Quirós, the other priest of the company, expressed in a letter to his superiors, writing, “I am convinced that there will be no lack of opportunity to exercise patience, and to succeed we must suffer much.”
Indeed, this forecast would promptly come true as due to the recent passing of an older brother, Don Luis ascended to the position of chief and with it, per local custom, acquired the right to practice polygamy. This created a severe rift in the relationship between Don Luis and the Jesuits who appealed to him to abandon this sinful lifestyle leading him to reject the faith altogether and to abandon the Jesuits. Some months went by but all attempts to rectify the situation failed. Like King Ahab of notorious infamy, he remained obstinate and as his heart hardened so developed hatred and envy for the prophets of God. Destiny came to fruition when, with supplies running critically low, Fr. Juan Baptista sent Fr. Luis and two others to make a final attempt at rectification. On February 4th, 1571, after sending these three back to the mission on false promises of aid and friendship, Don Luis and his men ambushed and killed them in the woods. A few days later, on the 9th, they arrived at the mission and promptly executed the remaining Jesuits brusquely ending the first chapter of Catholicism in Virginia.
Today, 451 years later, the Lord call us to continue the good work he started in these noble martyrs, and we see as above mentioned shining eminently in their example the virtues of perseverance and zeal. First, despite the great difficulties that they encountered they did not quit their mission. So too we ought not to let setbacks keep us from following the Lord. Numerous difficulties might deter us in our apostolic work even rejection or hatred. Over all these deterrents we must persevere to complete the race as St. Paul taught. Second and moreover, we ought also to seek always to maintain zeal for the Lord in our hearts. Zeal constitutes the love for the honor of the Lord that moves us to defend it against any afront. Zeal elevates perseverance from mere persistence or doggedness to the joyful and charitable fortitude of the righteous. It allows us to face boldly and yet charitably all that would stand against the faith. It provides fervor in times of trials and steels our souls when events require courage of us. Importantly, it also allows us to see our adversaries not only as such but as they truly remain, our brothers and sisters. The martyrs demonstrated this as even when Don Luis abandoned them, choosing sin over faith, they remained committed not to revenge or the such but to loving a lost brother.
Therefore, as we seek to serve the Lord today let us model ourselves after our holy martyrs always seeking to labor with zeal, joy, and charity so as to do our part in bringing to perfection the good work started in them, that is, the conversion and salvation of all of Virginia. And as we do, let us pray for the intercession of those holy men and all the other saints who have labored before us in the Old Dominion ad maiorem Dei gloriam.