The twentieth century saw a considerable increase of knowledge about early Franciscan missionary activity in the United States. With this enhanced knowledge there has developed a new interest in the Cause of the Five Franciscan Martyrs of Georgia.
Recent historical investigation, carried out both in the Martyrs' native Spain and in the New World, has clarified many – virtually all the essential – aspects of their martyrdom. In truth, with the passing of almost four centuries since their death, their memory is alive today as is that of few of their contemporaneous servants of the Church in North America. As the result of studies by scholars both within and outside the Franciscan Order, a more exact knowledge of the details of their apostolate and martyrdom has emerged.
Evidence of that progress is seen from a simple comparison of the praeconium as found in the first edition of the Martyrologium Franciscanum and the more detailed statement in the most recent edition of the same work. In the version of the Paris edition of 1638, there is a one sentence entry under date of September 8, as follows (in translation): "In Florida, the birthday of the blessed Martyrs, Miguel de Oceania, Pedro de Corpa, Pedro de Velasco, Blas Rodríguez and Antonio, who for the Christian Religion were pierced with arrows by apostate Indians." In this short statement there are contained, implicitly or explicitly, no fewer than five errors of fact, namely: 1) that all five were slain on the one day; 2) that all five were martyred in one place (though "in Florida;" is a specification so vague as to be quite meaningless); 3)' that all five died on September 8, whereas none of them did, and four different dates are involved; 4) that one of the martyrs was named "Pedro de Velasco," whereas no friar with that name is mentioned in any primary source of the Franciscan history of Florida; and 5) that all five met death by being pierced with arrows, whereas all died by being clubbed with a macana.
The accompanying footnote of sources and clarifications is similarly replete with misinformation: 1) it identifies the non-existent Fray Pedro de Velasco as a member of the Province of Castile, whereas the fifth martyred friar, Fray Francisco de Veráscola, was a member of the Province of Cantabria in the Basque region of Spain; 2) it states that the five martyred friars had evangelized Guale and other parts of Florida for two years; in reality three of the five had been working in the evangelization for a much longer time (Corpa and Badajóz for ten years, Rodríguez for seven); 3) it says the friars were violently dragged from their (one?) house by force, whereas no source implies such a dramatic scene at any of the four different sites of the slayings; 4) it suggests that all five were put to death at the one site on the one day; 5) it identifies the date as Thursday, September 8 (the day of the commemoration) of the year 1597, whereas in that year that date fell on a Monday.
For all its imperfections, the praeconium found in the first (1638) edition remained in official use for three centuries. The second edition (1653) repeated the main text, with an expanded footnote. After a lapse of more than two centuries (in 1879) a third edition appeared, leaving the original praeconium intact. As with the original edition, the subsequent editions, including that of 1879, remained official for the Franciscan foundations which had the obligation of the choral recitation of Prime. Thus for three centuries and the first three decades of the present century, the essential proclamation about the Five Martyrs of Georgia had remained standard – brief, factual, but unfortunately faulted on many scores. Apart from omitting the sources cited by Arturus, the 1879 edition – in common use until the 1930's – was identical with the first edition, issued less than forty years after the martyrdom itself.
The 1938 edition of the Martyrologium Franciscanum marks a truly significant development in the history of the Cause of the Five Franciscan Martyrs of Georgia. Published by command of the Minister General of the Order of Friars Minor, Fr. Leonardo Maria Bello, it was issued under the imprint of the Antonianum International College in Rome. Patterned after Arturus' classical prototype, the new edition not only added the names of the more recent Servants of God but, as necessary, revamped the data in the individual entries. The editors, Fr. Ignatius Beschin and Fr. Juliano Palazzolo, were competent scholars, whose contributions to Franciscan hagiography were immense.
For the Cause of the Georgia Martyrs, the Martyrology of 1938 is a milestone. It takes cognizance of the considerable research which had clarified all the essential aspects of the slayings of 1597. For the first time the death of the individual Servants of God is recorded, as historically it did take place, on four different days and in four different localities, each identified, of the territory then called La Florida and now known as Georgia. Likewise, for the first time in the Franciscan Martyrology the name of Fray Francisco de Veráscola is included, while that of Fray Pedro de Velasco is expunged.
All these modifications perfecting the summary of the martyrdom as proclaimed in the current Martyrologium Franciscanum are the fruit of intensive research carried out toward the close of the last century and in the first decades of the current one. In this connection, special credit is due to the program of the Colegio Cardenal Cisneros in Madrid, the house of historical studies founded in 1914 by the friars of the Spanish Provinces of the Franciscan Order. Its prestigious review, Archivo Ibero-Americana, since the foundation of the work has greatly facilitated the study of the missions in La Florida. The studies of Fr. Atanasio López (†1944), Fr. José M. Pou y Marti (†1961), Fr. Fidel de Lajarza (†1971), Fr. Manuel de Castro and Fr. Ignacio Omaechevarria have proven particularly helpful in the task of clarifying the story of the Martyrs. Of particular merit and value was the publication by Fr. López, in 1931-33, of the modern edition of Oré's Relación de las Mártires que a avido en las Provincias de La Florida. It is the most complete and most detailed account of the martyrdom that has come from the period of the events. In the preparation of the Cause of the Georgia Martyrs it has rightly served as the basis for the historical analysis.1