I am originally from Virginia, but I’ve never heard of the Jesuit martyrs of Virginia.
On September 10, 1570, eight Jesuits, two priests, three brothers and three novice brothers, arrived in Ajacan, on the banks of the James River accompanied by a Spanish boy and an Indian guide. They were led by Fr. Juan Baptista de Segura. The Jesuits were there to establish a mission to evangelize the local native population, the Algonkians. Because their goal was entirely evangelical, they brought no soldiers with them, as soldiers often were aggressive and led to tensions with the Indians. Thirty-seven years before the founding of Jamestown in 1607, this was the first European settlement in Virginia.
The Jesuits put great trust in their Indian guide – perhaps too much trust. His name was Don Luis. He had been rescued at sea by Spaniards years before and brought back to Spain. He was given an education in the Catholic faith and in Spanish ways. Don Luis claimed that his father was an important chief in Virginia who could provide the missionaries with food and supplies. As such, the Jesuits relied on his supposed connections and brought few supplies with them.
Unfortunately for the missionaries, Don Luis became anxious on his return to his native home and abandoned his Spanish ways and the Jesuits to live with his uncle at a local village. The Jesuits who had depended on him were now in desperate straights. As it was, the locals were suffering the consequences of a severe drought and, barely getting by themselves, had little in the way of food and supplies to share with the earnest if naive missionaries.
Even still, the Jesuits persevered, setting up their mission, St. Mary’s, and opening a school for native boys and a chapel for Mass. The three novices made their professions as Jesuits, the first such religious professions in what is now the United States.
Fr. Segura received word that Don Luis had abandoned his Christian faith in favor of polygamy and dissolute living. Fr. Segura sent messages to Don Luis petitioning his return to the faith, all in vain. At last, he decided to send three of his small band to the village to confront Don Luis personally. Fr. Luis Quiros and Brothers Gabriel and Juan arrived at the village and were graciously welcomed. They spoke with Don Luis, who gave his word to return to the mission the next day. The party left the next day, February 4, 1571, to return to the mission. Tragically, Don Luis and his warriors met them on the road and killed all three.
Four days later, February 9, 1571, Don Luis arrived at the mission with his warriors. Fr. Segura was very concerned about the three who had not returned. Don Luis assured Fr. Segura that he was there to help, and he was received by the Jesuits with open arms and forgiveness. Feigning a plan to cut firewood, the Indian warriors were given access to the storeroom of the mission where the axes were kept. Once they procured the axes, however, they attacked Fr. Segura and the other Jesuits, killing all of them except the boy, Alonso de Olmos, who was adopted by the tribe.
Months later, a Spanish supply ship arrived on the James River and the captain became suspicious when he found Indians dressed in Jesuit cassocks. The Spaniards took some of the Indians prisoner and learned from them of the deaths of the Jesuits and the capture of Alonso de Olmos. The next year, 1572, Spaniards from Florida arrived in Virginia seeking justice for the crime. They arrested the Indian chief along with several others implicated in the murders, demanding that Alonso be released and Don Luis turned over to their custody. Alonso managed to escape before he could be released, however, and made his way to the Spanish ship. Don Luis also escaped, fleeing into the wilderness where he was never heard from again. The Spanish governor was not satisfied with this outcome, and he condemned the Indian prisoners. Some were released, but seven were hanged as punishment for the murder of Fr. Segura and his companions.
The Catholic Diocese of Richmond is sponsoring the cause for canonization of the Jesuit Martyrs of Virginia. The Vatican has approved the investigation into their sanctity and they have received the title Servants of God.
“Jesuit Martyrs of Virginia,” Unam Sanctam Catholicam .
“Ajacan Mission,” Wikipedia.
“Spanish Martyrs for Virginia,” Seattle Catholic.
“Jesuit Martyrs of Virginia,” YouTube.
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