By Russ Bynum
Sunday, April 15, 2007 12:00 AM
SAVANNAH, Ga. -- The report took 23 years to compile, with each of its nearly 500 pages individually notarized to ensure authenticity, before the Rev. Conrad Harkins carried it across the Atlantic Ocean in a box sealed by the Catholic Diocese of Savannah.
Harkins arrived at the Vatican with the package in late March. After 410 years, five Spanish missionaries slain by Guale Indians on what's now the Georgia coast were en route to possible sainthood.
The documents delivered by Harkins make up the official case urging the Roman Catholic Church to recognize the five Franciscan friars, killed in 1597, as martyrs -- a first step toward having them canonized as saints.
"These people were regarded as martyrs when they died," Harkins said. "This case, despite the amount of time it has taken, is really very simple. You're either going to accept the historical documents or you're not."
A historian at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, Harkins has overseen years of research into the friars' lives and deaths as vice postulator in the cause for their beatification.
Though the friars died centuries ago, researchers have uncovered original documents that tell the story of their deaths in detail, including letters to King Philip III written after the slayings and records of the investigation that followed by the governor of Spanish Florida.
Friar Pedro de Corpa had spent a decade before his death as a missionary converting Indians to Christianity in Spanish Florida, which then included the 100-mile Georgia coast.
De Corpa was assigned to a mission near present-day Darien, Ga., when he infuriated the nephew of a Guale chieftain who planned to take a second wife. The friar admonished the nephew, a baptized Christian named Juanillo, and told him polygamy violated God's law.
On Sept. 14, 1597, Juanillo led warriors smeared in war paint to de Corpa's hut, where he was preparing for morning Mass. They killed the friar with stone clubs, severed his head and displayed it on a pike by a nearby river landing.
The warriors killed four more friars -- Blas Rodriguez, Miguel de Anon, Antonio de Badajoz and Francisco de Verascola -- at St. Catherines Island and other nearby missions over the next several days.
Friar Pedro Fernandez de Chozas wrote to the Spanish governor at St. Augustine, Fla., on Oct. 4, 1597: "How they must have been lonely, Senor General, these little lambs, at the moment of martyrdom."
Beatification by the church, a lengthy process likely to take many years, would entitle the five friars to be called "blessed." But it requires proof of a miracle or martyrdom, meaning they died willingly at the hands of religious persecutors.
Harkins says it should be "an open-and-shut case."
If he's right, the friars would join a very short list of only three Christians whom the church recognizes as having been martyred within U.S. borders -- fewer than half the number of U.S. saints.
The United States can claim just eight Catholic saints. Among them are the only beatified martyrs slain on American soil: three Jesuit priests killed in the 1640s by Iroquois Indians near present-day Auriesville, N.Y.
"In North America we haven't had periods of persecution," said Lawrence S. Cunningham, a University of Notre Dame theology professor and author of the book "A Brief History of Saints." "You're not going to find any martyrs in the U.S. after the period of early exploration."
A key question is whether the Vatican will view the friars, who were slain in a dispute over polygamy rather than because they were Christians, as true martyrs.
Cunningham said there's some precedent for ambiguity in the church's definition of martyrs. Some have been beatified because they died upholding Christian values rather than out of others' hatred for the faith.
Soon after the friars were slain in 1597, fellow Franciscans likened their deaths to that of Saint John the Baptist, who was beheaded after he criticized King Herod for marrying Herodias, his brother's former wife.
Bishop J. Kevin Boland, who heads the Diocese of Savannah, said the friars' defense of marriage resonates as strongly today as it did four centuries ago because of recent debates over same-sex marriage.
"Death resulted because of their unwillingness to water down the teaching of the faith," Boland said. "It's very timely in today's culture, where marriage is under horrendous attacks."
The story of de Corpa and the other slain friars languished for nearly 200 years after the predominantly Protestant English, who founded the colony of Georgia in 1733 at Savannah, had driven out the Spanish by 1763.
In 1941, U.S. bishops submitted to the Vatican a list of 118 early missionaries for beatification, but it went nowhere. In the 1950s, a new request was made, but limited to five -- de Corpa and his companion friars.
The case for their beatification stalled until 1983, when Pope John Paul II changed the church's canonization procedures. The pope decided that the process would start in local dioceses, rather than in Rome. The Diocese of Savannah took up the friars' cause in 1984.
Archaeologist Sheila Caldwell had helped renew interest in the friars in the 1950s when she excavated Fort King George near Darien. Caldwell believed she found remains of the Guale village from the Spanish mission period.
She also found a skull, which she thought was likely the severed head of de Corpa.
Last year, Harkins asked the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, which had kept the skull, to lend it for forensic analysis.
Physical remains would have no bearing on whether the church beatifies the friars. It would be almost impossible to determine if the skull was de Corpa's, but Harkins wanted to put the story to rest if it could be proved untrue.
Last June, bioarchaeologist Christopher Stojanowski took the skull back to his lab at Arizona State University. He thought the de Corpa tale would be easy to debunk, that the skull's features would show it belonged to an old woman or a teenager.
He was wrong. Ten months later, Stojanowski still can't rule out de Corpa. The skull appears to be that of a man in his 30s, such as the friar. It also has damage that would be consistent with a head being smashed by a club and then impaled.
But the scientist says he's just getting started. He still wants to see if DNA tests, bone chemical analysis and radiocarbon dating can help narrow down the skull's age and ethnicity.
"There are a lot of people it could be, in addition to one of these friars," Stojanowski said. "Father Harkins told me, 'We've waited 400 years. A couple of more won't matter.' "