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Jesuit Martyrs in Micronesia

By Francis X. Hezel, SJ

Religion

The Jesuit mission in the Mariana Islands was the first in Oceania; it soon also proved to be one of the bloodiest. On 15 June 1668, Diego Luis Sanvitores and a band of five other Jesuits arrived on Guam, the southernmost and largest island in a cordillera of fifteen volcanic islands. With the missionaries came a garrison of thirty soldiers, many of them colonials from the Philippines, whose responsibility was to protect the missionaries and to pacify the local people if need should arise.

The initial reception of the missionaries by the Chamorro people was enthusiastic and reassuring. Within two months, however, the first show of hostility occurred when Fr. Luis de Morales was attacked and injured as he was on his way to baptize a dying man on Tinian. Two of the soldiers who accompanied him were hacked to death by the villagers. A similar incident took place on Guam at about the same time; Fr. Luis Medina was beaten so badly by a hostile mob that his face was swollen for weeks. The Jesuits attributed this sudden display of hostility to the calumnies of a Chinese castaway who had made his home in the Marianas for more than twenty years. He had spread the tale that the priests poisoned infants when they poured baptismal waters on their heads.

These early outbursts were followed by a period of peace that lasted almost a year, but when the Chamorro chief who had become the protector of the missionaries on Guam died, trouble broke out anew. On the next missionary journey to the northern islands, a Malabarese catechist by the name of Lorenzo was seized by an angry rob and killed with spears after he had baptized a dying child. The stories of poisonous waters may have been getting a wide hearing, but there was more to the trouble than just these outlandish tales. The Jesuits had stepped into an island society that was a tangle of political divisions and alliances of convenience. In identifying themselves with one region through the chief who protected them, they had entirely unawares made enemies in other places. In such hostile areas, stories about the religious rites they performed, or almost any other misunderstanding, were sufficient to spark off a display of aggression.

Sanvitores, who was the superior of the Jesuit band and held civil authority over the troops, was the meekest of men and had forbidden the building of fortifications or the use of firearms. Nonetheless, the recent turn of events had persuaded him that sterner measures might be necessary for the preservation of the mission. Accordingly, he ordered larger detachments sent out to pacify outlying areas of the mission and he wrote to the Spanish for reinforcements to bolster the garrison. Sanvitores may have personally "welcomed martyrdom," but he had the responsibility of seeing to it that the mission was not wiped out, leaving the inhabitants of the islands without what he believed to be the necessary means of salvation.

Despite Sanvitores' efforts to forestall further hostilities, another outbreak occurred in January 1670 when Fr. Luis de Medina and two Filipino catechists visited Saipan to resume preaching there. The priest and his companions were taunted by a threatening band of Chamorros from the moment they came ashore. Two days later, on January 29, as the priest was on his way to baptize a sick child, he and his catechists were attacked by thirty armed Chamorros. Medina and one of his catechists, Hipolito de la Cruz, died in the volley of spears.

Another uprising took place, this one on Guam, just six months later. The execution of a local chief for the murder of a Spanish boy led to a siege of the Spanish fort for a number of weeks, until the Chamorro force disbanded and an uneasy peace followed for the next several months. This peace came to an abrupt end when Diego Bazan, a young Mexican helper, was ambushed and cut to pieces by two machete-wielding Guamanians. On the next day, a Spanish soldier and two Filipino catechists, Damian Bernal and Nicolas de Figueroa, were also surprised and killed. A few days later, on April 2, 1672, Sanvitores was on his way from his parish in northern Guam to the mission center in Agana, when he stopped to baptize a sick child against the orders of the child's father. The father, enraged at Sanvitores for administering the sacrament, fell on the priest and his companion, Pedro Calangsor. The catechist died first, and then the Jesuit fell after receiving a cutlass blow to the head and a spear thrust in the heart.

Sanvitores' death was a shocking blow for the new mission, not quite four years old at the time. His enthusiasm had been responsible for the founding of the mission, and his cheerful austerity as he went about his work was a source of constant inspiration for his companions. But his influence proved to extend far beyond the Marianas archipelago; within two years of his death, the first of the many biographies was published and Sanvitores was already being heralded as a saint throughout much of Europe. Soon many miracles were ascribed to him during his lifetime and found their way into his biographies. His cause for canonization has been introduced and is close to being decided at this writing.

The following years brought still more bloodshed; they saw the deaths of four more Jesuits and a number of their lay helpers. In February 1674, Fr. Francisco Esquerra and the five Filipino assistants with him were brutally murdered when the priest tried to give the Last Sacraments to an elderly Chamorro woman in the northern part of Guam. In December 1675, the Jesuit brother Pedro Diaz and two of his lay mission helpers were cut down after he reproached a group of young trouble-makers who had entered the mission school and were creating a loud commotion. The young men were already angry at Diaz for persuading some of the more desirable to abandon their promiscuous life and resume their schooling.

Just one month later, in January 1676, Fr. Antonio de San Basilio was killed when a Chamorro struck him a fierce blow to the head after being accused of cheating the priest. The next to fall was Fr. Sebastian de Monroy, who was killed in September 1676 in retaliation for the execution of a native chief after a Spanish soldier was found murdered. Monroy and six soldiers were on their way from Sumay to Agana after the outbreak of trouble when they were lured onto the canoe of a chief whom they had thought friendly. The Chamorros overturned the canoe once it was well off shore, and massacred the priest and soldiers with spears and clubs.

With the death of Monroy, the first period of martyrdom came to an end. The arrival of military reinforcements and the adoption of stronger sanctions by Spanish authorities introduced a period of relative tranquility for the following eight years. The mission had already suffered the loss of six Jesuits and another fifteen catechists, most of them Filipinos. Nonetheless, new volunteers for the Marianas mission came from all over Europe, particularly the northern countries, in numbers more than sufficient to compensate for the martyrs.

The Spanish program to pacify the archipelago continued all the while under several different governors and military commanders. One of the most vigorous of these, Don Jose Quiroga, decided in early 1684 that he would lead an expeditionary force through the northern islands to put an end to Chamorro resistance once and for all. While Quiroga and a large part of the Spanish militia were on this campaign in the north, a few disaffected chiefs from Guam took this opportunity to attack the greatly reduced garrison there. On July 24, 1684, a band of forty warriors entered the stockade under the pretense of attending Mass, attacked the Spanish force, and killed several of the defenders. Two Jesuits were slain and four others wounded in the assault. Fr. Manuel Solorzano, the mission superior, was stabbed several times in the head, had one of his hands covered, and finally was killed with a knife thrust to the throat. Br. Balthasar Dubois, a Dutch lay brother who had come to the mission five years earlier, had his skull crushed in the attack. One of those wounded was the Filipino Donado Felipe Songsong. Perhaps a dozen or so lay helpers also lost their lives in the assault.

As news of the attack on the fort spread throughout Guam, numerous uprisings broke out in the villages. Most of the Jesuit pastors were, by good fortune, already en route to Agana to attend a mission meeting later in the day. Only Fr. Teofilo de Angelis, the pastor of a village in northern Guam, failed to make it to safety. The priest was preparing to sail to Rota when two assailants sent by the local chief seized him and hanged him from the mast of the canoe, afterwards stripping his body and casting it into the sea.

Two other Jesuits working on Rota also lost their lives in the revolt. Fr. Augustin Strobach, who had arrived in the mission only three years before, was pursued by hostile canoes when he made for Guam at the news of the uprising and was forced to return to Rota. In early August he set out again, this time towards the north to bring news of the revolt to Quiroga, but was apprehended at Tinian and beaten to death. Strobach's colleague, Fr. Karl von Boranga, managed to continue his work on Rota for another month after Strobach's death before he was accosted on September 24, 1684, and stabbed and clubbed to death.

Another Jesuit, Fr. Pierre Coemans, had in the meantime joined a Spanish expedition sailing out of Saipan for the northernmost islands in the archipelago. When, on their return voyage, the Chamorro pilots overturned the canoes and drowned most of the soldiers, Coemans managed to save himself and made his way to Saipan to continue his work there. A year later, in July 1685, however, Coemans finally met a martyr's death when he was apprehended, tied to a tree, and killed with stones and spears.

With Coemans' death, the first and greatest age of martyrdom came to an end in the young Marianas mission. Twelve Jesuits and perhaps two dozen of their lost colleagues lost their lives for the sake of the gospel during the first two decades of missionary activity. After 1685, however, all but token resistance ended among the Chamorro people. With Quiroga's pursuit and punishment of those responsible for the assault on the fort in Guam, and with his pacification of the northern islands, peace was eventually established in the Marianas and the Jesuits worked unobstructed for the next century.

In subsequent years, three more Jesuits won martyrdom as they attempted to carry the gospel to the inhabitants of those uncharted islands to the south known at that time as the "Palaos." (Today those islands are called the western Caroline Islands.) Following a celebrated incident in which two Carolinian canoes drifted to the Philippines with thirty islanders in 1696, authorities in Manila made several unsuccessful attempts to discover these mysterious islands. Each of the attempted voyages failed, however, with some ending tragically in shipwreck and death. Finally, on November 30, 1710, the patache Trinidad; with three Jesuits aboard, sighted the tiny island of Sonsorol and drew up to send men ashore. Frs. Cortil and Luberon, both Flemish Jesuits who had been working in the Philippines, went ashore with the intention of returning to the ship before nightfall. In the meantime, however, the ship lost way to the strong currents and was unable to regain the island. It was two years before another Spanish ship was able to make its way back to Sonsorol, and no signs were found of the two priests or of the detachment of soldiers that had gone ashore with them. The Spanish could only assume that the priests were killed by the people at the instigation of a native castaway who was returning from the Philippines with them. This was later corroborated by the testimony of some islanders.

A second attempt was made to evangelize the western Carolines some years later. In early 1722 two more Carolinian canoes were swept to the shores of a Spanish colony-this time Guam rather than the Philippines. Fr. Gianantonio Cantova, a recent arrival to the mission, took up a special ministry to the castaways and developed a strong interest in accompanying them to their home islands to found a mission there. For ten years he was denied permission by the civil and religious authorities, until finally, in early 1731, he and Fr. Victor Walter were allowed to sail for the western Carolines to begin their mission. Within a few days of leaving Guam they arrived at Ulithi and immediately began preaching to the people. After three months, Fr. Walter was sent to Guam to obtain additional supplies and more manpower for the fledgling mission. When he returned two years later, after a succession of misfortunes, he learned that Cantova and the Spanish troops had been massacred by the people soon after Walter's departure in June 1731. Cantova was waylaid by a hostile group of Ulithians, dispatched with clubs and spears, and his chapel and house burned to the ground. Walter returned to Guam with this sad news, and the missionary venture to the western Carolines was abandoned.

Following the expulsion of the Society from Spanish realms in 1763, the Jesuits left Micronesia altogether. It was only in 1921, at the request of Japan, the new colonial ruler of the islands, that the Society returned to the area. During the 1920s and 1930s dozens of Spanish Jesuits labored in the islands unhampered, but at the outbreak of World War II in 194I conditions changed considerably. The military authorities, to whom the administration of the islands had reverted, did everything in their power short of outright threat to persuade the Jesuit missionaries to leave willingly. The Jesuits were interrogated and in some cases placed under house arrest, their freedom to exercise their ministry was severely curtailed, and all manner of additional obstacles were put in their way. The missionaries, like the other foreigners who happened to be in the islands at this time, were the object of wartime xenophobia and were suspected of spying and espionage.

By the summer of 1944, the Allied advance through the western Pacific was beginning to threaten the Japanese homeland itself. The sense of desperation was growing among the Japanese military command. In September 1944, only a short time before the American invasion of Palau, the three missionaries working on the nearby island group of Yap were brought to Palau to be interned. The Jesuits were Fr. Luis Blanco Suarez, Fr. Bernardo de Espriella, and Br. Francisco Hernandez. At their arrival in Palau they were imprisoned along with the three Jesuits working in Palau at the time: Fr. Elias Fernandez Gonzalez, Fr. Marino de la Hoz, and Br. Emilio del Villar.

There are conflicting stories as to what happened next. According to one account, the six Jesuits were confined to the house of a native in Koror; another version has it that the Jesuits were brought to Babeldoab and kept there in isolation for several months before their deaths. There is general agreement that, wherever they lived and for however long, the missionaries were compelled to endure harsh privations. They lacked adequate food and clothing, and suffered greatly from sores and illnesses. According to the results of an inquiry by American officers after the war, as communicated in a letter to the American Jesuit mission superior, the Jesuits were confined in a small house on Babeldoab for a few days. On September 18, the six missionaries together with four Palauans were summoned by the military police and driven some distance to a clearing in the jungle where a grave had already been prepared. The prisoners were forced to kneel at the side of the open grave and were shot in the head; the grave was then closed. The report goes on to state that sometime prior to the occupation of the island by American troops the bodies were dug up and cremated. Whatever the case, the bodies of the slain Jesuits were never found, nor was the site of their execution ever identified with certainty. On this day, the Palauan and Yapese people recall their slain missionaries with affection and revere them as martyrs for their apostolic work.

One other Jesuit, Br. Miguel Timoner Guadera, met a violent death at the hands of the Japanese during the final days of the war. Br. Timoner had worked for several years on Rota, where he had assisted Fr. Juan Pons until his death of a leg ulcer in 1944. Then he, along with five of the Catholics on Rota, were transported to Saipan and imprisoned for the next several months. All were accused of being enemy spies and were tortured in an attempt to force them to confess to their crises. Finally, one day in November 1944, Timoner and his five companions were beheaded and their bodies buried secretly.

Nearly forty years after the death of the last of these martyrs, Micronesia remains the apostolic field of Jesuit missionaries, today American rather than Spanish. It is a field fertilized by the blood of over twenty martyrs, a fact that is certainly in good measure responsible for whatever successes recent Jesuit work may have had.

LIST OF MICRONESIAN MARTYRS

Name Birth Death Manner of Death Cause
Louis de MEDINA Malaga, Spain 3 February 1637 Saipan, MI 29 January 1670 speared, clubbed  
Diego Luis de SANVITORES

Burgos, Spain

12 November 1627

Tumon, Guam, MI

2 April 1672

speared, knived

Introd.

Francisco ESQUERRA

Manila, Philippines 

4 October 1644

Ati, Guam, MI

2 February 1674

speared, clubbed

 
Pedro DIAZ

Avila, Spain

1574

Ritidian, Guam, MI

8 December 1675

stabbed with

knives

 

Antonio Maria de SAN

BASILIO

Catana, Sicily

1643

Upi, Guam, MI

12 January 1676

clubbed in head  
Sebastian de MONROY

Seville, Spain

1649

Sumay, Guam, MI

6 September 1676

speared, clubbed  
Manuel de SOLORZANO

Fregenel, Spain

25 December 1649

Agana, Guam, MI

24 July 1684

stabbed with

knives

 
Balthasar Dubgis

Tournai, Belgium

15 March 1654

Agana, Guam, MI

24 July 1684

skull crushed

by club

 
Teofilo de ANGELIS

Siena, Italy

15 January 1652

Ritidian, Guam, MI

24 July 1684

hanged  
Augustin STROBACH

Iglou, Moravia

12 March 1646

Tinian, MI

August 1684

beaten with clubs  
Karl von BORANGA

Vienna, Austria

8 July 1640

Rota, MI

24 September 1684

clubbed, speared  
Pierre COEMANS

Antwerp, Belgium

30 January 1638

Saipan, MI

July 1685

beaten to death  
Joseph CORTIL

Belle,

3 February 1675

Sonsorol, Caroline
Islands

December 1710

never found,
presumably killed

by natives

 
Jacques DUBERON

Lille,

30 December 1674

Sonsorol, Caroline
Islands

December 1710

never found,
presumably killed

by natives

 
Gianantonio CANTOVA

Intra, Lago Maggiore

15 March 1685

Ulithi, Caroline Islands

4 June 1731

clubbed and

speared

 
Bernardo de la ESPRIELLA

Pasto, Colombia

22 August 1890

Palau, Caroline Is.

18 September I944

shot by Japanese  
Luis BLANCO Suarez

Arucas, Canary Isl.

19 April I896

Palau, Caroline Is.

18 September I944

shot by Japanese  
Elias FERNANDEZ Gonzalez

Vegamian, Spain

13 December 1880

Palau, Caroline Is.

18 September I944

shot by Japanese  
Marino la HOZ del Canto

Leon, Spain

7 August 1886

Palau, Caroline Is.

18 September I944

shot by Japanese  
Francisco HERNANDEZ Escudero

Zafra, Spain

18 October 1887

Palau, Caroline Is.

18 September I944

shot by Japanese  
Emilio del VILLAR Blazquez

Villarejo del Valle, Spain

5 April 1893

Palau, Caroline Is.

18 September I944

shot by Japanese  
TIMONER Guadera

Manacor, Mallorca

1 November 1892

Rota, MI

November 1944

tortured and

beheaded by Japanese

 

Bibliography

a) Manuscript and Printed Sources

    1. C. le Gobien. Histoire des les Marianes, novellement converties a la Relegion Christianne. Paris, 1701.

    2. F. Garcia. Vida y martyrio de el venerable Padre Diego Luis de Sanvitores. Madrid, 1683.

    3. Correspondence on Jesuits slain during World War II, Archives of the diocese of the Caroline-Marshall Islands.

b) Secondary Sources

    4. H. Berganza, S.J. Cinco Anos de Guerra sobre la Mision de Marianas y Carolinas. El Siglo de las Misiones 374 (1947) 68-72; 375 (1947) 94-101; 377 (1947) 189-96.

    5. H. Bernard S.J. Les Iles Mariannes, Carolines et Palau. Monumenta Nipponica 7 (1943) 172-201.

    6. O. Calvo. The Apostle of the Marianas. Agana, 1977.

    7. F.X. Hezel S.J. Catholic Missions in the Caroline and Marshall Islands: A Survey of the Historical Materials. Journal of Pacific History 5 (1970) 213-227.

    8. F.X. Hezel S.J. From Conversion to Conquest: the Early Spanish Mission in the Marianas. Journal of Pacific History 17 (1982) 115-137. 9. R. Palma S.J. Flores de Martirio en la Mision de Carolinas. Espana Misionera (n.d.) 282-291.

Unpublished. 1983.

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