The attack came without warning. British Colonel James Moore along with fifty English troops and fifteen hundred Creek Indian mercenaries sacked the Spanish mission of La Concepcion de Ayubale with a ferocity that could only be born from vengeance. Tensions had flared since the failed siege of Castillo de San Marco in 1702, and now the British sought to reap their revenge from the soft underbelly of the Florida Panhandle where Spanish military presence was weak. Besides several poorly fortified barricades, nothing stood in the way of the oncoming invasion . . . or so it seemed. The Appalachee Catholics from mission San Luis in Tallahassee caught word of their sister mission’s plight. A small band of Indians decided to go out and meet the British horde head-on.
Leading this group of protectors was the youthful, charismatic, and highly regarded Antonio Cuipa, an inija (“noble/leader”) of the Apalachee nation, second only to the chief. Antonio was renowned, his name recognized even by the highest ranking officials of the Spanish empire. Born and raised in the Franciscan missions of Florida, he possessed a deep piety especially in his devotion to St. Joseph. Like the foster father of our Lord, the Indian too was a husband, father, and carpenter. He often led excursions to unevangelized tribes where he would preach the Gospel with great success. Being a talented musician, the Native American evangelized through music, taking his reed flute into the different villages playing and singing songs to dispose the residents for reception of the Catholic faith. When asked the secret to his evangelical achievement, Antonio simply answered, “Patience and perseverance.” Lieutenant Governor Manuel de Solana captures Antonio’s personality beautifully in a letter dated March of 1701: “All of this happiness and joy which this Don Antonio exudes in everything he does and accomplishes derives from his great faith and love for the things of the Church and the Catholic teaching.”
Another Spanish official in a letter sent to the nobility of Spain simply states, “[Antonio] was a Catholic man of great and mighty esteem.” This was the caliber of Native American Christians living in the Spanish missions, and this was the caliber of man Antonio Cuipa would soon prove himself to be.
La Concepcion de Ayubale was over a twenty mile run from San Luis. Along the way, Antonio and his companions stopped to see a Franciscan priest named Fr. Parga to receive absolution from their sins before confronting the British. After blessing the men, Fr. Parga told Antonio he was joining them for the defense of Ayubale. When Antonio protested, Fr. Parga declared, “I must go and die with my children!”
When Antonio and the others arrived, they found Ayubale in a state of chaos. The British attacked with overwhelming force. None were spared. Fr. Miranda, the local pastor along with twenty-six men had gathered the woman and children who had not been killed into the parish church where they sought to fend off the British with bows and arrows. The assault began at 7:00 a.m. that morning. It was now late afternoon.
Antonio and his small group of Indians were no match for the assailants. They were quickly captured. The British and Creek forces needed to find a way to humiliate these Catholic fools who attempted to stand in their way. As the aggressors looked around the burning rubble, they caught site of a series of wooden crosses stationed around the church. That was it! What better way to mock these men then have them die in the same way as their God.
The captors stripped Antonio and his companions of their clothing and tied them to the crosses. The men were tortured as they hung upon these wooden crucibles, the soles of their feet scorched off by fire and their bodies impaled with burning coals. The British teased Antonio as he died. Yet, amidst this cruel deprivation, Antonio never recanted the Catholic faith. Instead, he preached from the cross, asking God to forgive the men who were crucifying him and begging for the salvation of their souls. He also encouraged the other men crucified with him to remain steadfast in “the faith of their fathers.”
After several hours, Antonio felt his perseverance draining. He needed strength to endure the final moments of his agony. And, at that moment, everyone heard a cry from Antonio’s lips . . . he said he was gazing into the eyes of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She had come to console her suffering sons. This gave Antonio hope as he drew his final breath; our Lady was preparing a place for him and his companions with her divine Son.
The martyrdom of Antonio Cuipa and companions would be the beginning of the end for the Florida Missions. In the next several years, the British slaughtered thousands of Native Americans and left many more exiled from their homeland. The great “Golden Age” of Catholic Missions in Florida came to a violent demise. But, like all martyrs, Antonio’s sacrifice was not in vain. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” wrote Tertullian, and this is most certainly the case with the Florida Martyrs. Now, over three hundred years after the fact, the stories of these men, women, and children have been rediscovered and the cause for their canonization is progressing rapidly. I firmly believe the beatification and canonization of these first Christians in our country will lead to a revitalization of our faith and a reclamation of the Catholic history of the United States.