Fray Luis de Cancer, O.P.
Dominican Pioneer, Pacifist Preacher & Martyred Missionary
Proto-Martyr of Florida

On the eve of the 21st century, we Dominican friars of the Southern Province of St. Martin de Porres turn our minds to the 16th century to remember one of the pioneering evangelizers in our Order of Preachers -- fray Luis de Cancer, O.P. -- and his martyrdom in Florida's Tampa Bay on June 26, 1549.

Considered the Proto-Martyr of Florida, fray Luis de Cancer is the first in a series of Dominican, Franciscan and Jesuit martyr missionaries who gave their lives in bringing the Gospel to the peoples of the Spanish Province of Florida.

Fr. Luis de Cancer de Barbastro, O.P., was among the early members of the celebrated Dominican community in Santo Domingo (in what is now the Dominican Republic) on the island of Hispañola -- a community that called itself "the Holy Preaching" and that included fr. Antonio de Montesinos, O.P., the first defender of the rights of the indigenous peoples of the western hernisphere, and fr. Bartolome de las Casas, O.P., who was proclaimed the Protector of the Indians.

The unique contribution of fray Luis de Cancer is the pacifist approach he both exemplified and advocated for the evangelization of the peoples of the newly discovered continent. This Dominican approach enjoyed great success among the Mayan peoples in Guatemala and southern Mexico. The friars insisted on meeting the people on their own terms and without the presence of armed troops of the Spanish crown.

Information is scant about fray Luis' origins and early years. Historians debate about his place of birth, though there are some strong indications leading us to believe that he was born in the city of Barbastro, in the Kingdom of Aragon in Spain. Most probably, he entered the Order in the Priory in Huesca, a house of the Province of Aragon established in 1254. One of fray Luis' earliest chroniclers presents him as a friar of great intellectual ability destined for an academic career. Yet his apostolic zeal as a Friar Preacher moved him to abandon the academic world and become a preacher in the newly discovered hemisphere.

Fr. Luis left his Province of Aragon around October of 1518 to become a member of the newly formed Province of the Holy Cross of the Indies on the island of Hispanola now shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti. In 1521 he traveled with Montesinos to open a new priory in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he became its first prior.

Perhaps the most notable achievement of fray Luis was his role in the pacifist preaching project he began in 1542 in the territory of Guatemala then known as "Tuzulutlán" (the Land of War -- because the different Mayan groups of the region were in a constant state of war against any possible Spanish presence).

Dominican missionaries faced the challenge of finding some means to overcome the mistrust against any European, especially with those peoples who had experienced violent encounters.

Aware of the sensitivity of the Mayan peoples for music, they decided to use song as a first means of contact. The friars translated the content of their preaching into a rhythmic poetic form using the different languages of the region and employing images and idioms from the indigenous cultures.

A contemporary chronicler tells us about fr. Luis de Cancer's exceptional ability to master the different Mayan dialects of the area. A document of his day accredited fray Luis as the composer of Christian canticles in the quiché language of Sacapulas and the q'eqchi' of Cobán.

After having spread their songs through some merchant Mayans who had free access to the area, and learning of the positive acceptance of their message, it was decided that not all the missionaries, but just one, should go as an ambassador.

This role of Ambassador for Christ fell to fr. Luis de Cancer, who willingly accepted the challenge, even though he was aware of the high risk to his life. The success of his preaching opened the way for the mission to the entire Land of War -- which soon was referred to by Bartolome de las Casas, who became bishop of nearby Chiapas, as "La Tierra de la Verapaz" -- the Land of the True Peace. Thus, this pacifist approach to evangelization had proved itself to be a valid and effective means.

For four years he ministered with incredible success in these territories, as attested to by Las Casas in his 1545 pastoral visitation. In 1546, fray Luis asked his Vicar Provincial for permission to return to Spain again to recruit even more missionaries. After returning to Spain to recruit more missionaries, fray Luis returned with six Franciscan friars to Coban, in the heart of the Verapaz territories. He had brought along with him from Mexico a group of musicians who would assist him in his ministry.

After meeting with Las Casas in what is today San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, he traveled with Bishop Las Casas to Mexico City. The Spanish population of Chiapas was already in open opposition to Las Casas and the implementation of the "Nuevas Leyes de Indias" -- the New Laws of Emperor Charles V, which gave full rights to the native populations.

The evangelization of Florida had become a growing concern among the Dominicans in Mexico. Missionaries traveling along with four military expeditions had failed in their resolve to establish a missionary presence in the Florida peninsula.

During his stay in Mexico, fray Luis had ample opportunity to discuss with other Dominican missionaries about the possibilities of the pacifist approach to the evangelization of Florida.

In 1547, fr. Luis de Cancer traveled to the Spanish city of Aranda del Duero, a town near Caleruega, St. Dominic's birthplace, to meet with the Council of the Indies, the royal board responsible for all the decisions concerning the new Spanish territories in America and Asia. Fray Luis offered himself to the Council to lead a pacifist missionary expedition to Florida. The Council members were reluctant to grant this petition, but the success of the Dominican efforts in La Verapaz territory of Guatemala was pivotal in obtaining their consent. A royal decree of December 7, 1547, gave them approval and financial support.

In a letter fray Luis wrote to Las Casas and an official of the Council of the Indies, he remarked that the crown understood the recent history of exploration of the peninsula: "...four tyrants had gone to Florida who, instead of accomplishing any good, had done so much harm, [that it was] thought advisable to assign its pacific conquest to friars and to give them assistance in their undertaking."

Another document of December 28 of that year ordered that all the Indians who had been captured in Florida as slaves were to be surrendered to the missionaries to accompany them and be their translators. This was a gesture intended to prove the good will of the expedition.

Fr. Luis found it difficult to recruit friars capable of accompanying him on this new enterprise. He was looking for preachers willing "to eat raw corn or tortillas or biscuits or hard, moldy and smelly tamales, ready to drink swamp waters, and to eat wild fruits, having all these a presents from God's hand moving them to praise and blessing."

He found nobody in Spain willing to accept the challenge. Only after his return to Mexico would he find some volunteers among the seasoned Dominican missionaries of the Mexican Province. Even the Prior Provincial, fr. Domingo de Santa Maria, was willing to go, but his council opposed the idea. In the end, fr. Gregorio de Beteta, fr. Juan Garcia, fr. Diego de Tolosa and an oblate named Fuentes were the elected ones.

The friars left Veracruz, Mexico in the late spring of 1549 aboard a ship called "Santa Maria de la Encina," arriving in Havana some days later. They stocked up on provisions and the Governor gave them a Christian Indian slave named Magdalena to be their translator.

A few days after they arrived at the coast of western Florida, the Dominicans landed close to Espiritu Santo Bay. They were well received by the first Indians whom they met (who are variously identified as members of the Tocabaga, Timucuan and Caloosa Nations). This open welcome did not last long, however. After a few days, the Indians became more demanding and the missionaries had to appease them with presents. The Indians were closely observing them, and assessing their strength.

Suddenly, the Indian interpreter, Magdalena, fr. Diego cle Tolosa, and the oblate brother Fuentes disappeared from the shore. When inquiring about them, they were told that they were visiting with the tribal chief and would be back soon.

One of the sailors tried to reach shore and was violently apprehended by the natives. The next day some Indians approached the Dominicans with the intention of trading food for trinkets. Later that same day, a Spaniard -- who had been captured during the Fernando de Soto expedition of 1539-43 and was kept as a slave by the Indians - approached them and notified them that the two friars had been killed. He reported that he had seen their tonsured scalps. These two friars were the first two Dominican martyrs in our present United States.

The news caused turmoil among the sailors and missionaries who wanted to return to Mexico at once. However, fray Luis de Cancer opposed this idea. He reminded his companions of their commitment to this missionary project.

He asked the ship's captain to avoid from then on stopping at any place where the Spaniards had previously visited. The captain momentarily agreed with fray Luis' orders but later ignored them and steered the ship to Tampa Bay, where he knew that fresh water could be found. This disobedience would lead to the same failure as in Cumana (in what is now Venezuela), where the whole pacifist effort had failed because the prudential norms given by the leader of the expedition were ignored.

Fray Luis spent June 24 writing letters and gathering all the gifts he wanted to bring along for his next attempt. High winds and rough seas delayed his next move. On June 26, he risked his life in the rough waters, jumped overboard and swam ashore. As he arrived, he realized he was being watched by some Indians, who rapidly retreated to a small hill.

Luis de Cancer fell to his knees and waited. On board, fr. Gregorio called to him with a plea to come back, but fr. Luis stood up and approached the Indians on the small rise. As he arrived at the hill, an Indian came and grabbed him by the arm. Then, the other Indians approached. One violently pulled off the hat he was wearing and another proceeded to hit him on the head with a wooden club, His last words, "adjuva me, Domine" ("Help me, Lord"), were later recorded by fr. Gregorio in his testimony about the happenings. The two surviving friars, Gregorio de Beteta and Juan Garcia and the rest of the sailors left Tampa Bay on June 28, 1549, arriving at San Juan de Ulua, Mexico, on July 19.

The news of the martyrdom of fr. Luis de Cancer and his companions spread quickly among the Mexican friars, who immediately considered him a martyr. Those who opposed the pacifist approach to evangelization tried to use his death as an example of the failure of this approach, requesting violent responses from the Spanish crown.

The elderly Las Casas -- now residing in one of the Madrid priories -- hastened to respond to the arguments, especially those of the humanist, Juan Gines de Sepulveda, who supported the violent ways of the conquistadors. Las Casas thought of Luis de Cancer as a saint who would be an intercessor who would support future pacifist projects in Florida.

Now, 450 years after the martyrdom of these Dominican friars, fray Luis de Cancer is still an example of Dominicans preaching the Gospel and its justice: a preacher of the Word not afraid of the consequences of his calling, a Dominican committed to the way of peace and enculturating the message of the Gospel.

The People of Tampa and the Church of the Diocese of St. Petersburg have honored the memory of fr. Luis cle Cancer for nearly 150 years. For example, in 1859, Bishop Augustine Verot of the Diocese of St. Augustine (which then included Tampa in its territory) named the new parish in downtown Tampa "St. Louis, in honor of King Louls IX of France and also in honor of Luis [de] Cancer, martyred in Tampa 310 years earlier," according to Michael J. McNally in Catholic Parish Life on Florida's West Coast, 1860-1968 (p. 22). McNally notes that the "connection with fr. Cancer, O.P., shows Verot's keen interest in Florida's Spanish missionary heritage."

More recently, in 1965, the Hillsborough County Historical Society erected a historical marker on Bayshore Boulevard on Tampa Bay, reading: "Dominican Proto-Martyrs of America - A.D. 1549 + A.D. 1965: Near this spot on Tampa Bay, Father Louis Cancer and three religious in search of a mission site in the lands of the Timucuan and Caloosa Nations under Royal Order of Prince Philip II of Spain suffered martyrdom at the hands of hostile Indians."

A splendid new church -- Espiritu Santo in Safety Harbor (in the northwest corner of Tampa Bay) -- features a dramatic stained glass window by New York artist Vito Rambusch in its entryway of the martyrdom of Luis de Cancer.

Earlier in 1999, in conjunction with the 450th anniversary of the Dominican's martyrdom, the Diocese of St. Petersburg inaugurated the "Luis Cancer Distinguished Priestly Service Award, given annually in memory of the protomartyr of Florida to priests who best exemplify selfless and dedicated service to the people of God."

The celebration of fray Luis de Cancer, O.P., is being marked by the Southern Dominican Province of St. Martin de Porres by two major events on June 3, 1999, in anticipation of the 450th anniversary of his death on June 26, 1549.

A symposium on the significance of the life and martyrdom of fray Luis de Cancer, O.P., at the University of Tampa (from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. in Fletcher Lounge of Plant Hall, 401 West Kennedy Blvd.) chaired by church historian fr. Alberto Rodriguez, O.P., Prior Provincial of the Southern Dominican Province of St. Martin de Porres, with a paper on the 16th century Dominican missionary environment by Southern Dominican fr. Daniel Ulloa Herrero, O.P., Ph.D., a church historian who is a campus minister at Columbia University, and a presentation on martyrdom in the modern world by Irish Dorrunican theologian fr. Paul Murray, O.P., Ph.D., of the Angelicum in Rome.

A 6 p.m. Memorial Mass for Luis de Cancer and Companions celebrated by Bishop Robert Lynch of the Diocese of St. Petersburg (at Sacred Heart Church, 509 N. Florida Avenue at Twiggs Street in Tampa) with concelebrants Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly, O.P., of Louisville, KY, and fr. Rodriguez, who will preach the homily. A candlelight procession to the place of fr. Luis de Cancer's martyrdom on Tampa Bay is planned for later that evening, following a banquet addressed by Archbishop Kelly on challenges to Dominicans witnessing to the Gospel in the future.

-- fr. Alberto Rodriguez, O.P.
Prior Provincial
Southern Dominican Province
of St.Martin de Porres

Southern Dominican Province of St. Martin de Porres
"And the preaching continues"

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