John de Padilla


The Servant of God Father John De Padilla

Just fifty years after the Franciscan Tertiary Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, the Franciscan missionary Father John de Padilla died on the plains of Kansas as the protomartyr of the United States. Born about 1492 in Andalusia, southern Spain, he entered the ranks of the Franciscans there, and in 1526 he departed for New Spain or Mexico to join the pioneer Franciscan missionaries who had come only a few years earlier. For more than a decade he was very successful in making good Christians of the natives, especially in the states of Hidalgo and Jalisco.

In 1540 he and six other Franciscans accompanied Coronado on his famous expedition to New Mexico. The next year he went along to the Quivira Indians in Kansas. When Coronado and his army returned to Mexico in the spring of 1542, Father John, with some companions, including the Portuguese soldier Andres Docampo and two Franciscan Indian Tertiary Brothers from Mexico, went back to the Quiviras in order to preach the Gospel to them. Within a few months he succeeded in converting a large number of these Indians.

Blessed Father John (Juan) de Padilla

In the fall of 1542, despite the objections of some of the Quiviras, Father John decided to carry the Gospel message also to the Kaws, enemies of the Quiviras. A band of Quiviras followed him and killed him on the way.

The historian Mota Padilla gives the following account of his martyrdom: “The friar left Quivira with a small escort, against the will of the Indians of that village, who loved him as their father. But at one day’s journey he was met by Indians on the warpath; and knowing their evil intentions, he requested the Portuguese to flee, since the latter was on horseback, and to take with him the oblates (Brothers Luke and Sebastian) and the boys, who, being young, were able to run and save themselves. Being defenseless, they all fled as he desired; and the blessed Father, kneeling down, offered up his life, which he sacrificed for the good of the souls of others.”

“He thus realized his most ardent desire – the felicity of martyrdom by the arrows of these barbarians, who afterward threw his body into a pit and covered it with innumerable rocks. The Portuguese and the Indians, returning to Quivira, gave notice there of what had happened; and the natives felt it deeply on account of the love which they had for their Father. They would have regretted it still more, had they been able to appreciate the extent of their loss.”

“The day of his death is not known, although it is regarded as certain that it occurred in the year 1542. Don Pedro de Tobar, in some papers which he wrote and left at the town of Culiacan (Mexico), states that the Indians had gone out to kill this blessed Father in order to obtain his vestments and that there was a tradition of miraculous signs connected with his death, such as inundations, comets, balls of fire, and the sun becoming darkened.”

Docampo and the two lay brothers, after being held as prisoners for ten months, escaped, and amid indescribable hardships trudged some twenty thousand miles through desert country back to northern Mexico. Some nine years later they reached Tampico and reported the glorious story of Father John de Padilla’s martyrdom. Brother Luke later won the martyr’s crown in Durango, in about 1565.

Two other Franciscan brothers, John of the Cross, and Louis Descalona, who had remained as missionaries in New Mexico when Coronado left, were likewise put to death by pagan Indians in the latter part of the year 1542. Thus, they share with Father John de Padilla the honor of being the protomartyrs of what is now the United States. Bishop J. Henry Tihen of Denver declared that people had reported to him the granting of favors through the intercession of Father John de Padilla.

By loving our neighbor, we can prove to ourselves and to others that we truly love God. There are other signs which indicate that we love God, such as doing God’s will in all things, love of prayer, a tender conscience, and the spirit of sacrifice; but the surest proof is the love of our fellow man. “If we love one another,” writes St. John, “God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us.” (1 Jn. 4,12) A little farther on the Apostle of Love adds: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar. For, how can he who does not love his brother, whom he sees, love God whom he does not see? And this commandment we have from Him, that he who loves God should love his brother also.” (1 Jn. 4,20)

*from The Franciscan Book of Saints by Father Marion A. Habig, OFM

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