By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Editor | Published December 9, 2021
ATLANTA—Several churches in the Archdiocese of Atlanta have commissioned original works of art depicting the Georgia Martyrs—five Franciscans who died on Georgia’s coast in the late 16th century.
The Spanish friars ministered to the native people, the Guale. By 1597, five missions had been established in the coastal region where Franciscans preached the Gospel, learned the Indigenous language and lived with the population.
According to historical information and research compiled by the Diocese of Savannah, Gaule leader Juanillo opposed Friar Pedro de Corpa’s defense of and teaching about the sacrament of marriage. During an Indigenous uprising, Friar de Corpa was killed on Sept. 14, 1597. Four of the friar’s companions—Blas, Miguel, Antonio and Francisco—were also murdered in the following days.
The Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome is studying the friars’ cause for canonization.
Father Charles Byrd, pastor of Mary Our Queen Church in Norcross, has done much research on the lives and ministry of the martyred Franciscans.
“I was a seminarian when I first learned of them,” said Father Byrd. “I tell the story again and again and again.”
Father Byrd previously served as pastor of Our Lady of the Mountains in Jasper, where he shared his interest in the history of the faith and sacred art to inspire parishioners.
Our Lady of the Mountain has an icon of St. Francis and the Georgia Martyrs, painted by artist Dan Nichols, who captured details of the men through study and prayer.
Other parishes have secured artists, many through grant funds, to create original pieces featuring the friars.
“We are asking artists to help us imagine what they looked like,” said Father Byrd.
He suggests for all sacred art, churches and individuals should consider this alternative rather than purchasing reproductions that are mass produced.
“There are artists who are competent, Catholic artists,” he said.
On Sunday, Sept. 26, Father Byrd presented a program on the Martyrs at Mary Our Queen. The parish received an original work of art depicting the missionaries in mid-September. It is a pen and ink on vellum by Catholic artist Daniel Mitsui. This art form is carried from the monastic tradition of hand copying Scriptures. Mitsui was born in Georgia and has had pieces commissioned by the Vatican.
St. Michael Church, Gainesville, and Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta, have commissioned pieces for the parishes. St. Michael’s painting is being undertaken by artist Clorinda Galdos Bell and it will be her third painting of Pedro de Corpa and companions. A native of Peru, Galdos Bell’s other Georgia Martyrs pieces were blessed and placed at Our Lady of the Mountains and St. Francis of Assisi Church in Cartersville. Holy Spirit’s painting, still in progress, is by artist Pamela Gardner.
Other pieces depicting the friars in the archdiocese include those displayed at St. Anthony Church, Blue Ridge (Artist Mona Nelson); and St. Luke Church, Dahlonega (Artist Teresa Satola Coey).
Virginia-based artist, Margaret “Betsy” Farr completed a watercolor painting of Pedro de Corpa and companions and donated it to the Purification Heritage Center in Sharon, a place where visitors can learn about the early Catholic history of Georgia.
Archbishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, OFM Conv., of Atlanta, received a painting in September made possible through a grant. The painting by Jim Janknegt of Texas is in the Chancery lobby of the archdiocese in Smyrna and provides an opportunity for visitors to learn about the missionaries. It incorporates many Christian symbols to help tell the story such as a sand dollar and birds.
During his time as Bishop of Savannah, Archbishop Hartmayer worked to advance the canonization cause of the Georgia Martyrs, first promoted by his predecessors Bishop Raymond Lessard and Bishop Kevin Boland.
The archbishop attended a statue blessing on the grounds of the Nativity of Our Lady Church in Darien Oct. 9. Bishop Stephen D. Parkes of Savannah blessed a bronze sculpture of the five venerable friars. The sculpture is by Timothy Schmalz, best known for his homeless Jesus installed in several cities worldwide and for “Angels Unawares,” a life-size sculpture depicting migrants and refugees crowded on a boat installed in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican.
Father Byrd encourages every Catholic Church in Georgia to add an original image or depiction of these Servants of God because of their courage and its message for the faithful today.
“These are holy people who lived a long time ago,” he said.
Their stories are unique, said the priest, but what’s important is how “they gave their lives for the Gospel.”
To learn about the Georgia Martyrs canonization cause, visit www.thegeorgiamartyrs.org. Materials on the Franciscans, who worked for the spiritual well-being of the Guale people, are available in English and Spanish for adults and children.