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The first Christian martyr in present-day USA

2017 marked the 410th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, VA, the first permanent settlement in America. The year 2020 will mark the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims, which is the first Christian-inspired settlement in America. Yet as auspicious as the settlements of 1607 and 1620 are, they were not the first introductions of Christianity in America.

This may sound bizarre, since the settlements of Jamestown and by the Pilgrims receive so much attention, but Christianity was introduced to the new land (which would be called the USA) more than ninety years before, when Ponce de Leon "discovered" Florida (in 1513); his exploration party included Catholic priests. The first Christian martyr in America occurred around the year 1544, more than sixty years before the settlement of Jamestown. And you will be amazed where this European Christian missionary was killed: in present-day Kansas. Read on to discover the story of Father Juan de Padilla.

Juan (1500? to 1543?) was born in Spain and became a Franciscan friar. He decided to travel to Mexico in his late twenties, and arrived around 1528. Once there he made missionary trips throughout Mexico. He was also a military chaplain for awhile; in that position he worked against violence toward the native populations. He founded a monastery in Mexico probably in the late 1530s. In 1540 he resigned from the position as superior of the monastery to join with Coronado (1510-1554) as he explored the future southwestern USA.

While Juan was intent on spreading Christianity, Coronado was concerned with finding the fable Seven Cities which supposedly were made of gold. Juan (with Coronado, 300 soldiers, and 1000 Mexican natives) left Mexico in 1540 and entered present-day New Mexico. Coronado found no gold. He sent search parties out; eventually one of the exploration parties reached the Grand Canyon. Some biographers say that Juan was a part of the Grand Canyon exploration party.

Coronado met a native American named "Turk," who told of a land of gold. Coronado and about thirty men on horses, including Juan and Turk, left in search of this fabled land. Once they arrived in present-day Kansas, all they found were clay huts of the Quiviran Indians. Coronado had Turk strangled and then he and his party left and traveled southeast toward present-day New Mexico.

In 1543 Juan and a few others decided to return to Kansas to preach to the Wichita. At some point, probably while in Kansas close to where he had been with Coronado, Juan and his small party were attacked and killed by the Wichita. The exact date of the attack plus the location are unknown. Supposedly Juan’s body was thrown into a pit; it has not been discovered.

Because of this, Juan has the distinction of being known as the protomartyr of the USA. ("Proto-" means first; the first Christian martyr in the present-day USA would be the protomartyr.) A statue of Juan was erected in Harington, Kansas.

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