Catholic Pioneers of America – Father Peter Martinez, S.J.

Article

The First Jesuit Who Landed in the New World. Died A. D. 1566.

Father Peter Martinez, superior of the first band of Jesuits that trod the soil of America, was born in 1533 at Feruel, a little village in the north of Spain. While yet a mere boy, he consecrated himself to Heaven by a vow of perpetual chastity. He entered the Society of Jesus for which at first he felt an aversion and soon became noted for virtue and learning.

When Menendez undertook the conquest of Florida, in 1565, he asked and obtained some Jesuit missionaries. Father Martinez was appointed superior. Owing to an unexpected delay, however, the Fathers did not sail with the Admiral, but took passage, several months later, in another expedition. Before departing, Father Martinez addressed a long letter to the celebrated Saint Francis Borgia, then General of the Society of Jesus. “By the mercy of God,” he writes, “I undertake this voyage with courage, and with entire confidence in His grace, having often devoted my life and my blood to His service in the mission which obedience assigns me. Rest assured, dear Father, that we shall employ all our strength, with the assistance of divine grace, in bringing those provinces to the knowledge of their Creator and Redeemer that the souls redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus Christ may not perish forever. . . .”

“Gladly, indeed, would we have received the benediction of our most Holy Father Pius V, humbly prostrate at his feet. But as this was not in our power, we were sufficiently consoled by the letter which informed us that he wished us well, and, though absent, conferred upon us especial favors; and your Paternity can assure him, in our name, that besides myself who am bound to him by the vow of my profession faithful sons of the Holy Roman Church are about to depart for the acquisition of a new flock, for which end they are ready, with the aid of divine grace, to shed their blood; and they will account it a very great favor of God to lay down their lives for the spiritual advancement of those whom they may gain to Christ.”

When the vessel in which the Fathers sailed approached the coast of Florida, it separated from the rest of the squadron, taking a northern direction. The Captain on nearing the shore desired a few men to land in a yawl, and explore the country. All refused to hazard their lives among the fierce savages. Finally, about a dozen Belgians and Spaniards offered to comply, in case Father Martinez was allowed to accompany them. He was informed of this. The fearless priest, moved by charity, was the first to leap into the boat. The exploring party landed, but had scarcely done so, when a sudden storm arose, driving the ship which they had left far from the shore.

The position of the castaways was extremely perilous. Far and wide nothing met their gaze but a dreary wilderness on one side the rough and threatening ocean, on the other vast and unknown solitudes. On this savage coast they waited ten days, thinking that perhaps some other vessel might present itself. “Occasionally they wandered about,” says Tanner, “to gather a few herbs, Father Martinez at their head, bearing the image of Christ crucified, and, as some of his companions afterwards related, performing prodigies of charity.”

Would space permit, pages might be filled with the adventures of the brave Jesuit and his sorely tried companions in their efforts to reach a Spanish settlement. At one of the rivers which they crossed, the kindness of Father Martinez in waiting for two tardy Belgians caused his own death. Rushing to the boat, a troop of hostile savages seized the heroic priest, forced him on shore, and began their murderous work. With hands uplifted to Heaven, he received the repeated blows of a heavy club until life was extinct. His death occurred on the 28th of September, 1566, within about three leagues of the mouth of the Saint John’s River. And thus the good and fearless Father Peter Martinez, the first Jesuit who stepped on the soil of America, baptized it with his martyr-blood.

note – The Cause for Canonization of Father Pedro has opened as one of The Martyrs of la Florida Missions

MLA Citation

  • John O’Kane Murray, M.A., M.D. “Father Peter Martinez, S.J., The First Jesuit Who Landed in the New World”. The Catholic Pioneers of America, 1881. CatholicSaints.Info. 25 September 2018. Web. 14 November 2018. <>