Luis Cancer de Barbastro or Luis de Cancer (1500 – June 26, 1549) was a Dominican priest and pioneer Spanish missionary to the New World. He undertook a non-violent approach to converting the American Indians to Christianity, and had significant success in this regard in the Caribbean and later in Guatemala. In 1549 he continued his mission work in Florida, an area already ravaged by previous explorers, and was killed on the shores of Tampa Bay. After his death he was regarded as a martyr of the Catholic Church.
Fray de Cancer came to the New World in 1518 and worked successfully for some time among the native peoples of Puerto Rico and Hispaniola. He then ventured to the mainland and had particular success in Guatemala. A disciple of the famed Indian protector, Bartolomé de las Casas, Father de Cancer's efforts were so successful in an area that was known for its bellicose natives, that it was renamed the “Province of True Peace.” He believed that aggression and violence were counter-productive to the spread of the Gospel and that the native peoples needed to be treated with dignity. He had great success in pacifying the Indians whom more violent methods had failed to subdue. He upheld the cause of the natives at an ecclesiastical assembly held in Mexico in 1546.
Florida expedition and death
Following his missionary success in Guatemala, Cancer proposed a peaceful mission to Florida. The peninsula had already been ravaged by the expeditions of Panfilo Narváez and Hernando de Soto and was regarded as very hostile to Westerners, and Cancer argued that further violence would never bring about its conversion and submission. In 1547, King Charles V approved Cancer's Florida mission. However, the royal decree stipulated that the mission land at la Florida's upper East Coast, avoiding hostile territory in southern Florida and the Gulf Coast where earlier conquistadors had gone.
Cancer recruited fellow Dominicans Gregorio de Beteta, Diego de Tolosa, Juan Garcia, and a certain Brother Fuentes. Leaving Vera Cruz, they reached Havana in 1549. There, they took on a converted Florida Indian, Magdalena, a "highly recommended" interpreter. The expedition then left for Florida on a caravel captained by Juan de Arena. Despite the warnings to avoid the Gulf Coast, Arena took them to an area south of Tampa Bay, only miles from where the previous expeditions had landed. There, they encountered a group of apparently peaceful and receptive Indians, who told them about the many populous villages of the Tocobaga chiefdom around Tampa Bay. Perceiving the possibility of goodwill, the expedition split, with Magdalena, Diego de Tolosa, Brother Fuentes, and an unknown sailor joining the Indians on the half-day's land route, and Cancer returning to the caravel to meet them at the bay.
The caravel reached Tampa Bay on June 23, 1549, however, only Magdalena and a group of Indians greeted them. Magdalena, now "much changed" and wearing Indian attire, told Cancer that she had convinced the local chief that the friars were peaceful, and that the other Spaniards were now his guests. Cancer and the others returned to the caravel that evening, and on board they found Juan Munos, a sailor who had been enslaved by the Indians years before but now escaped. Munos indicated that the Tocobaga had killed the two friars and enslaved the sailor. Beteta and Garcia wanted to flee immediately and sail for the East Coast, however Cancer refused to leave a land "hallowed by the life blood" of his compatriots. The next day, the three men rowed to shore, where they saw a group of hostile Indians, and Cancer exited the boat. He waded to shore and prayed for a while. Upon rising, he was brought to the group and beaten to death with clubs.
More recent recognition
Though not a canonized saint, he is nevertheless regarded as the Proto-martyr of Florida. In 1860, Bishop Augustin Verot decided that the first parish on Florida’s West Coast should be named St. Louis Church in his honor. Likewise, in 1918 Fr. de Cancer's likeness was installed as part of a large stained glass window at the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer (New York) run by the Dominican Order of priests. In 1998 the Diocese of St. Petersburg established the Fr. Luis de Cancer Distinguished Priestly Service Award to be given annually to a priest of the Diocese of St. Petersburg who best exemplifies selfless and dedicated service to the people of God. Espiritu Santo Catholic Church in Safety Harbor, Florida which is not far from the location of his death, also has a stained glass window that depicts de Cancer's martyrdom. In 2011 the diocese placed a Catholic Heritage Marker at the main entrance of that church, acknowledging both his and other early Catholic missionary efforts in the Tampa Bay area.
- Bunson, Matthew (2001). The Catholic Almanac's Guide to the Church. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor. p. 54. ISBN 9780879739140.
- Burnett, Gene. Florida's Past, volume 1. Pineapple Press. p. 155. ISBN 1561641154. Retrieved October 16, 2012.
- Burnett, Gene. Florida's Past, volume 1. Pineapple Press. p. 156. ISBN 1561641154. Retrieved October 16, 2012.
- Burnett, Gene. Florida's Past, volume 1. Pineapple Press. pp. 156–158. ISBN 1561641154. Retrieved October 16, 2012.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Luis Cancer de Barbastro - Catholic Encyclopedia article
- McNally, Michael J. (1996). Catholic Parish Life on Florida's West Coast. Catholic Media Ministry. ISBN 0-9649046-0-8.
- Gannon, Michael V. (1965) The Cross in the Sand: The Early Catholic Church in Florida, 1513- 1870. Gainesville, FL. University of Florida Press. ISBN 0-8130-0776-3.