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Twenty meters beneath the surface of the crystal blue waters of the Canary Islands, 40 rock-hewn crosses, each standing on a sand and rock pedestal, offer a solemn memorial to 40 Jesuit martyrs, tortured by privateers and tossed into the sea.
It was the year 1570 and two priests, 23 novices, 7 students and 8 collaborators were part of an expedition of nearly 100 people on seven vessels, three carrying the Jesuits, all headed from Lisbon to Brazil.
The soon-to-be martyrs were just youths — all between the ages of 15 and 30, the majority from Portugal (32) and eight Spaniards. One was a nephew of St. Teresa of Avila.
They were led by Father Ignacio de Azevedo, the Portuguese-born Jesuit provincial of the Portuguese mission in Brazil, who had returned to Portugal to recruit missionaries.
Sailing into martyrdom
From Madeira Island, father north and closer to Lisbon, one ship of the expedition needed to bring cargo toward the North Africa shore, making a stop at the Canary Islands.
The area was known to be occupied by French Huguenot Calvinist corsairs, and Father Ignacio knew that they might be sailing into martyrdom. He asked his shipmates if they were prepared; four asked to leave the vessel and were replaced with four others.
Landing at Tazacorte, they were able to celebrate the Eucharist at the hermitage of Our Lady of Sorrows.
According to legend, when celebrating what would be his last Mass on the island, as Father Ignacio consumed the Precious Blood he had a vision of his glorious martyrdom. He was so affected by the vision that he bit the chalice, leaving the mark of his teeth in it. (The chalice is still at the Parish of St. Michael the Archangel in Tazacorte.)
Given their impending death, Fr. Ignacio left in Tazacorte the relics he had been entrusted by the pope to take to Brazil. He took with him, though, a small image of Our Lady the pope had given him.
As the missionaries continued their journey, the ship with the Jesuits was attacked by the corsairs. Father Ignacio took the image of Our Lady in his hands, and encouraged his young companions to give their lives for Christ.
The missionaries were stabbed and tossed into the sea, some still alive. Father Ignacio, clutching the image of Our Lady, was pierced by a sword and stabbed twice more.
Before dying, Father Ignacio said, “I die for the holy Catholic Church and what She teaches.” And he told his companions: “Don’t be afraid. Give thanks for this mercy of the Lord. I’m going on ahead and I’ll wait for you in heaven.” The day was July 15.
They are known as the Martyrs of Brazil, since they were headed to the missions there, or as the Martyrs of Tazacorte.