Tel: 671-472-6116 |  Fax: 671-477-3519
196 Cuesta San Ramon Ste B, Hagåtña, GU 96910-4334

Blessed Diego Luis de San Vitores

Diego Luis de San Vitores was born into a noble family in Burgos, a city in the northern part of Spain, in 1627.

Spaniards were rough people, all of them bearded, with iron helmets, guns, and the smell of powder on them. All of these Spaniards had names like Rodriguez, Perez, Lopez o Hernandez, and they were mounted on big horses and wore armor, with a saber in their hands. Some of them may have been priests or missionaries in black cassocks with crosses held high.  Of course, some of us may even think of more contemporary figures—soccer players or matadors perhaps. These are the images that you or your children may have in mind when the word “Spaniards” is mentioned. But the Spaniards who arrived in Guam in 1668 were altogether different.

To be a “Spaniard” in the Seventeenth Century, whatever one’s real ethnic origin, meant primarily to owe fidelity to two kings and two queens. These two kings were the King of Spain and the King of the Universe, Christ. The two queens were the Queen of Spain and the Queen of Heavens, the Virgin Mary. The language that a person spoke, the place he was born, and the parents that conceived him were secondary issues. What really defined a person as a Spaniard was to reverence and follow the laws issued by these Majesties, because, at least in those years, the sun never set on the Spanish Empire.

Among the “Spaniards” who arrived to Guam in 1668, more than half of the troops and catechists were actually Filipinos, many of them Pampangan and Visayan. In fact, the captain of the troops during the early years was a Filipino by the name of Juan de la Cruz, and one of the first catechists to die a martyr was a Cebuano named Calungsod—today Saint Pedro.

Among these “Spaniards” were also some from New Spain, Mexico, probably mostly mestizos, or mixed bloods. There were also some peninsulares, men from the Iberian peninsula—or Castilians. The first priests were almost all Castilians, but soon Jesuits began arriving from Belgium, Italy, France and Bohemia. Soon the term “Spaniard” was expanded to include even the children of those Filipinos, Mexicans or Castilians who married local women.

Some sources may specify the ethnic origin of the soldiers, catechists or priests, it is true. But in the Spanish worldview, the world was divided the world between Catholics and non-Catholics Christians—between subjects of the King of Spain and all others. It is true that Castilians enjoyed a higher status, but it is also true to say that all the subjects of the king were Spaniards. To see the past as our ancestors saw it, we must try to wear the glasses that the people in those years wore.


By David Atienza


The simplest answer to that question is that San Vitores came to the Marianas from the Philippines, where he had been working for the previous six years. But to reach the Marianas, the mission field that was his great love, meant crossing the Pacific, landing in Mexico to await the next galleon, and re-crossing the Pacific to Guam. The Marianas may lie only a few hundred miles east of the Philippines, but it could take a year or longer to make the passage in the 1600s.

Diego Luis de San Vitores was born into a noble family in Burgos, a city in the northern part of Spain, in 1627. His father held an important job in the city and was well connected with the Spanish royal court. Like so many others of that age, the San Vitores family pledged itself to the service of two kings–the King of Spain and Christ the King.

Even so, Diego’s father was shocked when his youngest son told him of his desire to become a Jesuit. Despite his bad eyesight, young Diego could look forward to a promising career in government, thanks to his family connections and native intelligence. Besides, his father needed someone to manage the estate and carry on the family name.

At first, his father did everything possible to discourage Diego from entering the Jesuits. He even had him sent off to a friend’s house where he was put under guard for fear that he would run off and pursue his vocation. Eventually, however, his father relented and gave his blessing to his son to enter the novitiate. Young Diego was not quite thirteen years old at the time.

His early years as a Jesuit are lost in the usual mist that surrounds studies and training, but we know that Diego was ordained a priest in 1651. After ordination he taught philosophy and theology for a time, but that is not where his heart was. He was more at home when doing mission and retreat work among the city people. For a time it seemed that he might spend his life doing such work in Madrid.

Then San Vitores fell sick and promised that if his life was spared he would spend it in the missions. His superiors honored his request, even if his father was not delighted at the prospect of losing another of his sons to the missions. Diego’s older brother, another priest, died on a ship bound for the East some years earlier.

But Diego’s father was by now accustomed to losing the test of wills with his son. So his final request before seeing his son off was that Diego sit for a portrait. This at least gave him something to remember his son by when Diego sailed for the Philippines in May 1660.


By Francis X. Hezel, SJ


By the time San Vitores arrived in the Marianas to begin his mission work there, he was well practiced in certain tools of the trade. After all, he had used them with great effect in Spain, in the Philippines, and in Mexico while awaiting passage to Guam.

In these other places San Vitores had mastered a form of street ministry known as the Acto de Contricion.  With a large crucifix in hand, he would lead a procession through the streets chanting over and over a line or two on repentance and forgiveness. People would join the procession and begin taking up the chant. At the end, the priest might hear confessions for an hour or two before the crowd dispersed.

Doctrine was important for the priest and he insisted that his catechumens know the basic truths well.  But words can carry you only so far, especially when you are working in a language that is new to you. So, he adapted the tools of the ministry he had used elsewhere to islanders’ fondness for singing, dancing and laughter.

What had once been a procession became a conga line as he started to clap his hands and dance, often with grinning people merrily following him. The words were simple and repetitive, says Francisco Garcia, his biographer. “Joy, joy, joy!  Good joy, Jesus and Mary. Our joy, Jesus and Mary.”

San Vitores was especially fond of the children and would reward them with a holy card or a lump of sugar when they recited their catechism answers correctly. His playfulness had a natural appeal for them. But adults, too, could relate to the buffoonery he drew on as one of the tools of his ministry.

We may imagine San Vitores as a man staring down a hostile crowd with crucifix upraised, as happened on Tinian early in his ministry. Our image of the man may be of a serious apostle engaged in a life and death struggle for the hearts and souls of island people. But San Vitores is also the man who often marched into villages chanting religious rhymes to entice the people. He was the priest who chanted and sang until he became hoarse. He was the one whom Garcia could fittingly describe as “Christ’s troubadour.”


By Francis X. Hezel, SJ


Individuals at the head of a small colonial army on an important mission are expected to be hard-headed and calculating.  But Diego Luis de San Vitores, who arrived on Guam with 31 troops under his authority, was anything but this. Most of his own fellow Jesuits, and certainly most of the soldiers, would have regarded him as a bit naive.

The 17th century was an age known for its ascetical practices, including fasting and other kinds of penance.  Even so, San Vitores may have taken this to an extreme. When he gave up eating chocolate and drinking wine to identify more closely with the local islanders, his companions gladly joined him in renouncing these pleasures. But when he rid himself of his shoes because the poor local people could not afford them, his brother Jesuits might have had second thoughts of their own about walking barefoot for long distances over island terrain.

Then San Vitores, whose eyesight was notoriously bad, decided that his eyeglasses were a needless luxury among a simple island people. Even before that, the priest had to be carefully guided along island paths. Once he discarded his glasses, he was reduced to being led along by a rope around his body if he wanted to navigate those village trails. The priest must have presented a strange sight as he walked into a village wearing a cloak of palm leaves over his threadbare black habit. His hope was that the cloak made of local plant materials would encourage people to depart from custom and put on some clothes.

If San Vitores was improvident of his own needs, he was just as naive when it came to the protection of his mission band. Embarrassed at the military force that was sent to protect the expedition, the priest made it clear from the beginning that the troops were to play a minimal role. Even after the first violence broke out, San Vitores forbade his troops to retaliate against hostile forces. They were to do nothing more than defend themselves in such situations, and even then to do so with great restraint. His great fear was that the gospel of peace would be undercut by a campaign of violence and death.

Eventually, we know, San Vitores had to retreat from his pacifist stance, even to the point of requesting an additional 200 troops from the Crown to ensure the safety of the mission. Even so, they were not allowed to retaliate or even to punish those responsible for killings. That course of action would be approved only after San Vitores had met his own violent death.


By Francis X. Hezel, SJ

The religious beliefs held by early Chamorros were probably similar to those common elsewhere in the region. Puntan and his sister might have had an honored place in religious mythology, but figures like both of them had a very small role in the ordinary religious practices of the people.

On most islands, people would honor protector or guardian spirits of some kind. Such a spirit–often the spirit of a human long dead–might be honored by the entire island or village. In other cases, it might exclusively be the patron of a single lineage or family. The spirit was referred to as aniti.

Usually there was a shrine of some kind, often rather small, dedicated to the guardian spirit. It might contain food offerings or perfume or other gifts, as did these shrines in Chuuk and Yap and Palau. It might also contain some relic of the ancestor whose spirit was now regarded as a protector of the family. The skulls that were so often mentioned in the old reports might have served this purpose in the Marianas.  Clearly leg bones were often used to fashion spears, probably in the belief that the mana of the ancestor would make this weapon effective in battle.

Now and then, someone would be called on to consult with the spirit in time of special need. This was the role of the makana, who would become “possessed” by the ancestral spirit and speak in the spirit’s own voice. The makana was rewarded well for this service and enjoyed a high status in traditional Chamorro society, just as his counterpart did in other parts of Micronesia.

In the Marianas, then, family or lineage ancestors were honored as guardian spirits that guided and protected the family. A “shrine” of some sort, even if this only consisted in the skulls, was kept close to the family dwelling. The ancestral spirits were consulted from time to time through a makana when the family needed help or advice. This was the basis of religious practice in the Marianas.

The missionaries may have been a bit too confrontational as they went around destroying the skulls they found near houses. But they were certainly correct in judging that the respect paid to these skulls was religious in nature.


By Francis X. Hezel, SJ

The early missionary letters from the Marianas are filled with references to Choco, the Chinese shipwrecked there 20 years earlier. He was said to be the source of the widespread tale that the poisonous waters of baptism were killing Chamorro children.

The story was believable because children who were baptized by the missionaries very often did die soon after their baptism. After all, the missionaries generally delayed baptism until they had an opportunity to instruct people in the faith. Only children in danger of death would have been baptized on the spot. There were plenty of children near death, thanks to the epidemics that raged through the islands during those early years of contact.

Choco’s stories might have gained even more credence because of the similarity between the baptismal rite and traditional funeral rites among the Chamorros. Corpses were bathed in water and anointed with oil in preparation for burial in the islands, just as children had water poured on their heads before they received the sacramental anointing. The administration of baptism, then, could have appeared to be a death ritual that was performed on one about to die.

Choco’s tales about the poison waters of baptism seem to have had greater impact in the northern islands, perhaps because Choco’s wife was from Saipan. The story really didn’t have much staying power, except perhaps among people who had no real contact with the missionaries. In any case, the stories are no longer mentioned in Spanish missionary letters after the first few years.

On Guam, perhaps from the very beginning, more weight was put on the smashing of ancestors’ skulls and destruction of the shrines to the aniti. The sorcerers, or makanas, would have been strong forces in resisting Christianity. This was a crucial conflict between the Jesuits and the local people because the destruction of these shrines seemed to oppose the respect paid to ancestors. Moreover, missionary opposition threatened the social status of the makanas, who often spoke for the ancestors (as they did in other Micronesian cultures).

It’s worth noting that the trouble which broke out on Guam in 1671 was attributed by Garcia to the destruction of the ancestral shrines rather than to the poison water stories.


By Francis X. Hezel, SJ


The first open hostility broke out in August 1668, just two months after San Vitores’ arrival, as the missionaries began their work in the northern islands. Two soldiers who accompanied one of the priests were killed as they were being transported in a local canoe. The priest who had been sent to Tinian was wounded with a spear, while another priest in a remote village on Guam was badly beaten.

Less than a year later, violence broke out once again when a catechist on Anatahan was killed by an angry mob after the death of a child he had just baptized. This death was attributed to the stories being circulated about the deadly effects of baptism.

Then, in January 1670, two more deaths were suffered in Tinian, when Fr. Medina and one of his catechists were assaulted. Just a few months after this, open warfare broke out on Guam following the murder of a young Spaniard who had gone out alone to make wooden crosses. The arrest of some people accused of the crime sparked a 40-day siege of the Spanish garrison in Hagatna.

Nearly two years later, in March 1672, a coordinated attack was initiated on Guam. First, a young Mexican was killed, and then three other mission helpers were ambushed and finished off.  Finally, a few days later Fr. San Vitores himself and Pedro Calungsod met their deaths while attempting to baptize a child in Tumon. This led to a Spanish military raid that resulted in the loss of three more Spanish deaths, compared with the two inflicted on their enemies.

By the summer of 1672, four years after the arrival of the Spanish, several violent incidents had occurred. Most of the earliest took place in the northern islands, but 1670 and 1672 saw the first signs of organized opposition on Guam. Kipuha, the chief of Agatana who had first welcomed the Spanish, was long dead before these attacks occurred.

The death toll for the Spaniards during that period was 13: two priests, five mission helpers, and six soldiers. During the same period the body count of Chamorros killed in hostilities was 11.

As the violent outbreaks continued in the following years, the balance of casualties shifted back in favor of the Spanish. Even so, the losses of Chamorro people through the end of the 1670s totaled only 60 lives–an average of 4 or 5 persons a year. The Spaniard loss was approximately half this–about 30 overall, or 2 a year.


By Francis X. Hezel, SJ

In the Jesuit Annual Report for 1684-1685, written by Fr. Gerard Bowens, we find the account of Yura’s uprising, one that almost wiped out the mission in the Marianas. The Spanish commander Jose Quiroga was at the time on Saipan where he faced a revolt by the people there. As he prepared to march, Quiroga believed that all the Spaniards in Hagatna were killed.

Fr. Bowens continued the account in these words:

“[Quiroga] Amenazó a la india no hiciese ruido mas ella comenzó a dar voces diciendo que allí estaban los soldados. Pudo el Sargento Mayor hacer en los indios gran destrozo quitando la vida a más de doscientos hombres, que no obstante las voces no acabaron de despertar, pero movido de piedad y con deseo de ejecutar su primer intento los perdonó contentándose con llegar a casa de un principal a quien prendió y con el otros cinco.” 


The translation of the paragraph in English should be:

He [Quiroga] threatened the Chamorro woman not to make any noise, but she started yelling that the soldiers had come. The Sergeant-Mayor could have caused havoc among the local people, killing more than 200 men who, notwithstanding the shouts of his guide, did not wake up; however, moved to pity and wishing to carry into effect his primary object, he pardoned them as he reached the house of a chieftain whom he arrested together with five others.

But Levesque, a Canadian historian well known for his monumental work of Spanish documents about the Marianas, translated the previous paragraph as follows:

“He threatened the Indian woman against making any noise but she started yelling that the soldiers had come; the Sergeant-Mayor caused havoc among the Indians killing more than 200 men, who, notwithstanding the vociferation of his guide, did not wake up; however, moved to pity and wishing to carry into effect his primary object, he pardoned the rest as he reached the house of a chieftain whom he arrested together with five others.”  (Levesque 8: 354)

Now if you consult Guampedia on Quiroga’s life and works,  you will find the following description:

“Upon reaching her village with Quiroga and his force, the woman cried out, leading Quiroga to cause “havoc among the Indians,” killing more than 200 men, many apparently while they slept (men, “who, notwithstanding the vociferation of his guide, did not wake up”).”

Now, my daughter doing homework for her history class will use Guampedia and Joseph Quiroga y Losada will be presented as the monster who killed 200 men while sleeping. Why did Levesque do this?  Was it just a mistake or was he biased?  Either way, from now on, I will read Levesque’s translations much more carefully.  From such errors grow the legends that distort our view of the past.



Prayer to Blessed Diego Luis De San Vitores

God of mercy and love, through the preaching of your martyr Blessed Diego, you brought the Good News of Jesus Christ to the people of the Marianas who had not known Him. By his prayers, help us to endure all suffering for love of you and to seek you with all our hearts for you alone are the source of life. We ask this through your  Son, Jesus Christ, Our Lord.  Amen.

(Pause now and ask Blessed Diego for your request.)

Our Father…Hail Mary…Glory be…Blessed Diego, Pray for us….