The Franciscans are no strangers to either the Holy Land or its dangers, and their story there began in 1217 when Brother Elias of Cortuna arrived in Syria to establish “an outpost as missionaries of fraternity and peace.” Two years later, in 1219, St. Francis himself boldly entered a Muslim army camp and met with the Sultan of Egypt, Malek al-Malik; this Sultan, a nephew of Saladin, had promised a Byzantine gold piece to anyone who brought him the head of a Christian. But he was so captivated by this simple friar’s love of God and his obvious holiness that, instead of killing him, al-Malik sent him away with a guarantee of safe passage and the only gift Francis would accept — a small, ivory horn.

Not every Franciscan friar has fared so well there, however. Since 1335, 158 had been martyred for the faith, but only four — Nicholas Tavelic and his companions, Deodat of Rodez, Peter of Narbonne and Stephen of Cuneo — have been canonized.

Nicholas Tavelic was born in 1340 to a wealthy and noble family in Croatia. His parents spared no expense for his education, and Nicholas progressed rapidly in his studies. By the time he finished school, he could have had any sort of material advantage life had to offer; however, all the while he was learning, he was also growing in holiness and, despite opposition, resolved to quit the world and enter the Franciscan Order instead.

Because of his great learning, Nicholas was chosen by his superiors for a difficult task, which would make good use of his skills. In 1372, he, along with 60 other friars from various Franciscan provinces, journeyed to Bosnia, where they established several missions. He was joined in that effort by his friend, Deodat of Rodez, and together they labored there for 12 years.

In 1384, Nicholas and Deodat volunteered to assist the Franciscan friars serving in the Holy Land, where the order worked as guardians of the sacred sites of Christianity. They arrived at the Friary of Mount Zion, which was an ancient religious house the Franciscans maintained in the city of Jerusalem. There, they studied Arabic and, as did the other friars, also served in the holy places associated with the life of Jesus while caring for the pilgrims who visited them.

In 1391, Nicholas and his companions, Deodat, Peter of Narbonne and Stephen of Cuneo, who had already been giving witness to Christ by the way they lived, decided to take a more direct approach to the conversion of non Christians. On Nov. 11 of that year, they went to the Mosque of Omar in Jerusalem and, reading from a prepared statement, they urged all the people to accept the Gospel of Christ. When they refused to retract their message, they were arrested and imprisoned for blasphemy. Beatings and imprisonment did not change their mind, however, and they were subsequently martyred on Nov. 14, 1391.

Canonized in 1970, their feast is celebrated on Nov. 14.

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