The Good Will Be Martyred: Portraits of Sanctity from the Spanish Civil War

by Sister Maria Philomena, M.I.C.M. November 29th, 2004

"If my requests are heard, Russia will be converted, there will be peace. If not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, promoting wars and persecutions of the Church; the good will be martyred, the Holy Father will have much to suffer, various nations will be annihilated. But in the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph. The Holy Father will consecrate Russia to me, she will be converted, and an era of peace will be conceded to humanity." Such was the warning and promise of Our Lady of Fatima. Eighty-four years later, we are still waiting for Our Lady’s requests to be heeded. The Enemy of mankind has worn many masks since his downfall: those of idolatry, Roman paganism, early Christian heresies, Islam, Protestant "Reformers," etc; but one of his most recent masks is Communism. Presented as a cure for all the social evils of the world, Communism, like all evil, is a warped and twisted version of Truth. It is still with us today, although using more subtle tactics than it did in Spain in 1936. Thousands of Spaniards (and others) died fighting Communism from 1936 to 1939 in the Spanish Civil War. The purpose of this article is to show that Communism and its allies took lives, not only in battle, but also in persecution. Only those non-combatants who were deliberately murdered because they were Catholic, who were "put to death for adhering to Christianity," can be truly called martyrs, and it is of these that we mean to write.

Approximately 80% of all the martyrs were killed in the first year of the war. According to one source, from July 18,1936, to April 1, 1937, no fewer than 6,8321 priests and religious, both men and women, were killed for the Faith. There was not one defection among them. (This does not include numerous laymen who were also martyred.) After the first year, the Communist authorities gained some control of the anarchist situation, and they slowed down the open killings; not because they minded killing Catholics, but because they knew how martyrdoms increase the peoples’ Faith. This was not their goal. Thirteen bishops were martyred in 1936 alone, as compared to only two killed in the whole of the French Revolution.

Of the Martyrs of the Spanish Civil War, ten were canonized in 1999, and there have been over five hundred beatifications: three in 1987, twenty-six in 1989, forty-four in 1995, 218 in 1996, and another 233 just this past March. The word "martyr" comes from the Greek: martys, meaning "witness," and what a witness to the true Faith are these Spaniards: a virtual "cloud of witnesses"! (Heb. 12:1)

A War on God

Directly opposed to any Catholic principles of government, anarchy and Communism waged war in Spain on all fronts — military, social, moral, and religious. Hating all authority other than their own, they targeted God ultimately and, therefore, His Church. This can be proven from their own mouths and by their actions: "Blaspheme, and we will let you go," "Break your vows (vows are promises to God), and we will stop torturing you." As they entered a village, their first object of attack was the church. There, the Communists and their henchmen would round up the priests and religious (as well as anyone who protested), wreak all kinds of destruction and sacrilege, then pour round after round of ammunition into the tabernacle of the parish church.

These abominations were only a logical development of the thinking of the Reds. After all, Lenin had said: "We must combat religion — this is the ABC of all materialism, and consequently of Marxism…"2 A Communist broadcast of 1954 stated: "The Communist Party has always been irreconcilably opposed to religion, and has always fought it in a decisive manner." The hatred of the Church extended to all priests, even left-leaning ones. There is the case — a very embarrassing one to the Republican authorities — of one shameful priest who was shot even though he was well-known for his Leftist sympathies. May God have mercy on his soul!

The First Martyrs

Two years before the war, in October of 1934, the martyrdoms began with the shooting of eight Brothers of the Christian Schools and a Passionist priest who was assigned to their school in the town of Turon, located in the northeastern mining valley of the Asturias. The priest and brothers were captured by a group of Communist rebels who broke into their school at dawn. Imprisoned and tried by a revolutionary Committee, they were sentenced to death because of their influence with their students. At dawn on October 9, 1934, the nine religious were taken to a cemetery and lined up before the large grave, newly dug. With serenity that made a lasting impression on their executioners (for so they testified later), Brothers Cirilo Bertran, Marciano José, Victoriano Pio, Julian Alfredo, Benjamin Julian, Benito de Jesus, Aniceto Adolfo, Augusto Andres, and Father Inocencio de la Immaculada gave up their lives in two volleys of shots from a firing squad. The oldest of the group was just 46, and the youngest four were not yet 26. The whole group was canonized on November 21, 1999.

Another Christian Brother was canonized with them, St. Jaime Hilario Barbal. He had a hearing problem that prevented him from becoming a priest, but he was admitted to the Brothers of the Christian Schools in 1918, at the age of 29. He was an excellent teacher, but, because of illness, was assigned to work in the gardens. His time was spent in manual labor and encouraging vocations. He was arrested in 1936, spending a year on a prison ship, the Mahon, before being condemned to death in a mock trial. He died from the point blank shot of a pistol after two salvos from a firing squad left him untouched (the executioners were only three meters away and they still didn’t hit him). The militiamen fled, terrified, leaving their leader, blaspheming, to kill the Brother. St. Jaime Hilario Barbal’s last words were: "My friends, to die for Christ is to reign!" He was martyred on January 16, 1937.3

Flowers from Carmel

The first women religious to be martyred were three Discalced Carmelite nuns (spiritual daughters of Saint Teresa of Ávila): Sister Maria del Pilar (age 59, she had entered Carmel at the age of 21), Sister Teresa del Niño Jesus y de San Juan de la Cruz (age 27, entered Carmel at 16), Sister Maria Angeles de San José (age 31, entered at 24). All three were martyred on the twenty-fourth of July, 1936. They had been hiding in an apartment since their convent had been dispersed. (This was common wherever the Reds were in control: the Sisters would be forced, usually for their safety, to wear lay clothes and go into hiding.) The three were taking a walk on the street near their refuge, when a group of militia recognized them. A militia woman screeched: "Nuns!" They opened fire and chased the Sisters. Sister Maria Angeles was killed outright, Sister Maria del Pilar was wounded (shot and then attacked with a knife), and Sister Teresa was dazed, but unhurt.

Several military Assault Guards showed up and stopped the shooting. They tried to help Sister Maria del Pilar to the hospital, hailing a bus for that purpose. The driver exclaimed: "A nun? Give her here and I’ll finish her off!" They called another vehicle, which took her safely to the hospital. She died that evening saying: "Padre, perdónalos. Viva Christo Rey!" (Father, forgive them. Long live Christ the King!)

Sister Teresa was captured by a man with evil intentions, but her virginal purity triumphed. A band of militia joined the scene and tried to get the Sister to cry "Viva el Comunismo!" in exchange for freedom. When she cried "Viva Christo Rey!" they shot her. She died with her arms outstretched in the form of a cross and another triumphant "Viva Christo Rey!" on her lips. This is widely cited as the most tragic incident of the whole war. The three were beatified on March 29, 1987.

Blood and Gore

To give a mental picture of what it was like to be arrested for the Faith under the Reds, a bird’s-eye view might be helpful. With the Red revolution and the "arming of the people" of July 18 and 19, 1936, a reign of terror ruled. The armed mobs, calling themselves militias, took all law and order into their own hands. Each group within the Red Left set up their own tribunals or chekas, so called after the tribunals of the Soviet Police, and gathered their own prisoners. In Madrid alone, over 50,000 people were massacred by this system in six months. (See Red Terror in Madrid, Luís de Fonteriz, Longmans, Green and Co., 1937.) Those that were not shot outright could look forward to varying degrees of torture, any amount of time in makeshift prisons —stifling, overcrowded, and unsanitary — and perhaps a "trial." Some of the chekas were run by S.I.M. — the Spanish equivalent of the K.G.B. — whose tortures included: placing people in freezers and ice water in the winter, cells too small to stand or lie down in, or with water to the waist; carrying out endless interrogations (using all sorts of techniques: sarcasm, blows, false promises, outrage, adulation, sleep deprivation, etc.); the "compass" (a rack for the legs), flagellations, splinters of wood driven underneath fingernails, the "Malayan boot" (an iron boot with screws that crush the bones), and slow roasting over coals (like St. Lawrence). Most of the tortures are too terrible to write about, especially for the women, upon whom every imaginable outrage was wrought. Many ladies died defending their purity.

All the tortures and deaths of the Roman persecutions have their modern counterpart under the Reds: victims being buried to the waist in sand, doused with gasoline and set afire, mutilated, having their skulls smashed, or being drowned in wells. There even exist rumors of crucifixions, but none are documented. One priest in the mountains was shot twice (but not killed), tied to a tree, and left for the wolves, literally. Not even the dead were respected. Those newly martyred were usually mutilated (ears were often carried off for trophies), but even old cemeteries of religious were desecrated. The priests and nuns long laid to rest were, in many places, dug up and put on macabre display. In at least one case, the Reds also dug up children from another cemetery and put them on display with the bodies of sisters, telling the people that these were the "nuns’ secret children, whom they had murdered secretly."

Nothing was sacred to the persecutors: vestments, sacred vessels used for Mass, and church furnishings were all objects of their impious sport. This included using statues for target practice. But God, who is not mocked, inflicted His holy wrath upon the criminals, some even in this life: More than one militiaman was later injured in the same place where he had mutilated some statue. One man had a child born with the same disfigurement as he had worked on a statue of Our Lord.

Mocked and Scourged

The martyrs suffered their frightfully cruel torments with the dispositions one reads about in the lives of their forerunners under Nero or Diocletian. They recalled that "the servant is not above his Master" and often rejoiced at the opportunity to imitate Jesus Christ in his sorrowful and life-giving Passion. Witness the following priest, scourged, as was our Lord:

"Father Oriol of Barcelona, a famous writer, who lived at Manresa, was the son of Doctor Barjau, professor of Hebrew and Arabic at the University, and the brother of the priest of a parish in Barcelona. The revolutionaries seized him and lead him to the neighborhood of the city. They stripped him of his clothes and bound him to a tree, and whipped him until he was filled with deep wounds. After this flogging, they announced to him that they would let him go if he would deny God. He answered that he would never do that. The assassins insisted. So he began to recite the Te Deum. At every word that he pronounced, he received a stroke of the whip. He lost consciousness several times, and every time that he revived, he began again to recite the Te Deum with fervor. It is in this way that he died, a true martyr. The President of the Association of the Press of Manresa, who saw his corpse at the cemetery, reported that his body was covered with wounds, and that the wound on his face indicated that his beard had been plucked."4

Sharers of Calvary

All who are baptized are baptized in the death of Christ (Rom. 6:3). Excepting only those innocents who are snatched from this life before reaching the age of reason, all the baptized are called to share in the sufferings of Jesus. But to some is given the special grace to resist "unto blood." (Heb. 12:4) How appropriate that, among those who so resisted in Spain, were spiritual children of St. Paul of the Cross, the eighteenth-century apostle of the Crucified Christ, who vowed to promote the memory of our Lord’s Passion. As can be seen by the artwork accompanying this article, the religious of his order, the Passionists, wear a badge representing the Sacred Heart, the Cross, and the Nails, with the words (in Greek and Latin) "The Passion of Jesus Christ."

On July 21, 1936, at 11:30 p.m., a group of militia banged on the door of the Passionist monastery in Daimiel (south of Toledo). The religious (priests, brothers, and seminarians) were ordered to abandon the monastery in half an hour. With great tranquility, the porter relayed the message to the Provincial Superior, Padre Niceforo. Within minutes, all the thirty-one religious were gathered in the chapel. Padre Niceforo, with Padre German, the Community Superior, gave the group encouragement, general absolution, and Holy Communion (leaving none of the Blessed Sacrament in reserve, in order to prevent sacrilege). "Brothers, if our hour (for death) arrives, have courage! Our Lord will be with us, let us receive His help… This is the hour of our Gethsemane. As an angel gave comfort to Jesus, so He comforts and sustains us. Nature, on its part, grows weak and frightened, but Jesus is with us…and He comes to be the strength of the weak… Sharers of Calvary, have courage to die for Christ…"5 The half-hour up, the militiamen returned to escort the religious, supposedly to the station from whence they would be dispersed to various homes, but instead they were taken to the cemetery. Fully expecting death, the Passionists offered their lives to God with one voice. Their sacrifice was delayed, however, for the leader of the militia said that they could not afford to use gunpowder and bullets on them. They were divided into five groups (Providentially, there was at least one priest in each group), and shipped to different parts of the province, where there was not such a shortage of bullets. Between June 22 and October 23, twenty-six of the religious were shot. It is unclear what happened to the remaining five, but these twenty-six were beatified on October 1, 1989. The youngest was eighteen years old, the oldest was sixty-two, and fifteen of the others were under twenty-two years of age.

The Claretians

In Barbasto, a small town north of Aragon, there was a large Claretian house of sixty religious belonging to the Congregation of the Missionary Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary founded by Saint Anthony Mary Claret. On July 20, 1936, a group of sixty armed militiamen searched the house and imprisoned the whole community: nine priests, twelve lay Bothers, and thirty-nine seminarians. Father Felipe de Jesús Munárriz, the superior, and two other minor superiors were separated from the others and shot on August 2. The rest of the community spent their time in prison praying. They were constantly prepared for death, going to Confession and Holy Communion whenever possible. With no beds, water, or clean clothes, insolent guards, people mocking them at the windows, no visitors — except those brought in to tempt them, they persevered in the Faith. In groups from two to twenty, the religious were taken out and shot, after being given a chance of freedom if they would join the revolutionary militia. (Some of them had the privilege of dying on the anniversary of their religious profession: August 15.) Despite the order for silence, they died singing hymns and shouting: "Viva Christo Rey!"6 In all, fifty-one Claretians of Barbastro were martyred within a few days of each other; seven were spared because of old age or illness, and two Argentines were deported. The Holy Father beatified them on October 25, 1992, along with seventy-one members of the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God, dedicated to caring for the sick in orthopedic centers for children and in psychiatric hospitals.

A Cloud of Witnesses

Other orders (not counting the bishops and secular priests) that can claim new Blesseds from Spain include: the Poor Clerics Regular of the Mother of God of the Pious Schools (one, Father Dionisio Pampona, escaped from prison long enough to consume all the consecrated Hosts in the parish church, preventing terrible sacrilege), the Jesuits, the Friars Minor (all branches), the Salesians of Saint John Bosco, the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, Carmelite Sisters of Charity, Servants of Mary, Sisters of the Pious Schools, Claretian Sisters, Little Sisters of the Abandoned Elderly, and Sisters of Christian Doctrine.

This sketch would not be complete without mentioning some of the lay men and women, both married and single, who also willingly gave their lives for the Faith.7

Beatified on May 4, 1997, Ceferino Jemenez Malla was the first Gypsy to be enrolled among the Church’s Beati. Long known for his exemplary life and wise counsel, despite his lack of education, he was seventy-five years old when shot by a firing squad. He had been arrested for harboring a young cleric, and had refused the terms of freedom: to stop openly professing the Faith and to throw away his Rosary.

Blessed Victoria Diez y Bustos de Molina was an exemplary teacher beatified on October 1,1993. An only child, she dedicated her life to teaching and joined the Teresian Institute, which was founded by Father Pedro Poveda Castroverde for the purpose of training teachers, spiritually as well as intellectually. (He is himself a beatified martyr of this war.) "Praying before the Blessed Sacrament I find strength, courage, light and all the love I need to help those entrusted to me on the way of salvation," Blessed Victoria once said. Always calm, witnesses testified to her encouragement of the others with whom she suffered a violent death in an abandoned mine shaft at dawn on August 12. "Come on! Our reward is waiting for us. Long live Christ the King!" She was thirty-three years old.

Blessed Vincente Vilar David was a model of the Catholic worker. He was known for his charity to the poor and for spreading Catholic morals and values among his peers. An industrial engineer, he put Catholic social teaching into action.8 When the troubles began in Spain, Vincente continued boldly doing good, especially in showing hospitality to hunted priests and religious, despite the dangers entailed in such open charity. His wife, Isabel, outlived him by fifty-six years, and she is the main witness of his martyrdom. He was arrested on February 14, 1937, and as he was led away, she said: "See you tomorrow." He replied: "Until tomorrow or in heaven!" A few moments later, the shots of his martyrdom were heard.

"The good will be martyred…" Our Lady at Fatima, in 1917, warned of the spread of Russia’s errors (schism and Communism, its punishment) and its results if her requests were not heeded. General Franco confirmed that such was the case in Spain: "In Spain we are not fighting a Spanish internal foe, but the Russian Communist International, which has its affiliations in every country…. We are determined to free our Spain from the deadly influence of those Marxist principles, which are not only false and anti-Christian, but are also entirely foreign to all our traditions and culture."9 The brutal martyrdoms reviewed in this article are but the external signs of the "false and anti-Christian" principles identified by Franco. Sad to say, these principles are part of the thinking of most of our own fellow-countrymen. Perhaps we, too, will be called upon to shed our blood. If this happens, the same ideological forces (as in Spain, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Mexico, and all the countries that have suffered under Communist regimes) will likely shed it, but in our country the persecution probably will not come during a bloody civil war. Ever since the war in Spain, the Reds have realized that outright war is not as effective as the subtler tactic of perversion. Once the populace is evil enough, and desensitized enough to evil, then proscriptions against the Faith will be easy to implement. The days are probably not far off.

Help from Heaven

Why is the Holy Father giving us all these new blesseds? We are the Church Militant, and Pope John Paul II is our Commander-in-Chief, the Vicar of Christ. We are in the same war (on the front lines, or soon to be) as these blesseds who have already gained their victory. They are our powerful allies, by example and by intercession. We must learn from them how to love God above all things, how to live and die for the Faith, how to deal uncompromisingly with the enemies of the Church (and heap burning coals upon the heads of these same enemies by obtaining their conversion). Let us call upon the legions of Spanish martyrs and beg them for their intercession: for the Holy Father, that he will fulfill the requests of Our Lady at Fatima; for those Catholics who are still to be martyred; for the Church, that she will be the thundering voice of Truth; and for the Communists, that they will be so disillusioned by the Party and so inspired by the lives of Catholics around them, that they will come into the only Faith that is worth fighting and dying for. Omnes sancti martyres, orate pro nobis!

1 This number is extremely conservative. The 1937 edition of La Persecution Religiuse En Espagne gives the figure at 16,750 priests alone. "According to the official records, which we possess from the nineteenth of July to the beginning of February, in the areas occupied by the Reds, they had sacrificed 16,750 priests and 11 bishops. All fell under the bullets and the dynamite of the Marxists and the Anarchists. The old priests as well as the young assistants, the sick and the impotent, the benefactor of the people, the teacher, the scholar, the journalist, the retired [among these, no distinction was made]. Very few persecutions in all history of the Church present such a high number of martyrs sacrificed in such a short amount of time." Page 76 — translation by Brother Francis, M.I.C.M.

The Abbé de Nantes’ Catholic Counter-Reformation Newsletter of September 2000 gives the following figures: 13 bishops, 4,317 secular priests, 2,489 monks (priests and brothers), 283 nuns, 249 seminarians, and innumerable laity.

2 Proletarii, No 45, May 1909 (Quoted in Fatal Star, Hamish Fraser, Neumann Press, 1987, page 70).

3 A detailed description of his "trial" and death make up chapter three of Catholic Martyrs of the Spanish Civil War — A Catholic Holocaust, by Fray Justo Perez de Urbel.

4 La Persecution Religiuse En Espagne, page 100, translated from the French by Brother Francis, M.I.C.M.Vida Y Testimonio, Fernando Pielagos, C.P., PP. Passionistas, Zaragoza (Spain), 1989, pg 213 ff. (translated by Miss Heidi Filipi).

5 Vida Y Testimonio, Fernando Pielagos, C.P., PP. Passionistas, Zaragoza (Spain), 1989, pg 213 ff. (translated by Miss Heidi Filipi).

6 One of their murderers testified: "Those G...-d... fools! No one could shut them up! All the way they sang and praised Christ the King. One of them fell dead when we hit him with the butt of a gun, and this is no lie. But the more we hit them, the more they sang and shouted: Viva Christo Rey!" (The Last Crusade, Warren H. Carroll, Christendom Press, 1996, page 110).

7 Nineteen women and eighteen men of Catholic Action were beatified this past March, but of their stories, nothing was available, except that some were married and had families, some were single, and some were teachers.

8 This is an aspect of Catholicism that was responsible for the conversion of Hamish Fraser, a former Communist agent, member of S.I.M. and the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. He became known, once he converted, as the Apostle of Fatima. His book, Fatal Star, should be required reading for any student of this war, and of Fatima, Communism, and Catholic social teaching.

9 Quoted by Harold G. Cardozo, special correspondent for the London Daily Mail, in The March of a Nation. Taken from Combat over Spain, Captain José Larios (Marquis of Larios, Duke of Lerma), Macmillan Company, New York, 1966.

Source: The Good Will Be Martyred: Portraits of Sanctity from the Spanish Civil War — - Saint Benedict Center, The Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary