THEY DIED SINGING
The 51 Claretian Martyrs of Barbastro
Gabriel CAMPO VILLEGAS, CMF
Translated by Jesús Vázquez, CMF
The collection “Claretians of yesterday and today” had a first phase in the decade of the 80’s of last century. The objective, in this second phase, is to set before our eyes some histories of already deceased Claretians who stimulate us to live the diverse aspects of the rich Claretian charism. It is not a kind of internal “calendar of saints’ days.” Neither is it a gallery of famous Claretians, and much less, a collection of historical investigations about relevant figures. It is only a question of brief narratives, especially written for those who want to know the Claretian charism through some of its witnesses. And also for all those who are in the various stages of their initial formation. As it is usually said in similar cares, not all those who are, are here; but all those who are here, certainly are.
Perhaps the category that best embraces all of them (martyrs, vanguard missionaries, scholars, Superiors, formators, etc.) is that of witnesses. In fact we are dealing with Claretians who, through very different activities and in varied contexts, have given testimony of their missionary vocation. In living it out, they have been happy and have made others happy. They have been witnesses of Christ and of his gospel. It is not a matter of perfect men. We could also write a history that would stress their defects and limitations. But it is precisely in this contrast between their own weakness and the work of God where their quality as witnesses is best perceived. Because they had been made of the same material as each one of us, they can serve us as mirrors to see ourselves and as stimuli to excel ourselves.
One cannot communicate a charism without telling the histories that have brought it to life. Each time that we say the phrase “There was a time” the desire to come to the end goes off in us. These booklets are only the appetizer that opens the desire to know our brothers more thoroughly, through oral tradition –in some cases - or through larger and better documented works.
The histories of this collection have been written by different authors. All of them are Claretians. Some –precisely Fr. Gabriel Campo, author of this first number- died shortly after he handed over the original which, as can be seen, is a cramped synthesis of a history to which he dedicated many years of his life and about which he made very valuable investigations and publications.
This collection, together with the Claretian Calendar, published in 2008, on the occasion of the bicentenary of the birth of Saint Anthony Mary Claret, is, no doubt, a good instrument to make the family album of the Claretian Missionaries. Examining it closely we recognize our own features in those who have bequeathed to us the patrimony of their missionary life.
Gonzalo Fernández Sanz, CMF
General Prefect of Spirituality
The first number of the collection “Claretians of yesterday and of today” is dedicated to the 51 martyrs of Barbastro. It was to be expected. After the Founder, they have been the first Claretians whose holiness has been officially recognized by the Church. They represent, as if it were an icon, the best of what we, the Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary are called to be. They were men of faith. They signed this faith with their own blood. They fed on the Word and the Eucharist. They professed a deep love to the Heart of Mary. They dreamed of dedicating their life to the mission. They conscientiously prepared themselves within the limited possibilities of the time and space where they had to live. They did not hesitate to accept the grace of martyrdom when the historical circumstances turned against the Church. And they lived all this in community! John Paul II, on the occasion of their beatification in 1992, underlined that theirs was a unique case: a true “martyr seminary.”
It is impossible to read the history of the martyrs of Barbastro and remain unmoved. Fr. Gabriel Campo Villegas has made a concise and sober narrative. But behind his restrained words, it is easy to guess the underlying drama. They are lives cut off in mid youth. For the readers who are not familiarized with the troubled history of the XX century Spain, it will be difficult to understand the reasons that sparked off the so-called Civil War (1936-1939) and, especially, the religious persecution that took place around that time. It is a matter, indeed, of a complex river in which several political, economic, ideological and cultural tributaries meet. The history that Fr. Gabriel narrates does not get inside these inextricable meanders. It begins without any preparation, in the moment when our students of Barbastro, without any apparent reason, are detained on July 20, 1936. It ends with the mention of their executions on August 2, 12, 13, 15 and 18. He also avoids many descriptions that would have extremely extended the narrative. But the interested reader would do well to get to his book This Is Our Blood or his booklet Claretian Martyrs of Barbastro to understand the background and get to know in greater detail the facts that are only succinctly narrated here.
In the afternoon of July 20, 1936, some sixty armed anarchists burst into the community of Barbastro where sixty Claretian Missionaries resided, to make a search and see if the missionaries were hiding weapons, as it had been falsely propagated against them during those last years. Although no weapons were found, they were detained. The missionaries were wearing their cassocks. During the search, two priests were able to save the Eucharist, distributed part of it and hid the rest, among clothes, in a little suitcase.
The anarchists carried to prison first Fr. Superior, Felipe de Jesús Munárriz, the formator, Fr. Juan Díez and the administrator, Fr. Leoncio Pérez. When they were leaving, a seminarian asked the Fr. Superior:
If they detain us, what should we wear? Civilian clothes or cassock?
Fr, Munárriz did not hesitate.
The cassock was the sign of their consecration, which the enemies of faith especially hated.
There was a brother in the community who was not wearing it, Bro. Ramón Vall and, seeing it, the Marxists did not want to believe that he was a religious. Then they assigned him to the kitchen of the prison, as one more labourer.
Two sick seminarians, Vidaurreta and Falgarona, together with the aged Bro. Muñoz, were taken to the hospital. The others, after several hours of search, were taken to the assembly hall of the Piarists, which served as community prison for them till their death. Fr. Serra, who took the place of the Superior till the end, was able to convince the anarchists of the bad healthy condition of five brothers, who were taken to the Hermanitas de los Ancianos Desamparados (Sisters of the helpless aged), in front of the Piarists.
In the assembly hall of the Piarists
The assembly hall of the Piarists was a lower ground floor open by grilled windows to the square of the City Hall, which had been changed into revolutionary Committee. There the young missionaries had to suffer day after day threats, obscenities, thirst, hygienic misery, in full summer. And there they dedicated themselves to prayer, clandestine reading of their breviaries, secret conferences, to praying the rosary, to meditation and to singing and encouraging one another to martyrdom in low voice. The cassock with which they lived and slept was an object of brutal ridicule and harassment, because it was a sign of their fidelity.
We will kill you all with your cassock on, and that rag will be buried with those who wear it.
We do not hate you as persons. What we hate is your profession, that black habit, the cassock.
Take off that rag and you will be like us and we will deliver you.
In the mornings, Bro. Vall, who served in the kitchen, used to give them, together with their ration of bread and chocolate, the Eucharist: consecrated hosts that Fr. Ferrer gave him everyday. Thus the missionaries could receive communion quite a few days and fortify their own spirit as the first Christians did. Some had kept them in their breast before they left the house and they moved around like living tabernacles.
The Eucharist constituted the centre of their life, while it lasted. “Some were lucky and carried it in their breast.” The Argentinian Hall would later remember “the spiritual avarice with which other seminarians and brothers covertly approached them to adore the Lord in the sacrament.”
Temptations and trials
Since the majority of them were young, from 21 to 25 years, during more than one week they were subjected to the temptation of the half naked prostitutes, who entered the hall in their siesta time and at night, to overcome their chastity. “They approached the boys insinuatingly, they tugged at their cassock, they offered them instruments of sin.” In fact none of them responded or even looked at the women, to the extent that they went out in a rage. Fr. Ferrer who, as Superior of the Piarists, had moral authority over the anarchists, because quite a few of them had been educated for free in the school, protested before the Committee, and those brutal incitements ceased.
They were also subjected, several times, to simulated executions, to scare them. A group of militiamen or soldiers used to appear in the hall and shout at them:
-- The time has come. Stand by the wall because we are going to shoot you.
The missionaries remained that way during one hour, waiting, for the shooting any time. Parusini, one of the two Argentinians, liberated almost at the end and went to Rome, says:
“It is when one suffers the most: each minute becomes eternal and one wishes that they would shoot once and for all in order not to prolong an agony that only ends with a swearword or a sarcastic guffaw of the militiamen.”
Several of them were recognized by militiamen or soldiers from their hometown and were offered the possibility of being saved. Salvador Pigem, of Viloví d’Onyar, Gerona, found an old cook of his aunt, who said to him:
If you want, I will deliver you from death.
Will you deliver me with all my companions?
No. You alone.
In that case, I do not accept; I prefer to die a martyr with them.
There was even poetic inspiration in those tormented and monotonous days. Javier Luis Bandrés remembered his mother, from Sangüesa, Navarre, on her birthday and sent her a poem from jail:
The tender swallow
is looking for its beloved nest;
the babbling waters of the torrent
flow singing to the sea,
and the bee gathers, among the flowers,
the nectar of the very sweet honeycomb.
Thus also my heart, in exile,
for a far-off love
that will never die.
Eternal love of my saintly mother!
Incense pyre on the sacred altar!
Until the first days of August the Barbastro committee remained in a moderate attitude. After the shooting, by error, of four anarchists of Barcelona, loaded with a loot of gold and silver religious objects, Buenaventura Durruti, the anarchist chief that was attacking Zaragoza, turned up in Barbastro and ordered to put an end to all those many cassocks and to the life of the Bishop, detained at the Piarists.
The executions begin
On August 2, at two o’clock in the morning, two removals of twenty prisoners each, were carried out. They were shot in the cemetery of Barbastro. Among the executed it was the three missionaries Frs. Munárriz, Díez and Leoncio Pérez who encouraged the other priests to attain the crown of martyrdom. They died shouting “Long live Christ the King!” That same night the first gypsy martyr of history died with them. His name was Ceferino Jiménez Malla, El Pelé; he died praying the rosary, and was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1997.
From that day on, nobody had any more hopes. The slaughter of martyrs of Barbastro had started. Every night the names of the victims went around, as well as the certainty that no priest and no catholic lay person had renounced the faith in order to save his/her life, in spite of the offers.
One of the soldiers of the soldiers of the Barbastro barracks, Andrés Carrera, who was a seminarian of Zaragoza, and whose father had been detained by the Marxists, had to be on duty before the Piarists “two days of the first half of August”.
“The serene attitude manifested by all of them was admirable -he declared later-. That peace made an impact in me, in those moments when I felt morally crushed, because my father was detained in the prison of Sena and I myself was being searched for. When I saw the missionaries with that courage, I felt as it were a gust of breath and a holy emulation that entered into me.” “Whenever I could, I looked through the keyhole of the door to observe them, and their example gave me comfort.”
“They were in small groups. By the murmur that one could perceive, one was convinced that they were praying the rosary. One led and the others answered. After that, they peacefully walked in threes.” “They lifted my spirit up, with their peace and serenity; and strengthened me in my vocation to the priesthood.” “It is the most beautiful memory of my life.”
They will wound the shepherd
On the night of August 8, the Bishop of Barbastro, Msgr. Florentino Asensio, prisoner at the Piarists, was called to the Committee. There, in the midst of vulgar and insulting phrases, they tied him with another man tall and strong, and directly castrated him. Two streams of blood gushed forth that soaked the tiles of the floor of the jail. The Bishop turned pale, but he carried on unperturbed. He choked back a cry of pain and mumbled a prayer to the Lord of the five tremendous wounds.
After that he was pushed to the small square and carried on foot up to the cemetery, hitting him with the butts and with firebricks on the teeth. “Come on, lard, hurry up,” they said to him. And he, time and time again:
No matter what you do to me, I have to forgive you.
In the cemetery, after the shooting, the militiamen heard him say: “Lord, have mercy on me.”
“They did not give him the coup de grâce at the beginning, but let him die on top of other corpses, bleeding to death, to make him suffer more.” The doctors of the nearby hospital, when they heard his groans, advised the Committee, because the patients became worst. And a little later they finished him off. He was proclaimed blessed in 1997, together with El Pelé.
The death of the Bishop hastened that of the young Claretians of the hall. On the 10th Ramón Illa wrote in the hall to his family:
“With the greatest joy of spirit I write to you, since the Lord knows that I do not lie: I would not get tired and -I say it before heaven and earth- with these lines I let you know that the Lord deigns to put on my hands the palm of martyrdom; and in them I send a request as my testament: that when you receive these lines you must sing to the Lord for the so great and so special a gift as the martyrdom that the Lord deigns to grant me.”
“Eight days ago they shot Fr. Superior and other Priests. Happy are they and we who will follow them. I would not change the jail for the gift to do miracles; or the martyrdom for the apostolate, which was my life’s illusion.”
“I am going to be shot for being a religious and a member of the clergy, that is, for following the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Thanks be to the Father, through Our Lord Jesus Christ”.
They always wrote with pencil and on chocolate paper, for they had no other means. Ramón Illa was only 22 and he had a great culture. He mastered Latin, Greek and Hebrew and was studying English and German. He retained in his memory everything he read. He composed poems in Castilian, Latin and Catalan, and prayed, in love with liturgy, all the “liturgical hours” without any obligation to do so.
Death does not stop
On August 12, at 3:30 in the morning, “some fifteen armed revolutionaries” carrying bloodied cords, burst into the hall. The prisoners woke up startled in the wooden stage. A leader, Mariano Abad, The Gravedigger, raised his voice:
-- Let the six oldest ones come down here!
Gently, without resistance or protests, Fathers Nicasio Sierra, 46; José Pavón, 35; Sebastián Calvo and Pedro Cunill, both 33; Brother Gregorio Chirivás, 56; and the subdeacon Wenceslao Claris, 29 started going down.
They tied their hands at the back, one by one, with cords and wires; and then two by two they tied them by the elbows.
Fr. Pavón looked with a glance for the two priests that remained in the hall. Fr. Ortega who was paralyzed on the stage, raised his hand over them and pronounced the sacramental absolution: “I absolve you…”
They took the prisoners out of the hall and made them cross the town hall square, escorted by riflemen. The death van was waiting for them at the square entrance.
“And a little later -Hall will write- at seven minutes before four in the morning, a volley of rifle shots announced the glorious tragedy that had just been consummated.”
Those who remained in the hall, terribly impressed, believed that it had taken place in the cemetery of Barbastro. Later it was discovered that it was in one of the many bends of the road from Barbastro to Berbegal and Sariñena, near kilometre 3. Before shooting them, as usual, they offered them for the last time the possibility of apostatizing, which they responded with a “Long Live Christ the King!”, and they were given the coup de grâce in the temple.
That 12th of August was a day of purification and of farewells for the living Claretians. The martyrs already knew their turn; it was their privilege. All considered themselves unworthy and fortunate. Several of them, Casadevall, Ruiz, Novich, Amorós remembered the Our Father they prayed on certain outings, during the novitiate, “that all may achieve martyrdom.”
About that day we have the witness of Hall and Parusini who, because of their condition as foreigners, were excluded from the massacre.
“We all confessed for the last time, and we can say that we spent the day praying and meditating. All of us were resigned to the divine will and were happy to be suffering something for the glory of God.”
“We spent the day in religious silence -Faustino Pérez wrote on the interior of the seat of the piano- and preparing ourselves to die tomorrow; only the holy murmur of prayers can be felt in this hall, witness of our harsh anguish. If we speak, it is to encourage one another to die as martyrs; if we pray, it is only to forgive. Save them, Lord, they do not know what they do!”
Hall, just in case he could be saved, asked from them a remembrance to personally bring it to Fr. General and, through him, to the whole Congregation. The future martyrs took out a handkerchief that had belonged to Fr. Sierra, shot only a few hours earlier, out of hatred for the faith, they kissed it and ran it, one at a time, across their foreheads, as tired and long-suffering labourers, saying: “Let this be the kiss I give to the beloved Congregation for the blessedness of dying in her bosom.”
In the afternoon of that day, the seminarians José Amorós, from Puebla Larga, Valencia, and Esteban Casadevall, the most tempted against chastity by a militiawoman, professed perpetually. They wrote the document and the witnesses signed.
Rafael Briega, who knew quite a bit of Chinese, said to Hall:
“Please tell Fr. Fogued (Apostolic Administrator of Tonkin) that, since I cannot go to China, as I have always desired, I willingly offer my blood for that mission and from heaven I will pray for it.”
The future martyrs wrote their messages on papers, woods, on the walls and on the stairs. Many were lost. We keep others like the minutes of the first martyrs of the Church. One of them is signed by 40 martyrs. And the jewel is their Offering to the Congregation.
In the midnight of August 12 to 13 twenty Claretians were called, tied and led to the death van. Before they boarded the van, Mariano Abad offered them to save their life if they took off their cassock and went to the battle front with the anarchists. The martyrs’ response was unanimous:
Long live Christ the King! Long live the Catholic Church! Long live Mary’s Heart!
Beatings, insults, swearwords rained down heavily. But the martyrs began to sing till the moment of the shooting, on the road to Berbegal, very near two country houses, witnesses of their last confession of faith. There, before the execution, Mariano Abad repeated his offer.
Long live Christ the King!
After shooting them, they were given the coup de grâce and were left there bleeding for one and a half hour, so that their blood would not leave any stain in the van or on the road. Meanwhile, the executioners went to celebrate their feat in “The tower of Jaqueta.” Then, they picked up the corpses and carried them to a common grave in the cemetery.
In the morning of the same day, 13th, the anarchists, following orders from the government, carried the two Argentinians, Hall and Parusini, to Barcelona and Rome. They were the messengers and living witnesses, whose declarations we keep.
The final profession
On August 15 they shot twenty more Claretians, whose names are written in the book of Life. Before that, they wrote the shocking Farewell to the Congregation:
“…We are spending the day encouraging one another for martyrdom and praying for our enemies… When the moment comes for them to designate the next victims, we all feel a holy serenity and an eagerness to hear our own names called, so that we can join the ranks of the chosen; we have been looking forward to this moment with generous impatience… We all die happy with no regrets or misgivings.”
On the 18th two of the three that were in the hospital, Jaime Falgarona and Atanasio Vidaurreta were shot.
The martyrdom of the 51 missionaries of the Seminary of Barbastro was completed. In October 1992 they were beatified by Pope John Paul II in Rome. At the end of the Mass, the Pope, deeply moved, exclaimed: “For the first time in the History of the Church, a whole seminary martyr!”
That same year the Museum of the Claretian Martyr was opened, reliquary of their remains, their testimonies, their messages and their memories, pilgrimage centre of thousands of faithful of the whole world.
Farewell letter to the Congregation
“Beloved Congregation: The day before yesterday, the 11th, six of our brothers died with a generosity befitting martyrs. Today, the 13th, twenty more have won the palm of victory. Glory to God! Glory to God! How nobly and heroically your sons have borne themselves, beloved Congregation! We are spending the day encouraging one another for martyrdom, and praying for our enemies and for our beloved Institute. When the moment comes for them to designate the next victims, we all feel a holy serenity and an eagerness to hear our own names called, so that we can join the ranks of the chosen. We have been looking forward to this moment with generous impatience. When it came for those already chosen, some of them kissed the ropes that bound them, while others spoke words of pardon to the armed mob. As they drove off in the van towards the cemetery we could hear them shouting ‘Long live Christ the King!’ The angry mob answered ‘Death to him! Death to him!’- but nothing intimidated them. They are your sons, beloved Congregation, these young men, surrounded by pistols and rifles, yet they have the calm courage and daring to cry out ‘Long live Christ the King!’ on their way to the cemetery.
Tomorrow, the rest of us will go, and we have already chosen the passwords we will shout, even as the shots are being fired: to the Heart of our Mother, to Christ the King, to the Catholic Church, and to you, the common Mother of us all. My comrades tell me that I must begin the ‘Viva’s’ (Long live’s) and they will respond.
I will shout at the top of my lungs, and in our enthusiastic cries you will be able to discern how much we love you, beloved Congregation, since we will carry the memory of you even into those deep regions of suffering and death.
We all die happy with no regrets or misgivings. We all die praying God that the blood that falls from our wounds will not be shed in vengeance, but will rather transfuse your veins and stimulate your growth and expansion throughout the world. Farewell, beloved Congregation. Your sons, martyrs of Barbastro, salute you from prison and offer you our sufferings and anguish as a holocaust to expiate for our failings and as a witness to our faithful, generous and everlasting love. The martyrs of tomorrow the 14th, are fully aware that they die on the eve of the Assumption. And what a special awareness it is! We are dying because we wear the cassock, and we are dying precisely on the same day we were invested in it.
The martyrs of Barbastro greet you, as I do, the last and most unworthy of their number. Faustino Pérez, CMF.
Long live Christ the King! Long live the Heart of Mary! Long live the Congregation! Farewell, dear Institute . We are going to heaven to pray for you. Adiós, adiós !!”
These are their names
(according to the date of their martyrdom)
Fr. Felipe de Jesús Munárriz Azcona (61 years)
Fr. Juan Díaz Nosti (56 years)
Fr. Leoncio Pérez Ramos (60 years)
Fr. Sebastián Calvo Martínez (33 years)
Fr. Pedro Cunill Padrós (33 years)
Fr. José Pavón Bueno (35 years)
Fr. Nicasio Sierra Ucar (45 years)
St. Wenceslao Claris Vilaregut (29 years)
Bro. Gregorio Chirivás Lacambra (56 years)
Fr. Secundino Ortega García (24 years)
St. Javier L. Bandrés Jiménez (23 years)
St. José Brengaret Pujol (23 years)
St. Antolín Calvo y Calvo (23 years)
St. Tomás Capdevila Miró (22 years)
St. Esteban Casadevall Puig (23 years)
St. Eusebio Codina Millas (21 years)
St. Juan Codinachs Tuneu (23 years)
St. Antonio Dalmau Rosich (23 ños)
St. Juan Echarri Vique (23 years)
St. Pedro García Bernal (25 years
St. Hilario Llorente Martín (25 years)
St. Ramón Novich Rabionet (23 years)
St. José Mª Ormo Seró (22 years)
St. Salvador Pigem Serra (23 years)
St. Teodoro Ruiz de Larrinaga García (23 years)
St. Juan Sánchez Munárriz (23 years)
St. Manuel Torras Sais (21 years)
Bro. Manuel Buil Lalueza (21 years)
Bro. Alfonso Miquel Garriga (22 years)
St. José Amorós Hernández (23 years)
St. José Mª Badía Mateu (23 years)
St. Juan Baixeras Berenguer (22 years)
St. José Blasco Juan (24 years)
St. Rafael Briega Morales (23 years)
Bro. Francisco Castán Meseguer (25 years)
St. Luis Escalé Binefa (23 years)
St. José Figuero Beltrán (25 years)
St. Ramón Illa Salvía (22 years)
St. Luis Lladó Teixidor (24 years)
Bro. Flaviano Manuel Martínez Jarauta (23 years)
St. Luis Masferrer Vila (24 years)
St. Miguel Masip González (23 years)
St. Faustino Pérez García (25 years)
St. Sebastián Riera Coromina (22 years)
St. Eduardo Ripoll Diego (24 years)
St. José Ros Florensa (21 years)
St. Francisco Roura Farró (23 years)
St. Alfonso Sorribes Teixidor (23 years)
St. Agustín Viela Ezcurdia (22 years)
St. José Falgarona Vilanova (24 years)
St. Atanasio Viadaurreta Labra (25 years)
From the homily of Pope John Paul II on the day of the beatification
(October 25, 1992)
“It is a whole Seminary that confronts with generosity and bravery its martyrial offer to the Lord. The spiritual and moral integrity of these young men has reached to us through eye witnesses and also through their writings. In this regard, the personal testimonies transmitted to us by the seminarians are very eloquent. One of them, in a letter to his family, says: “When you receive this letter, sing to the Lord for the great and blessed gift or the martyrdom that the Lord deigns to grant me.” Another one wrote also: “Long live the Immaculate Heart of Mary! They execute us only because we are religious” and he adds in his maternal language: “No ploreu per me. Soc màrtir de Jesucrist” (Don’t cry for me. I am a martyr of Jesus Christ).
These martyrs were expressing their firm decision to dedicate themselves to the priestly ministry in these terms: “Since we cannot exercise the sacred ministry here on earth, working for the conversion of sinners, we will do like St. Teresa, the Little Flower: we will spend our heavenly life doing good on the earth.”
All the testimonies we have received allow us to assert that these Claretians died because they were disciples of Christ, because they did not want to renounce their faith and their religious vows. Therefore, through the shedding of their blood, they encourage all of us to live and to die for the Word of God that we have been called to announce.
The martyrs of Barbastro, following the example of their Founder, Saint Anthony Mary Claret, who also suffered an attempt in his life, felt the same desire to shed their blood for the love of Jesus and Mary, expressed with this exclamation sung so many times “Por ti, mi Reina, la sangre dar” (to give my blood for you, my Queen). The Saint himself had outlined a life programme for his religious: “A son of the Immaculate Heart of Mary is a man on fire with love, who spreads its flames wherever he goes; he desires mightily and strives by all means possible to set everyone on fire with God’s love.”