Father Gregorio Cermeño Barceló (1874-1936)
Zaragoza, the city of origin; Madrid, the city of adoption
It was during the second week of May 1874 when Gregorio Cermeño was born on the banks of the Ebro … in fact it was May 9th. His parents, Mariano and Matilde, rejoiced when their son was born. Two days passed and on May 11, he was baptized in the parish church of San Pablo in Zaragoza and his parents offered
him to Our Lady of Pilar. At the age of seven he was confirmed in the same church. It was only, however, for a brief period of time that Gregorio was able to enjoy the love and care of his parents because at the age of five he was an orphan … both of his parents had died.
Historically Spain had lived through the period of the First Republic (1873-1874) and was about to proclaim the restoration of the monarchy (December 29, 1874). With the entrance of the new monarch, Alfonso XII into Madrid (January 14, 1875), the monarchy was restored in Spain. New horizons of prosperity were opened to the members of the Spanish society and to the Church that had been persecuted in previous decades.
As an orphan Gregorio traveled to Madrid and became a resident at the Asilo de Jesús for poor children … an institution that had been administered by the Daughters of Charity since 1876. The home was located on Calle Alburquerque #12 in the Chamberi neighborhood and not far from Calle Garcia de Paredes where the Missionaries lived who provided for the spiritual welfare of the Sisters and the children at the Asilo. Gregorio lived in this home during a period of five years, until 1887. According to the statutes of the institution the boys were able to remain at the home until the age of fourteen, when they left to find work appropriate for their age … thus a new stage of life was begun.
Gifted with a natural piety and docility and counseled by the Daughters of Charity, Gregorio began to live at the parish of San Andrés where he served as an acolyte and where new doors were opened to him as he began to advance in his studies. From 1887-1890 he combined work with the study of Latin and the humanities. With the cultural background that he had acquired from the Daughters of Charity (with whom he would continue to maintain a relationship) he had been sufficiently prepared and was sent to the apostolic school in Teruel where he spent two more years in further studies: Spanish Grammar, Arithmetic, World History, the History of Spain, Geography, the Natural Sciences, Art and Music.
Entrance into the Internal Seminar of the Congregation
On April 27th, 1892, at the age of eighteen and filled with great optimism, Gregorio entered the Internal Seminary of the Congregation of the Mission. Gregorio was familiar with this house since the Daughters at the Asilo brought the children there every Thursday afternoon. So there was nothing new about this house … naturally the schedule and the lifestyle of the seminarians was new but these structures helped him to discern his missionary vocation. Little by little, as time passed, Gregorio came to a fuller understanding of the apostolic spirit and the various ministries that the Missionaries exercised. The guidance that he received from his director, Father Ramón Arana Echevarría, a man of God who had vast priestly/missionary experience, helped Gregorio overcome his shyness and his inferiority complex that characterized him as a child and a young man. Some of his companions spoke about his tendency to be alone and that he often found it difficult to interact with and relate to his classmates.
Gregorio found that the study of the writings of the Founder, Vincent de Paul and learning about the apostolic works of the Congregation in Spain and in the world (popular mission, missions ad gentes, diocesan seminaries, Vincentian seminaries, Marian Associations, other social charitable works) … all of this created an enthusiasm in Gregorio and led him to a firm conviction that the Spirit of God has called him to be a member of this Congregation.
At the conclusion of the two years in the Internal Seminary, his director and superior allowed him to pronounce his vows of chastity, poverty, obedience and stability to evangelize the poor in said Congregation. Therefore, on April 28, 1894, in Madrid, the Visitor, Father Eladio Arnaiz, witnessed Gregorio’s vows. Immediately thereafter he studied philosophy and theology in the same house in Madrid. In this house resided the better prepared Missionaries of the Province who were entrusted with the formation of the seminarians. It was generally stated that Gregorio was an above average student. He himself was inclined toward education and teaching rather than preaching, which was the first choice of the majority of the candidates preparing for ordination in the Congregation.
Gregorio was ordained a priest on September 8, 1899 in Madrid … he was filled with joy. We do not know, however, if the news of his ordination reached some distant relatives who might have been living in Madrid or Valencia. On the other hand, he lacked sufficient time that would have enabled him to invite the Daughters of Charity to participate in his joy. He was always grateful to the Daughters and would never forget them. He prayed publically and privately for the Company of the Daughters of Charity and expressed his gratitude to them for their dedication to the poor and the abandoned members of society.
The newly ordained priest traveled from Madrid to Valdemoro where he was provisionally assigned for some months while he completed the paper work that would allow him to travel to Brazil. In Valdemoro he served as chaplain to the Casa de San Diego and the Asilo de San Nicolás, which had recently been establish by the Daughters to care for the elderly Sisters and also for the younger Sisters who were afflicted with cholera, tuberculosis, typhus and influenza. Those were difficult times for Spain that had been impoverished by the colonial wars that occurred at the end of the nineteenth century.
I am perishing physically and morally
Taking into consideration the qualities of the new priest, the visitor, Father Eladio Arnaiz, together with his council, did not hesitate to send Gregorio to the seminary in Porto-Alegre (Brazil) … there were not many young men like Gregorio who were inclined to the ministry of formation and who were willing to become involved in the spiritual and cultural aspects of the Brazilian seminary. The ministry at the seminary had been accepted by the Visitor, Father Arnaiz, but accepted with the same conditions that the Jesuits had requested. The seminary had to confront some difficult circumstances and in fact, the Spanish Missionaries would remain there for only three years (1900-1902) and then, this ministry would be abandoned for the same reasons that motivated the Jesuits to leave.
Father Cermeño was vigilant and persevering during his time at the seminary. He taught biblical history, religion and chant. In addition to his teaching he established good relations with the seminarians and exhorted them to cultivate habits of prayer and study. His interventions, however, were not sufficient and ultimately, the Missionaries left the seminary because the hierarchy had not fulfilled the contract that was established with the Congregation. All of the Missionaries, in the same spirit of obedience with which they had accepted and carried out their ministry in Brazil, returned to Spain at the command of the Major Superiors in Madrid.
The return of the Missionaries to Spain in 1902 coincided with two important events: on the national level, Alfonso XIII became king of Spain and on the level of the Congregation, the Spanish Province wad divided into the Province of Barcelona and the Province of Madrid. Father Antoine Fiat was superior general (1878-1914) and from Paris followed the growth of the Spanish Provinces. In numbers, the Province of Madrid was larger than the Province of Barcelona and therefore had to accept greater commitments overseas.
Upon his return to Spain, Father Cermeño spontaneously said to the Visitor: I have returned with gray hair, but I am not gray because of my age. It seems that the two years in Brazil were enough for his hair to become as white as snow. During those years he had to endure many unpleasant situations, but we have no knowledge about the causes of such situations. Shortly before his return to Madrid, he wrote the Visitor, Father Arnaiz (May 7, 1902) and stated: I am perishing physically and morally. His superiors heard what he had said and recommended that Gregorio take some rest and recover his health before integrating himself into the work of the new canonical Province of Madrid. Had he once again been afflicted by shyness and low esteem, human qualities that had concerned him as a student and as a seminarian?
Assigned to houses of formation
With the establishment of the new Province of Madrid, there were many ministries but few workers. How then to cover the extensive territory and the many ministries that were dependent on this new Province? How to provide for the ministries in Spain as well as the ministries in Mexico, the Philippines, and the Antilles? Father Cermeño was willing to go wherever he was needed and that was one of his admirable traits. His personal situation, however, kept him in Madrid. After resting for some time at the Provincial House, he was assigned to the Shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in Monte Medo (Orense).
There he was happy and during four years dedicated his time to teaching at the apostolic school of the Congregation and also taught at the diocesan seminary. Besides teaching he spent many hours in spiritual direction with the seminarians and also heard confessions (for many hours) at the shrine … all of this made him feel useful to the community. But a vocational crisis, a temptation, had assaulted him for quite some time and he felt a need to speak about this situation with his superiors. This crisis was not a question of leaving the priesthood but rather one of remaining in the Congregation or becoming a member of the diocesan clergy. As is quite natural in such cases the individual becomes quite concerned about such a question but because of Gregorio’s emotional state this matter pushed him to the boarder of a deep depression.
In 1906 his superiors decided to send him to the house in Valdemoro where he would be able to recover his health. Once again he became chaplain to the two communities of the Daughters: San Diego and San Nicolás. At the same time he redoubled his efforts in caring for himself (he wanted to honor his name, Gregorio) and thus, during prayer he asked for light and strength from God that would help him resolve his doubts and in turn, strengthen his missionary vocation. Gregorio who was so adept at resolving difficult questions of conscience for his brothers and sisters, found himself unable to resolve his own crisis.
His superiors, aware of the chaos into which Gregorio had fallen, tried to help him in every possible way. The visitor convoked the council and “proposed the readmission of Mr. Cermeño who, repentant, requested admittance into the Congregation stating that he had behaved in an appropriate manner.” It was stated very clearly: Father Cremeño had never physically abandoned the community except for a brief absence from the Congregation. The proposal of the Visitor received a positive response from the council. Thus Gregorio’s personal situation was resolved and in 1907 he was assigned to the apostolic school and the shine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal where he remained for sixteen years, until 1923, during which time his vocational doubts were resolved. On the political level, in light of the critical situation and the insecurity that reigned in Spain, General Primo de Rivera assumed the leadership of the country as a dictator.
In 1922 Spain once again experienced a time of unrest and so the superiors of the Congregation took security measures and gave Gregorio assignments of short duration: 1923: in the apostolic school in Teruel; 1924: the apostolic school in Guadalajara and the apostolic school at the shrine in Medo. There is no doubt that Gregorio was esteemed by the people but he did not feel at ease in his new assignments. His superiors were uncertain with regard to the best place to assign him. He has spent only a brief period of time in Guadalajara but the people there pleaded for his return and so in 1929 he was in Guadalajara where he dedicated himself to the ministry of confession at the shrine and spent long hours listening to the confession of countless people … his reward was seeing the people rejoice in their new interior peace.
Esteemed by the professors and by the people of this area Gregorio preached in a manner that pleased the good Catholic people of Guadalajara who desired to grow in virtue under his direction. Indeed many people who desired spiritual perfection sought his guidance. He was admired for the recollected way in which he walked through the streets. The children in the school referred to him as “the saint”. In Guadalajara, in the midst of the danger of persecution he found peace and strength. The example and the encouragement of his confrere, Father Ireneo, helped him in this process of recovery.
Guadalajara, the end of his life
From 1929 until the summer of 1936 the years passed with relative calmness, except for the period ofthe establishment of the Second Republic (1931). The time of insecurity and tragedy began when the members of the militia arrived at the apostolic school where they found Father Gregorio Cermeño with his confreres: Father Ireneo Rodríguez, Father Vicente Vilumbrales and Brother Narciso Pascual. There was no opportunity for any kind of dialogue and the confreres were led to prison where they were to be judged, sentenced and then executed by a blood-thirsty group of individuals who hated the faith.
In the statements of various witnesses it was noted that Gregorio was very close to Father Ireneo Rodríguez and indeed it was at Ireneo’s side that Gregorio felt most secure. There is nothing strange about that since they had spent much time together in Guadalajara … more time than with Father Vilumbrales and Brother Pascual (who were known by sight to the people but because of the brief period of time that they had spent there, they were not well-known to the people). While in prison, others noted that Gregorio prayed the rosary in public and heard the confession of other prisoners and encouraged them in their present situation. The martyrdom of Father Cermeño occurred at the same time as that of Father Ireneo Rodríguez, which we have already described and will not repeat here. We note, however, the courage of Father Gregorio at the decisive moment of his profession of the faith as a martyr.
So quiet and reserved it was therefore only natural that Gregorio would be the person who would ask his executioners why they were treating people who were dedicated to helping others who were in need … why they were treating these people in such an inhuman manner. No one responded to his question and the only response was a round of bullets that put an end to the life of Father Carmeño. Many people later stated that Father Gregorio had acquired a reputation in Guadalajara as being a saint.
We add here another detail: the body of Father Cermeño was easily identified later by the Daughters of Charity and the same occurred with regard to the identification of the body of Father Ireneo. On the other hand, the body’s of Father Vilumbrales and of Brother Pascual (as well as the bodies of many other clerics and lay persons) were thrown in a fire which reduced their bodies to ashes which were then buried in a common grave.
We are reminded here about a similar action which involved the sacrifice of many Christians who were martyred in Utica, a city dear Carthage (Africa), men and women who refused to offer sacrifice to Jupiter. They were thrown into a fire and their bodies reduced to ashes … they became known as the “white mass of Africa”. Saint Augustine and the Spanish poet, Aurelio Clemente Prudencio (348-405) referred to the heroism of the multitude of Christian martyrs who offered their life for the faith.
Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM