The Daughters of Charity: Martyrs of the Twentieth Century

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

Firm and courageous witnesses to the faith

by: Sister María Ángeles Infante, DC


Introduction

In this session I have been asked to speak about the witness of the Daughters of Charity and the lay woman, martyrs of the faith during the twentieth century. What we say here could also be said about the saints in heaven and those persons who have been canonized; indeed, these women are a very small part of the heavenly court. In our history there have been thousands and thousands of Sisters who were martyrs of fidelity to the gospel and their charism, martyrs whose lives were shrouded in silence and anonymity … and yet their lives were affirmed by God’s great mercy. While I affirm the life of all of these individuals, I will present here only those who, as a result of the process that was engaged in by the Archdiocese of Madrid and the Archdiocese of Valencia during the years 1960-1968, are no longer silent but speak to us most eloquently. In other words, we will be referring to Sister Melchora Adoración Cortés Bueno and her fourteen companions who were martyred in Madrid and Sister Josefa Martínez Pérez and her twelve companions who were martyred in Valencia.

These twenty-seven Daughters of Charity and the Daughter of Mary who accompanied them in their martyrdom are a clear reflection of the light of the Risen Christ who has told us: I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life (John 8:12). They will be beatified on October 13th in Tarragona during the celebration of the Year of Faith. The objective of this celebration, organized by the Episcopal Conference of Spain, is to highlight the power of the Spirit in the life and the death of these 522 witnesses of the faith who will be beatified. It is the Risen Christ who impels men and women to courageously profess their faith during times of persecution and to die forgiving those who tortured and killed them.

There is no doubt that these women were very mindful of Jesus’ words: Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves. But beware of people, for they will hand you over to courts and scourge you in their synagogues, and you will be led before governors and kings for my sake as a witness before them and the pagans. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say. You will be given at that moment what you are to say. For it will not be you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will hand over brother to death, and the father his child; children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but whoever endures to the end will be saved (Matthew 10:16-22). The Spirit reminded them of these words and gave them the strength to accept martyrdom. This is the secret that emboldened their strength.

The book of Revelation narrates the persecution of the first followers of Jesus and states: Then one of the elders spoke up and said to me, "Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?" I said to him, "My lord, you are the one who knows." He said to me, "These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:13-14). Following the sacred author of the book of Revelation I am going to attempt to respond to four questions: Who were these martyrs? Where did they come from? Why and how did they die? What challenges do they present to us?

Who were these women who will be beatified during the Year of Faith?

They were simple women

All of these women came from simple origins. The twenty-seven Sisters were members of very ordinary families, families of popular origins. They were members of hard working families: 14 were daughters of families that owned and worked their land; 6 were daughters of agricultural or construction workers; 4 were daughters of merchants and/or artisans; 2 were daughters of teachers and one was the daughters of a civil policeman.

The laywoman, the Daughter of Mary, was also from a humble background. Her parents were agricultural workers in Bétera (Valencia) and had deep Christian roots … she was a member of a large family. Except for two Sisters who were the only child in their family, the rest of the Sisters came from large families that numbered between four and twelve [1].

Our Sisters/martyrs received a profound, traditional religious education in their homes, an education characterized by popular devotion in which they and their neighbors participated. That was the faith of the simple people. Among the twenty-seven witnesses to their faith, seven came the city: three from Madrid, two from Bilbao, one from Vitoria and one from Burgos. The other women were born in various towns and villages throughout Spain. Faith in God, solidarity with the poor, honesty in dealing with the neighbor, and love of work were very characteristic of the family environment of these women.

Their education was also very simple. Of the twenty-eight martyrs, twenty received their primary education in the schools of the Daughters of Charity. Seven studied in the schools of the town/village and one was educated with the Carmelites of Charity in Vitoria. All possessed a broad cultural background and were trained to become involved in various forms of service as well as to continue specialized studies. In general they were happy women, communicative and full of hope … in their youth they were women who communicated joy to their friends and neighbors. The testimony that was given on their behalf speaks of women who were good friends, peacemakers in their relationships and in their various forms of presence to other persons. They were happy and their joy became contagious.

Two of the women, because of painful family situations, experienced depression. Sister Estefanía Saldaña was affected by the sudden death of her parents when she was fourteen years old … at that time her brothers left the house in search of work. Sister María Luisa Bermúdez experienced a similar depression as the result of the death of her mother, the dispersal of her brothers and the second marriage of her father.

They were women with a firm faith

The faith journey of the Sisters reveals women who were not studied in theology but certainly women who were gentle and humble of heart. They learned about their faith in the warmth of their homes, through family prayer in the morning and the evening, through the explanations of the Catechism and Bible History that was communicated to them by their parents and/or grandparents. They themselves communicated their faith through simple words and not eloquent discourses, through a life that involved respect and obedience in their home, compassion toward the poor and regular prayer. They were enthusiastic because they understood the Creed of their faith and the Scriptures. Their simplicity enabled them to adhere to Jesus Christ and they approached Jesus with a humble heart.

The faith that they received at home was cultivated in school and in the catechetical lessons that they received in their parish. At the same time their faith was further cultivated through personal prayer and daily visits to the Blessed Sacrament. With simplicity they sought guidance with regard to their future life, with regard to God’s will for them. In this way they encountered God and men and women who were poor; they encountered the call of God to become a Daughter of Charity. Firm in the faith they allowed themselves to be counseled by a spiritual direction who, in the majority of the cases, was their parish priest. When they experienced this call they expressed their feelings with simplicity and humility and with the intention of doing that which was right. Those individuals who were being taught by the Daughters also sought advice from the Daughters.

With the firm faith of simple women they knew how to make this love of God an expression of compassion that was extended to those who were most poor. They learned how to see God in the various events of their life and they allowed themselves to be guided by Divine Providence. They loved justice and peace because they knew how to allow themselves to be guided by God who is all-merciful. They also found ways to deal with the various misunderstandings and difficulties that life presented to them. Thus, they approached the Company of the Daughters of Charity and sought admission. They wanted to follow Jesus Christ; they wanted to clothe themselves in Jesus’ spirit in order to continue his mission on behalf of the poor.

They were women who developed their faith

Through prayer and study the Sisters grew in their faith. From the time of their entrance into the Company they cultivated their faith through great care, simplicity and personal responsibility. The initial program of formation in the Seminary was developed in such a way as to enable the women to cultivate and grow in their faith: prayer, study, internalization of the gospel, the catechism of the Church, the Rules of the Company, the biography and the teaching of Saint Vincent de Paul and Saint Louise de Marillac and the documents of the various Superior Generals. A simple program but a well-structured program that enabled the women to cultivate and reaffirm their faith and thus provide them with a foundation for charity. A simple program for simple Christians that helped them to grow in the faith through the practice of prayer and participation in the sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation … their faith was further developed through their service on behalf of the poor, service that was done during the time of their postulancy. Through their faith they learned that the poor represent Jesus Christ and those same poor men and women are the lords and the masters of the Daughters of Charity.

All the Daughters had the opportunity to receive Communion frequently, a practice that at the beginning of the twentieth century was encouraged by Saint Pius X. Nourished by the Eucharist these Sisters were women of faith … a faith that was revealed in their mission where they served men and women in need. In fact, the Sisters lived their faith until the time of their martyrdom. The words that Pope Benedict XVI spoke were fulfilled in them: Faith grows when it is lived as an experience of love received and when it is communicated as an experience of grace and joy. It makes us fruitful, because it expands our hearts in hope and enables us to bear life-giving witness: indeed, it opens the hearts and minds of those who listen to respond to the Lord’s invitation to adhere to his word and become his disciples (Porta Fidei, #7)

The Communities in which these Sisters lived were schools of the faith. There was a spirit in these communities that supported their growth in the faith … and this spirit was more obvious than any words. From the time of the famous “war of the catechism” which was promoted by some political secularists in 1910 and strengthened by the “Padlock Law” of Don José Cannalejas, the Sisters/martyrs strengthened and deepened their faith through the diligent study of Catechism of the Church, spiritual reading and pious practices that were common to that era. They witnessed the wave of secularism and atheism that threatened Christian faith and charity during the 1930’s and yet during this time remained courageous. They continued their apostolic mission and courageously manifested their faith. At the same time their faith was radiated in their catechetical instruction that was imparted to the children.

They were women whose faith was enlightened

Pope Francis’ encyclical, Lumen Gentium, speaks to us about an enlightened faith that is radiated, communicated and expressed with joy and a naturalness when one is related to Jesus Christ (Lumen Fidei, #21). This characteristic of faith is seen in our Sisters who were martyred … it is seen in their spiritual life, in their community relationships, and in their service of charity on behalf of the poor. Witnesses have highlighted this characteristic in their respective processes that took place in the Archdiocese of Madrid and the Archdiocese of Valencia. Let us look at some of these elements of their spiritual life.

The light of faith shines in a luminous way in the prayer that Sister Melchora Adoración Cortés Bueno offered and wrote on the day of her vows: I consecrate myself to God who deigned to accept my consecration. How good God is! How blessed am I! How can I repay the Lord for such great mercy? God has no need of me and I can give nothing to God that is not already God’s … But there are so many girls who need Christian instruction and education! And what I do on their behalf the Lord accepts as actions that are done to him. The Lord has a great love for these girls! When I suffer on behalf of these girls, the Lord will reward me as though I had suffered for him; yes, suffered for him who suffered so much for me … My God, for as long as I live I will use my time to bring these girls to you. I will be greatly blessed if through my instrumentality many come to know you and love you and serve you and then glorify you in heaven. Their prayer and your infinite mercy will lead me to your kingdom. Amen [2].

We find a similar prayer in the spiritual journals of Sister Martina Vázquez Gordo, a prayer that was written on March 25th, 1901, the day when she took vows for the first time. She entitled the prayer, A Pact with God: My God, with each breath that I breathe, with every palpitation of my heart, and with every minute that I live on this earth, I want to glorify you in the same way that your Son, Jesus and your mother, Mary and all the saints in heaven glorify you forever … Furthermore, millions and millions of prayers of praise and blessing and thanksgiving are offered to you in the Masses that are celebrated throughout the world. Each time that I kiss the image of your divine Son or your Immaculate Mother or hold that image close to my heart, I want to be enflamed with a great love for you, my Lord. May I never lose sight of your presence and may I always act in accord with your love, through your love, and for your love. May all my actions be done with the intention of pleasing you. I would prefer to die rather than offend you. Amen [3].

In letters that have been preserved by family members we see how these martyrs radiated and communicated their faith during those difficult times. Their faith continued to be developed and in time their faith became more illuminating and more confident. This sentiment was expressed by Sister María Serverina Díaz Prado in letters that she wrote to her parents in 1932: I received your letter on January 31st and was glad to receive news about the events that touch us. Our Lord has asked for a further sacrifice from you (the death of the maternal grand-mother); but I also see that you are in conformity with his holy will. God will generously reward you for the sacrifices that he frequently asks of you because it seems that you are pleasing in God’s eyes. You can imagine how things are going here; at any time we may be asked to leave. It seems that education is being assaulted on every front and there are forces that want to eliminate any and every influence of religion [4].

Three months later she added to that prayer: Pray for the men and women religious because it seems that we have once again become the concern of various sectors. Here in the town however, we are held in esteem and the people are very peaceful. Nothing has occurred and our enrollment has increased and there are 112 girls here. For the moment we are calm and we have placed ourselves in God’s hands [5]. In May 1935 Sister spoke about the pastoral success in the school: At the present time Sister Adoración is preparing the girls for First Communion. She gathered together the mothers of those girls and they went to confession, thus fulfilling their Easter duty … many of these mothers had not been to confession since the time that they were married … all of this gives us much joy.

In 1924, Sister Maria Dolores Barroso was missioned to the psychiatric hospital in Leganés Madrid. She arrived there with a certain pain in her heart because her mother had just died … the only source of affective love. Her father and brothers had previously died of tuberculosis. She, however, did not focus on her own sorrow or on the sacrifice that was involved in consenting to this new assignment. In a Christmas letter that she wrote to her aunt, she stated: My dear aunt, I ask the child Jesus who was born in Bethlehem to give you that which is best for your body and soul. In a special way I am concerned about the soul which is the greatest treasure that we must present to the Lord in order to enter into the next life, because ultimately this life will pass away … there is no reason to become attached to this life because the evil one is very astute and very sly and he wants to steal away good souls like you and my cousins [6]. In February, 1936 Sister wrote again: The tumult has not yet arrived here. But who would dare to confront these madmen? We are calm and awaiting orders from our Superiors. If something occurs (and God willing nothing will occur) I will let you know as soon as I can because, after the Blessed Mother, you are now my mother and my cousins are my brothers and sisters and so I ask you to be patient with this niece of yours [7].

On October 30, 1925, a few days after her entrance into the Company, Sister Josefa Martínez Pérez wrote to her parents and brothers and sisters. She was clear about the fact that her vocation was a gift which should be accepted and cultivated from the perspective of faith. For this to happen there was a need for time and Sister explained this with great simplicity: I cannot write at length because I do not have much time … knowing that I am well is enough. I have come here to learn how to become holy and how to live a holy life and thus act as a good Daughter of Charity. In accord with God’s will each person should live out their proper vocation [8].

After the death of her father, which occurred at Christmas time 1920, Sister Ramona Cao Fernandez wrote to her family and expressed her desire to see the family maintain their unity in the faith: I want all of you to come together to make a fervent confession and receive holy communion so that the divine Child might look on you with mercy and might give you peace and serenity which is acquired through union among family members. There is nothing more beautiful than to love and to be loved … the Lord dwells in those persons who are united together in his name and is pleased to see a family united, a family that is able to put aside their selfishness and ambition, a family in which each members places the well-being of the other members before his/her own well-being. It is this which constitutes happiness and true well-being in the family [9].

We could add here many other texts from each one of the Sisters but I believe that the above referenced words are sufficient since they express and confirm the enlightened faith of our martyrs. I want to state here that without the required investigation that the diocesan process demanded, all of this richness would have been lost in the archives of the families of the newly beatified, martyrs of the faith and our martyrs for the cause of charity.

Another source that indicates the depth of their faith is the testimony that was sent to the dioceses during the time of the investigation process. The witnesses are people who lived with the Sisters, who knew them and interacted with them and who, in this personal encounter, recognized the strength of their faith, the joy of their hope and the fire of their charity. Examining the various documents of this process we find the following very significant testimonies.

A former student from the Immaculate School (el colegio de la Inmaculada) in Leganés referred to Sister Melchora Adoración Cortés: I saw proof of Sister Adoración’s spirit of faith during my years in school because this faith was revealed in the manner in which she taught us. She always related things to life in union with God. I remember that she taught us to pray and not only private prayer but taught us pray with the gospels and in accord with the liturgical life of the Church, for example, the liturgy of Holy Week. When the Sisters prayed, it was clear that they did this with fervor and devotion [10].

A companion from the community at the psychiatric hospital in Leganés spoke about Sister Dolores Barroso Villaseñor: She was a good Daughter of Charity and loved the poor. She foresaw her martyrdom and out of love for God she accepted this reality.

A companion from the community at the hospital San Carlos spoke about Sister Josefa Girones Arteta who was martyred in the park of Las Vistillas (Madrid): Sister Josefa always wanted to act in accord with God’s will and everything that she did was done from the perspective of fidelity to the divine will … The life of Sister Josefa would have no meaning if it were separated from fulfilling God’s will. When people talked with her they realized that her only topic of conversation was that of God … she lived in the presence of God and accepted God’s holy will [11].

A Missionary of the Congregation, who frequently visited Sister Josefa Laborra in the community at Bétera (Valencia) stated: she was viewed as the spiritual mother of the town … she had gifts that were revealed in the way that she accepted people: understanding, tenderness and prudence … during times of persecution she told the Sisters: if we have to die for God, then let us die together as a community [12]. A former student spoke about Sister Carmen Rodríguez Barazal: It was obvious that she lived for God [13]. Another person spoke about Sister Estefanía Irisarri and stated: She seemed like a saint and was very mortified. We all saw that in school she chose that which was least appealing and she spent much time serving food to the children. Even though she was infirm people never noticed this and Sister never complained about her infirmity. She had the face of a saint [14].

One of the brothers of Sister Lorenza Díaz Bolaños, José Ignacio, spoke about the faith of his Sister: She had no greater satisfaction then to be able to read, speak about and comment on books and/or passages related to Christ’s life or the life of the saints. She did this with no fanfare but in the intimacy of the family … she always remained focused on God’s love [15]. A companion from the community added: during the day she was so recollected that she appeared to live in the presence of God and to fulfill to perfection that which God commanded … she was very edifying,, a hard worker, prudent and willing to serve others … we were greatly edified by her. Because I was very young her attitudes became etched in my interior [16].

A niece of Sister Modesta Moro Briz affirmed: She attended to everyone with tenderness; her friendliness was obvious at all times and she wanted everyone to feel satisfied and content. She did not hold back in her work or in caring for others; she communicated her joy to those who were around her. She radiated God peace. In her dealings with families and the inevitable discussions and frictions that result from such relationships she revealed that she was very understanding and gave little importance to those frictions [17].

The owner of the house in Foyos (Valencia), where the Sisters were received, gave the following testimony concerning Sister Victoria Arregui Guinea: Sister Victoria Arregui was a very warm person; she appeared to be shy but I have the impression that she was a saint … she prayed with great fervor. Once a week a priest came to hear their confession, to celebrate Mass and gave them Communion. To provide a cover for this priest and aware of the fact that other children would ask about this man, we told our children that he was their uncle. Three times she received a letter from a nephew who had authority and influence in the government in Valencia and he told her that he could free her if she wanted this … all she had to do was abandon her companions and say that she was not a Daughter of Charity. She stated, however, that she preferred to die rather that live indebted to her persecutors [18].

With regard to Sister Joaquin Rey Aguirre, some very valuable testimony from her former students has been preserved. One of those students stated: She was a woman with a strong character and temperament. In 1931 some people began to burn some of the convents and those individuals approached the Center where the Sisters ministered. Sister Joaquina went out to meet those people and persuaded them to desist in carrying out their perverse plans. Beneath this strong exterior was hidden a charitable heart and a heart filled with faith in God. This heart was revealed in her commitment to the children as she shared in their games … The families of these children were startled by these activities and came to Center to take their sons and daughters home, but again Sister Joaquina was able to calm them and convince them that their children should continue to participate in the classes and the workshops that were offered at the Center [19]. Her companions viewed her in the following manner: She was a very spiritual, intelligent and lively woman; she was always willing to cooperate in any project, even though she might be very busy in the Admissions Office or involved in some other administrative manner. She was very pious and a good Daughter of Charity [20].

We could continue to provide similar testimony for each one of the Sisters. The testimonies that we have cited here, however, reveal the manner in which the Sisters lived their faith in the midst of their surroundings, a faith that filled their life with joy and hope and meaning.

They were women whose faith was tested

In the secular environment in which we presently live, we are tempted to think that in previous eras it was easier to believe in God and to give witness to the faith. I am convinced, however, that each era has its own proper difficulties. If we reflect on the life of these martyrs, we will discover that each one of them was tested and proven. They endured personal harassment, insults, calumnies and, as the persecution increased, convents and churches were burned, religious houses were assaulted and sacked, priests and brothers and sisters and laymen and women were imprisoned without any trial or hearing and many of these individuals were executed in odium fidei. In the midst of this situation, the Sisters remained calm and faithful and serene … they placed their trust in God. They suffered through the period of religious purification that attempted to eliminate God from all charitable, heath and educational institutions.

What was involved in this process of religious purification? The various government agencies have gathered together some detailed information. In the official archives we are able to read the Records of Religious Purification. These files contain: a) the minutes of the meetings in which a decision was made to expel the Sisters from the hospitals, schools and charitable centers, b) the exact date on which the religious ceased to function in the above mentioned institutions and were replaced by lay persons, c) the appointment of administrators who replaced the Sisters, d) a reorganizational plan of service in the various institutions and a statement with regard to the urgency to put these plans into effect.

These files show that this process of religious purification had a common motivation, namely, the fulfillment of legal stipulation. Article 3 of the Constitution of the Second Spanish Republic affirms that the State will have no established religion and the second paragraph of article 26 affirms that “the State, the various regions, the provinces and the municipalities will not maintain, favor or provide financial assistance to the church, religious associations or institutions”. At the same time, article 27 of the same legal document establishes freedom of conscience and the right to profess and practice with complete freedom any religion. These fundamental precepts oblige those who are responsible for the public administration of affairs to adopt the necessary means so that these articles are enforced in an exact manner [21].

The Sisters were expelled from their communities, scattered, placed at the mercy of families and boarding houses who might provide them with refuge. The situation of persecution was described in the article Down with the Church! that was published in the August 15, 1936 edition of the newspaper, Solideridad Obrera. The article stated: The Church has to disappear forever! The church buildings can no longer serve as places for their filthy propaganda. The Church has to be uprooted from our land. Therefore it is right that we should take possession of her goods since these rightfully belong to the people. The religious orders have to be suppressed. The bishops and cardinals should be executed. Ecclesiastical goods have to be appropriated.

In the midst of this situation, to identify oneself as a person of faith or a member of the Church was to place oneself in the eye of a hurricane. Many persons, strengthened by the Holy Spirit, professed their faith and recalled the words of Jesus: they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name (Luke 21:12-13).

There is no doubt that the faith of the martyrs was tested and proven as a result of persecution. Because of their faith, the martyrs accepted and lived the Beatitudes as a way to follow Jesus Christ and because of their faith they were able to to confront the beatitude of persecution: Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you (falsely) because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5:10-12). People can only embrace this beatitude if they have faith. Martyrdom is the culmination of a life of commitment in faith and for the faith.

Some of the Sisters, like Sister Estefanía Saldaña, have left us in their correspondence an expression of the manner in which their faith was tested and proven. She suffered the dark night of the soul, misunderstanding, scruples … but she maintained her faith in the midst of this situation. In the correspondence with her spiritual director she stated: I ask God for the strength to do what he asks of me and to endure what he desires, to even identify myself with him … and if God desires, I am willing to offer up my life … I have a great love for my vocation and I give thanks to God for having chosen me to be his spouse, for having preferred me over others who might have been more pleasing to him and more useful to him than I have been. I accept and willing embrace and am resigned to the path of suffering and the cross that is before me [22].

Sister María Severina Díaz Pardo suffered much as the result of her mother’s illness and death, events that occurred soon after she entered the Company. She did not understand any of this; she had decided to follow and respond to the Lord’s call. She was the oldest of eleven children and the right hand of her mother. She left home in order to remain faithful to her vocation and then her mother became ill and died. She asked God for light and patience as she found herself in the midst of a dark night of faith: This news had a great impact on me … Who would have thought that my dear mother would so suddenly be afflicted by illness … there is no other solution then to ask the Lord for patience and to recognize that it is the Lord who is testing and proving me. Even though this appears to be difficult, it will also be meritorious … I imagine that at this time my family will have done everything to find a doctor who can care for my mother [23].

Sister Díaz Pardo accepted with the same patience and calmness the rejection of her request to participate in the ordination and the first Mass of her brother, Javier (1935): I am sorry that I am unable to accompany you on this important day for the whole family and therefore unable to share a sign of love with my parents who are so profoundly Christian. I extend to Javier my kindest and heart-felt congratulations. May he give himself totally to God so that he might do much good for people [24].

Trust in Providence and the desire to fulfill God’s will guided the life of Sister Asunción Mayoral Peña. For her to make a decision to follow her vocation was a test of her faith. She was the older of two children. Her father had died when she was a little girl. Her mission in Tardajos (Burgos) was to help her mother … How then could she leave her widowed and poor mother in order to follow Jesus Christ? As a result of her faith she made a decision to follow Jesus Christ and in faith accepted to live in a state of openness and thus, through a life of faith she accepted martyrdom. One of her companions gave the following testimony: On July 21st a group of armed militia removed us from the Home for the Blind in Madrid. They threatened us and insulted us and followed us to Leganés where we sought refuge … Sister Maria Asunción was willing to accept martyrdom and professed this publically, unafraid of the threats and the mockery of the militia. She encouraged the rest of us to accept this suffering and exhorted us to remember Christ on the cross … She was very zealous in leading souls to God. She was serious, mortified, pious, observant of the Rules, self-sacrificing and always at the service of others. She was not afraid of death and in fact, when some others spoke about martyrdom she said that she feared the brutalities that could be done to her but she was not afraid of martyrdom, but rather she accepted martyrdom as a gift from God [25].

Sister Juan Pérez Abascal had her faith tested during her journey from Jaén to Madrid on the death train. From inside the last car of the train on which she travelled, she witnessed the executions that were occurring. Sister Juana was frightened and began to cry; her knees began to tremble and she experienced temptation … Her companion, Sister Ramona, comforted her and encouraged her by reminding her of the Beatitudes … these things were stated by the very persons who executed the Sisters. As the Sisters recalled the words of the Beatitudes they were comforted and strengthened to profess their faith, to forgive their enemies and to place their life in the hands of God. The words, Long live Christ the King, which they cried out at the time of their death, were a true profession of faith that had been tested. Because they knew through the eyes of faith that God is the Lord and the center of their life, they were able to cry out in a loud voice, Long live Christ the King!

Sister Joaquina Rey also experienced the testing of her faith as she stood in front of the wall of the Cemetery of Benavites (Valencia). As she faced the man who was about to fire his rifle, she trembled. That same man had attempted to abuse her … she was able to defend herself but as she confronted the reality of death, her right to live overshadowed her willingness to accept martyrdom as an eminent gift … her faith was cast to the background and all she saw was the rifle and her enemy. She rushed at her executioner and took his rifle. At that moment the blessed martyr, Don José Ruiz, the confessor of the Sisters and Sister Victoria Arregui, her companion in community, moved by the Holy Spirit, said: Sister Joaquina, do not lose the grace of martyrdom and squander this opportunity to enter triumphantly into heaven. Sister Joaquina reacted and asked for forgiveness, she confessed her cowardice, received absolution and died, courageously professing her faith in Jesus Christ.

We can affirm, then, that martyrdom was the end of a journey of simple but firm faith, a journey of faith that was cultivated, enlightened and tested. I believe that the martyrs show us in a very clear manner that the path of following Jesus Christ must culminate like his, on the cross. Because the martyrs had lived their life from a perspective of faith, they were able to be courageous witnesses to their faith. They were prepared and able to profess their faith when they were executed. Therefore the Church is going to beatify them during the Year of Faith and places them before us as models and as firm and courageous witnesses of the faith.

From where did these witnesses of faith come from?

They came from very specific geographical place

The Sisters came from every part of Spain. Three of them were from Galicia: Sister Ramona Cao Fernández from La Rúa de Valdeorras (Orense), Sister María Luisa Bermúdez Ruiz from Sabugueira (Coruña), Sister Carmen Rodríguez Barazal from Cea (Orense).

Three of them were from the Basque Country: Sister María Severina Díaz-Pardo Gauna from Vitoria and Sister Victoria Arregui Guinea and Sister Joaquina Rey Aguirre, from Bilbao.

Three were from Navarra: Sister Josefa Gironés Arteta from Garisoain, Sister Josefa Laborra Goyeneche from Sangüesa and Sister Estefanía Irisarri Irigaray, from Peralta.

Two were from the area of Aragona: Sister Melchora Adoración Cortés Bueno was born in Sos del Rey Católico and Sister María Rosario Ciércoles Gascón was born in Zaragoza.

Seven were from Castilla-León: Sister Micaela Hernán Martínez from the capital of Burgos, Sister Estefanía Saldaña Mayoral from Rabé de las Calzadas (Burgos), Sister Asunción Mayoral Peña from Tardajos (Burgos), Sister Isidora Izquierdo García from Páramo del Arroyo (Burgos), Sister Martina Vázquez Gordo from Cuéllar (Segovia), Sister Gaudencia Benavides Herrero from Valdemorilla (León) and Sister Modesta Moro Briz from Santibáñez de Béjar (Salamanca).

Three were born in Madrid: Sister Juana Pérez Abascal, Sister Concepción Pérez Giral and Sister Pilar Isabel Sánchez Suárez.

Sister María Dolores Úrsula Caro Martin was from La Mancha and was born in Granátula de Calatrava (Ciudad Real).

Sister Andrea Calle González was from Plasencia (Cáceres).

Two were from Valencia: Sister Josefa Martínez Pérez from Alberique and María Dolores Broseta Bonet from Bétera.

Two were from Andalucía: Sister María Dolores Barroso Villaseñor from Bonares (Huelva) and Sister María Pilar Nalda Franco from Algodonales (Cádiz).

Lastly, Sister Lorenza Díaz Bolaños was from the Canary Islands and she is the first Christian to be beatified as a member of the Church in that area. She was a member of a very simple family from Guía or Santa María de Guía (Las Palmas de Gran Canaria).

They were part of an historical moment of conflict in Spain

At the beginning of the twentieth century Spain experienced a pronounced population growth among the popular masses, agricultural workers and industrial workers who labored for long hours but received a salary that did not even allow them to provide for the primary needs of their families. There was a high infant mortality rate and elevated rates of illiteracy … a situation of general poverty prevailed. On the other hand, government officials and politicians showed themselves to be incapable of finding an adequate solution to these problems and instead focused their attention on the struggle for power and were thus inattentive to the needs of the people. With the installation of General Primo de Rivera as dictator (1923) and the world economic crisis of 1929 the social problem in Spain was revealed through labor strikes and work stoppages. It was in the midst of this environment that the civil war began. There were frequent demonstrations and neighborhood disturbances, protests and riots … the secular ideologies blamed the Church for the social evils and launched violent activities against the church. The popular masses, ignorant, illiterate and lacking education, were manipulated.

This situation explains the origins of the persecution, the burning of churches and convents, the looting and the assaults and assassinations that reached their zenith during the 1934 Asturias Revolution and in 1936-1939 in those areas dominated by the Popular Front. Anti-clericalism and other phobias with regard to the Church dominated during this era and at the same time these forces promoted a hatred against everything that was religious … this hatred was revealed in open hostility against the Church [26]. The following paragraph that was published in the newspaper, Solidaridad Obrera, (July 26, 1936) was an attempt to justify the burning of churches and the residences of men and women religious: These buildings are the warehouses of intellectualism and piles of garbage. That is what we are burning. Works of art? In the first place the works of art are desired by the hierarchical and authoritarian world, not because of their art but because of the quality of their silver and gold. Life is more valuable than art [27].

As confirmed by the research of the historian, Vicente Cárcel Ortí, the persecution was in a state of fomentation throughout the nineteenth century … the successive wars, the frequent changes in government, religious ignorance and anti-clericalism were on the rise among the more popular sectors of society. On the occasion of the inauguration of the Second Republic (April 1931), the Church, after the elections, complied with this established form of government which was not, however, respected. In May 1931 convents were burned in Madrid and we see the first violent demonstrations against the Church. The Church began to be persecuted with savage cruelty.

In the midst of this situation the Daughters of Charity did not abandon their places of service but rather rededicated themselves to the fulfillment of their mission of charity. In some cases, such as the General Hospital of San Sebastian de Bedajoz, the Sisters were expelled before the beginning of the civil war. Then, because the cost of administering the hospital tripled, the Sisters were asked to return. The Daughters never meddled in politics but yes, they were certainly interested in knowing about the events that were taking place and, as citizens, they participated in the election of 1931 (elections in which women were allowed to vote for the first time). They acted with respect and a freedom of conscience that is proper to those whose lives are rooted in the truth and charity. In the midst of this situation the Daughters of Charity realized that they must always minister on behalf of those who are poor … and it was for this reason that the atheistic forces asked for their expulsion from these institutions.

They were members of a Church accused of being detached from people

In April, 1931, with the proclamation of the Second Republic, the religious question surfaced. The statement of President Azaña that Spain is no longer a Catholic country, created a conflict between republican forces who defended the secular state of the nation as defined in the 1931 Constitution and traditional sectors of the Church who were encouraged, first, by Cardinal Pedro Segura and later, by Cardinal Isidro Gomá, who defended the establishment of a state religion. These persons interpreted the republican reforms as an attack against the Church. The secular elements of society used these statements to initiate a persecution that was directed against the Church while at the same time engaging in a propaganda campaign to manipulate the popular masses.

At the same time there was another sector of the Spanish Church, led by the cardinal of Tarragona, Francisco Vidal i Barraquer and Don Ángel Herrera Oria, editor of the Catholic newspaper, El Debate, who, with the support of the Vatican and the Nuncio, adopted a prudent position of dialogue, but were not listened to. The attacks on the Church were so evident that Cardinal Vidal i Barraquer wrote to Con Manuel Azaña, the President of the Republic: I have been made aware of some serious news, not through the press but through authorized independent sources … and I have heard about the burning of churches and the attacks on persons and the abuse of sacred objects, for example, the attack that was made on the elderly Spanish cardinal. I can no longer silence, your Excellency, the vigorous and bitter protests of the Church that has become the innocent victim of these barbarian acts of violence and wanton assaults … all of which are serious and unjust actions that seem to have the support of public authority. I fear Mr. President and believe that the path that has been undertaken and the hostility with which these things are being done will lead to the abolishment of public power … citizens will lose their natural right to live in security and with dignity and ultimately, Spain will be destroyed … Spain whose life and civilization cannot be sustained without spiritual and social peace [28].

Cardinal Vidal i Barrauer and Herrera Oria proposed an accord of mutual respect between the Catholic Church and the secular republicans, but were unable to obtain any agreement. The republican government abolished the subsidies that it gave to the clergy, prohibited the members of religious order to teach and, despite the financial difficulties, established public education through the creation of new state school; they introduced civil marriages, divorce laws and civil burial. The republicans encouraged violent actions against persons and property belonging to the Church.

The hierarchy of the Church was accused of being distant from the needs of people, of aligning themselves with the powerful sectors of society, of being polarized by worship, popular devotions, processions and external cultural expressions. Members of men and women’s religious congregations who dedicated themselves to charitable activity, health care and education were attacked. The Daughters of Charity were engaged in service in 90% of the existing charitable and heath care centers and more than 600 primary schools were under their administration. Therefore the religious orders were most affected by the process of religious purification.

They were involved in a mission of service on behalf of the poor

Yesterday and today the Daughters of Charity understand that their educational, social and health care ministry on behalf of the poor has a twofold dimension: a human and a spiritual or theological dimension. With regard to the human dimension the Sisters place themselves in a position of solidarity with those who have not had the opportunity to avail themselves of an education and they do this in order to help these people free themselves from their enslavement and achieve true knowledge. At the same time the Sisters place themselves in a position of solidarity with those who are infirm and they do this in order to begin a process of healing and thus mitigate their physical and spiritual pain. The Sisters also place themselves in a position of solidarity with the children who have no home, with beggars, with the elderly, with those who are imprisoned and those who are in need, and again they do this in order to affirm these people and accompany them and offer them the warmth of tenderness and lead them along a path that leads to their integral promotion. With regard to the spiritual dimension, the Sisters experience themselves as women who continue the mission of Christ, as women who participate in Christ’s sentiments and as women who proclaim the Kingdom of God through faith, hope and charity. Both dimensions, like the two shores of a river, are inseparable … each dimension needs the other in order to arrive at the flowing streams of life that renew the face of the earth. That is the mission of the Daughters of Charity and that is the way in which these Sisters, firm and courageous witnesses to the faith, understood their mission.

Five of the Daughters, besides being involved in a mission of direct service to those persons in need in the school or the hospital or the charitable centers, also accepted the responsibility of government and vocational animation as Sisters Servant: Sisterr Asunción Mayoral in two communities, that of the tuberculosis hospital of Santa María del Naranco in Oviedo and the asylum for the blind in Madrid; Sister María Dolores Úrsula Caro in Casa Misericordia in Albacete; Sister Martina Vázquez Gordo at the school, La Milagrosa in Zamora and at the hospital and the school in Segorbe (Castellón); Sister Josefa Laborra and Sister Carmen Rodríguez Barazal at the school of the asylum in Bétera (Valencia). All of them promoted the faith of the community during those days of persecution and motivated the members of their local community to deepen their prayer life, providing them with time for extended prayer in their respective places of refuge. All were concerned about looking for a priest to celebrate the Eucharist clandestinely and thus receive the necessary strength from the Bread of Life.

It should be noted that the most persecuted area of service was that of education. In the anti-God Congress that was held in Moscow, the decision was made to destroy the Catholic schools in Spain. The following statement was made in a telegram that was sent by Jesús Hernandez, the representative of the president, Francisco Largo Caballero: Your struggle against religion is also ours. We have the obligation to make Spain a land of militant atheists. All of the schools in Spain will be transformed into communist schools [29].

Sixteen Sisters, martyrs and the Daughter of Mary were involved in the ministry of education … María Dolores Broseta Bonet was an aide in the school in Bétera; seven Sisters were involved in the ministry of health care and five were involved in various charitable centers. In summary, 57% of the martyrs were involved in education, 25% in health care and 18% in other charitable social works.

How and why were these witnesses of the faith martyred

They died professing their identity and giving witness to their faith

As a consequence of the religious purification and the resulting expulsion from their local community and their place of service, all the Sisters sought refuge among families, former students and in trustworthy boarding houses. In these various places of refuge the Sisters lived a life that was hidden from the eyes of the world because they were aware of the fact that they were being threatened and persecuted. They were not imprudent and attempted to save their life in order to continue their mission of service. Some, like Sister Josefa Gironés Arteta, lived in four different boarding houses in Madrid in order to evade the members of the militia and the Popular Tribunal that had decided on her death. In the reports about the assassination of the Sisters that are preserved in the archives of the civil war, it is stated that the charge leveled against each one of these women was that they were religious women, members of the Daughters of Charity.

Thus, this is the manner in which our martyrs lived and died: they courageously professed their faith in Jesus Christ, they forgave their persecutors and placed their life in the hands of God the Father. Through their words and actions they gave witness to Christ and to the value of following Christ’s teachings. They preferred death over the renunciation of their faith and the renunciation of their vocation as Daughters of Charity. For this reason the Church beatifies them. Some of the Sisters asked for the grace of martyrdom as the supreme gift of charity … in fact it has been stated that this is precisely what Sister Josefa Gironés Arteta, Sister Lorenza Díaz Bolaños, Sister Josefa Martínez Pérez and Sister Martina Vázquez Gordo did. Furthermore, Sister Martina Vázquez Gordo, at the time of her arrest, interceded on behalf of the other Sisters and spoke words similar to those of Jesus when he was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. She said: I know you are looking for me; therefore let these others go free … they can help in the hospitals. She was heard and the other Sisters were allowed to go on their way.

They died because they were followers of Jesus Christ

These women died because they were Daughters of Charity, followers of Jesus Christ. Indeed, this was the motive for their persecution and their execution. They did not belong to any political party and in fact, had no political affiliation. They had few possessions that could be seized upon their death. The Daughters did not own any buildings but were administrators of those properties which were seized and converted into prisons or government offices … those who owned these buildings were unable to voice their opposition to such seizures. The Sisters had no money or jewelry on their person and their clothing was worth nothing. Therefore, it would be senseless to say that the Sisters were persecuted for economic reasons.

The only crime for which they were interrogated and to which they confessed was that of being Daughters of Charity. They died because they were Daughters of Charity … that was the only reason for their death. Their persecutors wanted to eliminate the name of God from every charitable center and from every institution that provided people with education and health care. With their martyrdom, the Sisters made that objective impossible.

What challenges to these martyrs present to us?

The martyrs of the faith in twentieth century Spain, especially our Sisters, lived out their faith in the midst of a very secular environment, one of propaganda and hostility from atheistic communist forces. These women were expelled from their local communities and their places of service and mission. They were threatened and persecuted and they attempted to save their lives by utilizing every means that was available to them. But the astuteness of evil was more cunning than the good will of those women. Thus the persecutors had their way. Today there are circumstances very similar to those of the martyrs … and as a result the lives of the martyrs challenge us and invite us to write the history of the future.

• In light of the situation of superficiality and comfort that our culture places before us, these women invite us to develop our faith, to be convinced witnesses, to profess the radical nature of the gospel and to unite faith with charity.

• In light of the situation of self-centeredness and consumerism, they challenge us to live our vocation from a perspective of evangelical gratitude, to give of ourselves (our being and our possessions) with love and freedom and to make known Jesus’ love to those persons who are in need and who are all around us.

• In light of the fact that for many people God is seen as irrelevant and life seems to have no meaning we are challenged to promote the evangelizing commitment in our present situation, being careful to insure that those who are alienated, impoverished and/or suffering in any are the center of our pastoral ministry.

• In light of the fact that globalization, individualism, the economic crisis and the crisis in values are making our world less human, we should be more attentive to those in need, we should promote understanding and, as witnesses to charity, we should offer assistance to the victims of these realities.

• In light of the situations of upheaval and violence, we should be witnesses of mercy, goodness, forgiveness and reconciliation, thus giving life to the Beatitudes as the path that people must travel if they wish to follow Jesus Christ.

• In light of the anxiety and fear of a violent death, these women, martyrs, trusted in God; they focused on their life together and the celebration of the Eucharist in order to find strength, in order to forgive, and in order to confront death calmly and with faith. That program of the Christian life is always available to us, especially when we find ourselves in a difficult situation.


These women, martyrs, did not fabricate strength and serenity at the final moment. These were gifts of the Holy Spirit, gifts that they requested and were given. They were accustomed to doing this because as Daughters of Charity and as Daughters of Mary they were pilgrims of faith, prophets of hope and witnesses of charity. They lived and died leaving footprints for the history of the Church and the construction of a more human and more united world. This is their greatest legacy and their best lesson.

Footnotes

[1] Information taken from the Positio of the respective processess for beatification.

[2] Positio on the martyrdom of Sister María Adoración Cortés Bueno and fourteen companions, Information, p. 50.

[3] Archive of the Postulator Sister Martina Vázquez; section: spiritual notes, document #25.

[4] Letter to her parents, February 12, 1932, Positio from the process for Sister Melchora Adoración cortés Bueno and fourteen companions martyred in Madrid, Summary, p. 317.

[5] Letter to her parents, May 14, 1932, Positio of the process for Sister Melchors Adoración Cortés Bueno and fourteen companions who were martyred in Madrid, summary, p. 317.

[6] Letter to her Aunt in Bonares (Huelva) that is dated December 14, 1934. Archives of the Office of the Postulator.

[7] Letter to her Aunt, dated May 21 1936; Position causa: Summ., p. 322.

[8] Letter that was written to her parents and dated November 4, 1925; Archives of the Postulator.

[9] Letter that was written to her brother Manuel and Águeda; Proc., f. 607; Archives of the Postulator

[10] Positio de la causa, Testimony of Doña Catalina Reguera, former student of the school; Summ., p. 76.

[11] Positio de la causa, Testimony of Sister Maróa Ángeles Días, Summ., 60-61.

[12] Positio de la causa, Testimony of Fr, Jesús Taboada, pp. 114-115.

[13] Positio de la causa, Document 8, p. 167 and Document 11, p. 164-165.

[14] Positio de la causa, Testimony of Francica Fustel and Teresa Sorli; Summ., document 11, p. 165.

[15] Positio de la causa, Written statemtn of Don Juan José Díaz Bolaños; summ., p. 171.

[16] Positio de la causa, Testimony of Sister Josefa Navarro; Summ., Document de la Sd.D.

[17] Positio de la causa, Testimony from family members., Summ., pp. 162-163

[18] Positio de la causa: Summ., Testimony of Rosa Ruíz, owner of the house in Foyos (Valencia) where the Sisters sought refuge.

[19 Positio de la causa: Summ., Testimony of Sister Caballero Serer ; p. 25-26.

[20] Positio de la causa: Summ., Testimony of Daniela Caballero Gil, pp. 26-27. [21] Cf. Files of the Religious Purification, Archives of the Provincial Government of Albacete, #1 in registry 438.

[22] Letter of 1913 to Fr. Aquilino Valdivielso, CM, her spiritual director.

[23] Letter of February 27, 1921 that was written to her father, Don Luis Díaz Pardo.

[24] Letter of September 17, 1935 that was written to her father, Don Luis Díaz Pardo.

[25] Cf. Positio de la causa: Testimony of the Companions in Community, Summ., p.176.

[26] Cf., Cárcel Ortó, Vicente, “La persecución religiosa en España durante la segunda república (1931-1939), [The religious persecution in Spain during the Second Republic (1931-1939). Editorial Rialp, 2nd edition, Madrid, 1990; Martires españoles del siglo XX [Spanish martyrs of the twentieth century], BAC, Madrid, 1995.

[27] Solidaridad Obrera [Worker Solidarity], July 26, 1936.

[28] Letter of the Cardinal to the President of the Republic, March 15, 1936, the Diocesan Archives of Tarragona.

[29] The Universe, February 19, 1937, telegram of J. Hernández, a participant in the Anti-God Congress.

Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM