Among the many Catholics who perished in the Spanish Civil War were a number of notable Catholics, one of whom was the renowned Fr Pedro Poveda, the founder of the Teresian Association, shot on the 28th July 1936 in Madrid. He is also one of the few Civil War martyrs canonised so far.
Fr Pedro was born in Linares on the 3rd December 1874. Like many other families, the Povedas were devout and Pedro received a profoundly Catholic upbringing. It came as no surprise to his parents when he expressed a desire to become a priest. In 1889 he entered the seminary in nearby Jaen, and later transferred to Guadix in Grenada where he completed his studies. He was ordained on the 17th April 1897. He continued his studies and graduated with a Licentiate in Theology in 1900.
Fr Pedro began his pastoral ministry in Guadix where he found some of the poorest people in Spain trying to eke out a living. In the caves outside the town the poorest of the poor made their homes and it was to them that he was drawn. Helping with their material needs, he also initiated catechism classes, and then founded a school for the children. Aware of the importance of education for all, he also organised evening classes for the adults. To help his people he travelled around the province and even went to Madrid seeking alms. This led to greater attention for his mission, but it was not all positive.
Jealousy raised its ugly head – Fr Pedro selfless work was bearing fruit and some resented this success, and so they began to spread rumours about him. These rumours and the gossip which resulted reached the ears of his bishop and he began to doubt the priest and his work. Aware of what was going on, Fr Pedro did not seek to defend himself – he trusted that the truth would emerge eventually: it did not come soon enough and he was forced to leave his beloved poor.
The Dark Night descended on the young priest, but he endured it in faith. In 1906 the clouds lifted when he was appointed a canon of the Shrine of Our Lady of Covadonga in the north of Spain. There Our Lady took him under her care as he fulfilled his pastoral duties, got time to study and of course had the space to pray. This time proved to be providential for it was during the seven years he served at the shrine that he began to develop his system of Christian education as a means of challenging the secularists ideas which were being adopted in the Spanish educational system. He saw that men and women of faith must play an important role in education and to do so they need to be properly formed and prepared to meet the challenges they might face.
Publishing articles he shared his ideas with the Catholic world: some understood what he was trying to do, others did not. In 1911 he founded an academy in Oviedo to provide further education for young women who wanted to be teachers. Two other academies followed in Linares in 1912 and Jaen in 1913. In 1914 he took his ideas to Madrid when he founded a university residence for women – the first in Spain.
In 1913 he moved to Jaen where he sought approval from the Church and the civil authorities for his organisation, naming it in honour of St Teresa of Avila, the saint who had inspired him most. The Teresian Association, under her protection, was to be an organisation inspired by this great woman of letters and faith, and she was presented as model for the members of the Association to imitate. For the next ten years he worked at building up this new educational family in the Church so that by 1923 it had spread all over Spain.
Moving to Madrid in 1921, Fr Pedro took up an appointment as Chaplain to the Royal Household – this allowed him to stay in the Archdiocese – the Archbishop had problems with Spanish priests from all over Spain looking to stay in the capital with little to do, so he would not allow priests take up residence and faculties unless they had a decent appointment. There was no fear of Fr Pedro having too much time on his hands. He had to deal with a lot of criticism – he was seen as a revolutionary in that his work as he was working with laywomen and forming them to take up their place in the Church. Nevertheless, sustained by the idea, or indeed the vision, he continued. In 1924 his Association received approval from Rome – in a symbolic gesture it was the laity of the Association who petitioned the Pope. The Association was also affiliated with the Order of Discalced Carmelites, a necessary link with St Teresa and a formal recognition that Fr Pedro and the Association are members of that spiritual family.
During these years in Madrid he met St Josemaria Escriva who himself was struggling to get Opus Dei up on its feet. The two priests understood each other perfectly – both wanted to help the laity to take their place in the Church mission and to realise that they too were called to holiness. Fr Josemaria found in Fr Pedro the wisdom and experience which helped him understand his own vision.
By this time Fr Pedro was not only respected as an important educationalist in Spain and founder, but his reputation for holiness was also known. It also made him a target for the Republicans. His Association was considered a dangerous organisation by those in the socialist/anarchist movements who sought to use education as a means of bringing the next generation around to their way of thinking. Like many priests in Madrid, he tried to lie low as the militias were hunting down priests and religious. On the 28th July he was captured, when asked who he was, he admitted that he was a priest, and he was shot. He said in the days before his capture and martyrdom: “If we have to die, we have to die, but we die with Christ, in the name of Christ and for the glory of Christ”.
St Pedro was beatified on the 10th October 1993 and canonised by Blessed Pope John Paul II during his Apostolic Visit to Spain, on the 4th May 2003. St Pedro would be a wonderful intercessor for those who struggle to maintain Catholic schools in the face of the secularising tendencies of governments and various lobby groups. We will commend our Catholic schools here in Ireland to his prayers, care and protection.