Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Martyrs of Guadalajara

Blesseds Teresa, Maria Pilar and Maria Angeles

If I am going to reflect on some of the martyrs of the Spanish Civil War, I had better start with my own brothers and sisters - the Discalced Carmelites.  And of them I must begin with the first three martyrs of the War to be raised to the altars - the three nuns of Monastery of Guadalajara who were martyred on the 24th July 1936: Blessed John Paul II beatified them on the 29th March 1987.

As with all of the martyrs, each of them has their own story and experience of life.  These three women were attracted to a life of prayer and contemplation from an early age, seeking to live their lives in a cloistered monastery offering their prayers and sacrifice for the Church and those in need. 

Sr Maria Pilar of St Francis Borgia, the oldest of the three, was born Jacoba Martinez  Garcia in Tarazona, in the province of Zaragoza in Aragon, on 30th December 1877.  At the age of twenty she fulfiled her desire to enter Carmel, joining the Monastery of Guadalajara in Castile-La Mancha.   She had a tremendous devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, and spent as much time as could in His presence.  It seems she was given a particular grace of feeling his Eucharistic presence throughout her life, so much so that she would call him "the Living One".  Her devotion to the Eucharistic presence of Christ edified her sisters, and she was deeply respected and loved. At time of her martyrdom she was 58 years old.

Sr Maria Angeles of St Joseph was born Marciana Valtierra Tordesillas in Getafe, outside Madrid, on 6th March 1905.  She heard the call to Carmel when she was very young, and though she made various efforts, she had to wait until she was twenty-four before she could enter.  She would only spend seven years as a Carmelite sister, but in those years the holiness of her life impressed the community.  The Prioress was so struck by her virtue that she referred to her as "a little angel".  Sr Maria Angeles had a vibrant missionary spirit - it is surprising that she did not join an apostolic missionary congregation, but like St Therese, she was resolved to be a missionary within the cloister.   She never thought of herself, but rather made herself the servant of all, always available to help her sisters in their needs.  She was 31 when called to martyrdom.

St Teresa of the Child Jesus and St John of the Cross was the youngest of the martyrs.  She was born Eusebia Garcia y Garcia in Mochales, not far from Guadalajara in Castile-La Mancha, on the 5th March 1909.  She was an early bloomer, making up her mind to enter Carmel when she was thirteen.  Like St Therese she had to wait until she was sixteen, facing many obstacles.  Like Therese, Teresa was determined: she heard the call to offer herself to Christ in Carmel and she was going to respond regardless of what stood in her way.    This reveals a very impulsive and determined nature which was not always graced, and so her first years in religious life were years dedicated to overcoming this stubborn streak.  It was through generous acts of charity and self-denial that she gradually overcame this aspect of her personality, and indeed led her to great holiness.  She chose as her motto "Charity above all", and sought to live this every day of her life.     Like Sr Maria Pilar she was given a particular grace for devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and loved adoration.  She used to describe adoration as "sunbathing" because of the divine rays she received.   She was 27 when martyred.

As tensions were rising in Spain, the sisters in the Community kept a careful eye on what was happening.  Learning from the experience of the French Revolution in which sixteen members of the Order were martyred, the Prioress made the decision that the Community should be ready to disband and flee at a moment's notice.  As is usual for Carmelite nuns, the sisters of the Community were offering their prayers and sacrifices for Spain and for her Catholics.  Interestingly, something was stirring within the hearts of Sr Maria Angeles and Sr Teresa - they heard a distinct call to offer themselves - to suffer and to die.  Such an experience in not unknown in Carmel: when nuns find themselves in the middle of persecution, they tend to offer themselves as an oblation.  Both of the sisters answered the call and made the oblation.

Meanwhile, Sr Maria Pilar, was reflecting in a similar way.   Before the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament she sought to discern what to do, and asked Jesus that if he needed a victim for the community, so it would be spared, she would offer herself.  She asked him to accept this offering and save the other sisters.  She made this offering around the 22nd July 1936.

On that day, 22nd July, Mother Prioress made the decision that things were too dangerous and the Community would have to disband.  Anti-religious feeling in Guadalajara was very high and a number of occurrences led her to realise that the Monastery was a definite target for the anti-Catholic Republicans.  Taking off their habits, the sisters assumed secular dress, and then, in small groups, slipped out into the city to seek refuge with friends who had agreed to hide them.  In these private houses and apartments, the sisters hope to ride out the storm.

On the 24th July it became clear to Srs Maria Pilar, Maria Angeles and Teresa, that their hiding place was not very safe.  They decided they needed to find a more secure place.  Going out to look for an alternative,  they walked through the streets which were filled with Republicans.   Though they were in secular dress, a woman Republican recognised them, their short hair probably gave them away, and shouted "Look, nuns!  Shoot them!"  The sisters ran, but a hail of bullets descended on them.  Sr Maria Angeles was killed outright, falling on to the street in a pool of blood.  Sr Maria Pilar was seriously wounded, but still alive.  She survived for a few hours, but died in dreadful agony. As she was dying she prayed the words of Jesus from the Cross: "Forgive them, Lord, for they do not know what they are doing".

Sr Teresa was agile enough to dodge the bullets and she escaped.   The whole experience was so distressing that she was disorientated, and so she was wandering around the streets.  She met some people who seemed concerned and offered to help her.  Going with them, she soon realised that they were some of those who had attacked them.  They brought her a cemetery, the favourite execution site for the Republicans, and there she was shot.  She cried out "Viva Cristo Rey!"  Long live Christ the King, before she fell to the ground and died.

As a friend of mine, a brother Carmelite, said to me just last night: if supporters of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War think that three innocent Carmelite sisters were politically active and so were normal casualties of conflict they are much mistaken.  The Carmelites of Guadalajara were simple, holy women, who spent their days in prayer and sacrifice, helping those who came to them, and seeking to love all people for Christ's sake.   Their death was a true martyrdom and their story needs to be hold and their lives and sacrifice celebrated.  They are just three of thousands of others whose only crime was to believe in Jesus Christ: and in Republican Spain, that was a crime.  May their example and intercession give heart to all of us who struggle with oppressive regimes and anti-Catholic attacks.

The feast of Blesseds Maria Pilar, Maria Angeles and Teresa is the 24th July.

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