The Life and Death of Father Jose Maria Robles Hurtado
Written by Theresa Marie Moreau
If you are Catholic, the Cristeros are your ancestors in the Faith, no matter your nationality, race or social standing.
Atop La Loma, a small rise in the foothills of the Sierra de Quila mountains, a tall, bespectacled priest – in a black, ankle-length cassock with a crucifix hanging from his neck – stood before a cross glinting in the sun.
Father Jose Maria Robles Hurtado (1888-1927) officiated a spiritual participation, a local ceremony a few short miles north of the town of Tecolotlan, in the Mexican state of Jalisco, part of the national celebration of Christ proclaimed Rey de la Nacion, King of the Nation, on January 11, 1923.
Without a roof, out in the open, the rood stood subject to nature’s whims. Several feet tall, absent a figure of The Nazarene, its simple adornments consisted of four plaques, one on each of its four arms. Top: Viva Cristo Rey; bottom: January 11, 1923; left: Tecolotlan of; right: Divine Heart. Around the object of devotion, gathered Robles, seven priests, two deacons, as well as 1,500 faithful from the nearest towns of Ayutla, Juchitlan, Tecolotlan, Tenemaxtlan and Union de Tula.
Robles asked those present the following three questions:
“Do you swear vassalage and fidelity to the Divine Heart?
“Will you celebrate his holiday with primary character?
“Do you swear filial and eternal consecration of the parish and the vicarage to the very Heart of Jesus?”
“We swear!” all shouted together enthusiastically.
The oath was identical to the one made nearly 200 miles away, where the Holy See’s Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Ernesto Eugenio Filippi (1879-1951), officiated the national ceremony atop the summit of Cerro del Cubilete, the approximate geographic center of Mexico, near Silao, in the state of Guanajuato. An estimated 40,000 Catholics surrounded the monumental statue of Christ – with arms lovingly outstretched for an eternal embrace and its pedestal wrapped with a thick tri-color ribbon. For his public leadership and participation in the illegal public religious ceremony, the Archbishop would be expelled from the nation. And in 1928, the statue of Christ would be destroyed, bombed by the Socialist regime in an effort to erase all symbols of Catholicism.
In honor of the day and to celebrate Christ as the King of the Nation, Robles – a poet at heart – composed a few lines:
If as King my country proclaims you
It is, sweet heart, that loves you,
Heart of Jesus, You alone rule
In my afflicted homeland; that waits for you.
January 11 of the year 23,
Jesus, my country said, He is my King!
Long live Jesus the King of loves!
May the flowers be for Him from Mexico.
Heart of Jesus, sweet hope,
In my soil your empire is luck.
Christian believers suffered persecution at the hands of the Mexican Socialist government and its ratified Political Constitution of the United Mexican States of 1917 – yet another constitutional overhaul in the country riven with ideological chaos – that outlined forbidden practices of religion, specifically Catholicism, in Articles 3, 5, 24, 27 and 130.
Article 3 banned religious schools and demanded secular education only.
Article 5 forbade the establishment of monastic orders.
Article 24 outlawed acts of public worship, which were ordered to be held only in churches under the strict supervision of civil, not religious, authorities.
Article 27, a continuation of the Agrarian Reform Decree of January 6, 1915, permitted the government confiscation of land owned by the Catholic Church and prohibited the Church from owning land.
And Article 130 mandated that only native-born Mexicans could be priests; that only state legislatures could determine the number of priests; that matrimony was exclusively a contract under the auspices of civil authorities; that Catholic churches were to be controlled by the Ministry of the Interior; that spoken and written criticism by religious of the government was absolutely prohibited; and that spiritual formation of priests was forbidden.
A man of peace and a man of love, especially for the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Robles did not rebel against the authorities. Understanding that parishioners loved and respected him – as their spiritual father – and would do anything that he asked, he never encouraged them to act against the government, because he did not want to cause them trouble; however, he did encourage them to defend their God-given rights, in a non-violent fashion, completely in line with the doctrine of the Church.
According to the Catechism of the Council of Trent (first published in 1566), in obedience of the Fourth Commandment, civil rulers – images of divine power – should be honored, respected and obeyed, because whatever obedience is given to the civil ruler is given to God.
“However, should their command be wicked or unjust, they should not be obeyed, since in such a case they rule not according to their rightful authority, but according to injustice and perversity.”
The Catholic country’s government had been seized by Socialists – opportunistic, anti-Christian ideologues fueled by a contempt for peaceful society and by a desire for Permanent Revolution, a theory hatched by Leon Trotsky (born Lev Davidovich Bronshtein (1879-1940).
In 1931, Trotsky wrote: “The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, which has risen to power as the leader of the Democratic Revolution, is inevitably and very quickly confronted with tasks…The Democratic Revolution grows over directly into the Socialist Revolution and, thereby, becomes a Permanent Revolution.”
The revolutionary leader – who conceived of and created the world’s first “concentration camps”: prisons for political enemies and counterrevolutionaries – lost a power struggle with Joseph Stalin (1878-1953), the head of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The exiled Socialist sought asylum in Mexico, where he engaged in adultery with Frida Kahlo (1907-54), a card-carrying member of the Mexican Communist Party. Trotsky was eventually hunted down in Mexico City and assassinated by Stalin’s hitman, Jaime Ramon Mercader del Rio (1913-78), a Soviet agent who wielded a mountaineering ice axe.
Aggressive to achieve their Communist Utopia (from the Greek ou-topos, which translates to “no place”), Socialists may display antisocial mental disorders in which one has no remorse or conscience, no regard for traditional right or wrong, and feels free to take action – including violence or death – against perceived enemies: those who disagree, fail to do what is ordered, or refuse to affirm the inflated view of the politically elite vanguard. It’s a disorder in an individual that creates disorder in the world.
That was the world in which Robles lived, and those were the dangers he faced, but the risks had never daunted his lifelong faith.
As a boy – after attending a Parish Mission filled with fiery sermons and public acts of worship, in his hometown of Mascota – Robles heard a slight whisper in his heart that remained. Born on May 3, the Feast of the Finding of the Holy Cross, it seemed it was his destiny to embrace and follow the Cross. Although it was a financial struggle for his parents, Antonio de Robles and Petronila Hurtado, as well as his 11 brothers and sisters, at the age of 13, he answered God’s call. In October 1901, following a journey of two days by horseback and one by train to the city of Guadalajara, he entered the Minor Seminary of San Jose, located at Calle Reforma and Avenida Fray Antonio Alcalde. In 1904, he continued his philosophical and theological studies at the Major Seminary of San Jose, located at Calle Reforma, Calle Santa Monica and Calle San Felipe, where he studied Logic, Metaphysics, Cosmology, Psychology, Theodicy and Ethics. At the age of 16, he received the tonsure, on January 22, 1905, from Guadalajara Archbishop Jose de Jesus Ortiz Rodriguez (1849-1912). At the age of 25, in 1913, he received the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
In 1916, to reach his new assignment in Nochistlan de Mejia, in Zacatecas, he walked two days along bridle paths to meet his pastor, Father Roman Adame Rosales (1859-1927), who would die a martyr’s death after he was captured and tortured by government forces, who executed him by firing squad on April 21, 1927.
Despite living under the dark cloud of governmental anti-Catholicism, Robles continued to fulfill the duties of his state in life, consecrated to Christ, accepting his role in the natural order of the world, as the Will of God. To refuse would have been an offense against the Author of Nature. Embracing his vocation, Robles set to work fulfilling the needs that he saw in his parish.
Because most of the religious from other countries had been forced to leave Mexico after the enactment of the 1917 Constitution, the young priest founded the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (las Hermanas del Corazon de Jesus Sacramentado), on December 27, 1918, to assist with the needs of the Catholic community.
The first were: Amalia Vergara Chavez (Sister Superior), Adelina Vergara Chavez, Juana Yanez, Maria del Carmen Donlucas Sandoval, Maria Dolores Duan Gutierrez, Maria Elizalde and Maria Prieto.
Robles put the Sisters in charge of a hospital, which had been dilapidated until he oversaw its renovations. There the Sisters ministered to the sick seeking help, and then they opened the first school, on August 4, 1919, in Nochistlan. When Robles transferred, in December 1920, to Tecolotlán, where he was promoted to pastor, the Sisters stayed behind, continuing their ministry with the sick, with the school and with some orphaned girls.
Slowly, the noose began to tighten around the necks of Catholics, and then in a dramatic, anti-Catholic push, President Plutarco Elias Calles (1877-1945) passed laws that would give authorities more power over the Church and total control of the churches. On July 31, 1926, the Law for Reforming the Penal Code – the so-called Calles Law – was to take effect.
The Catholic hierarchy reacted by ordering the suspension of Sacraments inside all churches to take effect on the same day.
Like other priests in the 12,000 Catholic churches throughout Mexico, on Friday, July 30, 1926, Robles offered the Sacraments, steadily offering Holy Communion until midnight, and then carried the Blessed Sacrament to safety. The next day, he moved from the rectory of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, at 11 Gil Preciado Calle, in the heart of Tecolatlan. But he continued to tend to his flock, listening to confessions, visiting the sick, aiding the dying, offering Mass in homes.
After the enactment of the Calles Law, the religious orders and communities began to be dissolved, including the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Robles sent the nuns, novices and postulants to their homes.
Authorities targeted priests, including Robles, issuing a warrant for his arrest. However, instead of sending the warrant to the Tecolotlan mayor, it was mistakenly sent to the Teocuitatlan mayor, a devout Catholic who informed his parish priest with a warning, “May the priest hide himself quickly and well.” The Teocuitatlan priest informed Robles, on December 12, 1926, and hide well, he did.
But despite the threat to his life, Robles celebrated Holy Hour at La Loma, on January 11, 1927, the anniversary of the national proclamation of Christ as the King of Mexico. Undaunted, Robles distributed national flags adorned with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe to Cristeros, whom he encouraged to give their lives for Christ and for the Faith.
Soon thereafter, on January 14, 1927, Robles went into hiding in the home of Vicente Santa and Maria de Jesus Ramirez. Three days later, Father Jenaro Sanchez Delgadillo (1886-1927), Robles’ vicar in the parish of Tamazulita, was out hunting, on January 17, 1927, when he was captured by agraristas, peasants armed by the regime. Hanged from a mesquite tree in his parish, his body swayed in the darkness of the night, until dawn, when his executioners returned, shot the corpse in the left shoulder, dropped him to the ground and finished with a coup de grace, a bayonet stab to the chest.
Sanchez had been hounded by authorities for years, first jailed in 1917, after reading aloud to his parishioners during Sunday Mass the following pastoral letter from Archbishop Francisco Orozco y Jimenez (1864-1936):
June 4, 1917, Pastoral Letter.
Francisco, by the Grace of God and favor of the Apostolic See, Archbishop of Guadalajara.
To the Very Reverend Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral and to the Reverend clergy, secular and regular, and to all the faithful of the archdiocese.
Peace and Benediction in Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Certain motives of prudence have prevented me from communicating directly with my beloved flock; although, I have not for one moment ceased to watch over its well-being; but now I deem it my duty to direct you a brief message breaking the silence, which was responsible for much anxiety to souls, although this time it was a silence which hard circumstances imposed upon us.
Very well, it is known to everybody that the new political Constitution, while it recognizes many of the rights of the people, having put aside the Catholic Church altogether (under which the majority of the people live; although, they do not all receive our holy religion in its entirety, but are often the victims of modern errors), tries to subjugate and oppress that Church, often condemning her to the point of suppressing her very name.
Are we able to reconcile this with the sacred and inalienable rights of this sacred Institution? And how can Catholics suffer an order of things that obliges them, not only to renounce the most sought gift of heaven, but also to ratify this oppression by their acquiescence?
I found myself obliged to protest, as I did, against the new constitution, as a representative of this portion of the Catholic Church, and made such protest together with the greater part of the Mexican Episcopate, whose letter was formulated in United States on the 24th of February last, as you yourselves, dear beloved, must already know. Their measured words, and convincing reasons, and the declarations which appear in this protest, give you all to understand, in general terms, what ought to be the reasonable interpretation and real spirit of the new legislation, and also what should be your conduct toward it, as Catholics and faithful sons of the Church; they also make known to our enemies that it is not the spirit of sedition or conspiracy which animates the pastors of the Church, the venerable clergy or the faithful themselves.
Be sure, my beloved sons, that the lot of the Spouse of Jesus Christ is not different from that of her Divine Founder: Tribulations, persecutions, shame, blood and martyrdom is her patrimony and her heritage. “The disciple is not better than his Master.” “If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”
The history of the Church teaches us those things; making us also understand that, as it happened to the Barque of Peter, on Lake Gennesaret – after the tempest, will come calm and tranquility.
And now that we realize the divine warnings, let us not content ourselves with vain laments, but, rather, secure the fruits of our sufferings and purify according to the high designs of the Savior, our souls, by contemplating the indestructible principles of our holy religion, which makes us love virtue and detest vice; also, to walk always in hold dread of God, and to encourage the hope of better times, and the upending goods, which alone we are permitted to covet.
Now is the time to revive within us the true Catholic spirit, and eliminate all compromise with modern errors, condemned by the Church, to separate the straw from the grain; thus, then practically will shine forth the splendor of high Christian virtue, and thus the enemies of the Church will recognize and glorify God and His Christ.
The venerable clergy is invited and exhorted by the present persecution, in a thousand ways, to serve as an example to the common faithful; for they have put their hand to the plow to procure their proper sanctification, which their high state exacts; and the faithful in whatever condition in which they are placed, having the clear and definite voice of the Divine Master, who applies to us His gentle lash, must also give a hand to the work of their own sanctification. If the contrary occur, it is to be feared that we may be abandoned by the Divine Clemency, and that for us there may come the terrible way when the Sun of Justice will be hidden from us forever.
May He illumine our souls and concede us the grace to follow the truth, so that our faith may be revived, and our charity inflamed, and we may resolve anew to serve and love God and the Savior, with all the force of our souls. May the Holy Virgin of Guadalupe be very propitious to us! May we always implore those potent graces, so that we may the better be able to resist, in time of temptation, and tribulation, and, thus, to conserve unblemished our glorious faith and time-honored customs.
I impart to you my paternal benediction, imploring from above all good things upon you.
This pastoral letter is to be read in the usual manner.
Given from one of my parishes, on the 4th day of June, 1917.
+Francisco, Archbishop of Guadalajara.
After the odium fidei death of Sanchez, Robles predicted, “My turn will be soon.”
And yet – even in hiding – he continued to tend to his parishioners, going out in street clothes, administering the Sacraments. When he heard that authorities had learned of his whereabouts, he fled in the middle of the night and found sanctuary, on February 9, 1927, in the home of Adelaida Brambila de Agraz, whose mansion stood across the way from the agrarista barracks.
While staying at the mansion, his brother, Guadalupe, visited to take the priest home to safety in Mascota. He refused.
“He who abandons his flock is not a good shepherd,” the priest answered and remained and continued to tend to his flock, and beyond. When he learned that the Holy Cross of La Loma had been smashed to pieces, he offered a Mass in reparation.
At some point, Lieutenant Colonel Alonso Calderon received the following telegraph: “Proceed with all rigor against the rebel priest.”
On Saturday, June 25, after authorities searched a few homes, they arrived at the Agraz mansion, as Robles prepared to say Mass for the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. When Calderon knocked on the door, Robles opened the door and readily surrendered. Escorted to the agrarista barracks across the street, he smiled to those he met. Placed in solitary confinement, he spent his time wisely, praying and writing.
Parishioners tried to free him, but authorities already had the order for execution.
Around midnight, seven agraristas quietly removed him from the barracks. Fearing that the townspeople would stop the execution, the group headed north out of town, for the foothills of the Sierra de Quila, the same foothills where Robles had dedicated the cross, parishioners, the vicarate and himself to Christ, the King of the Nation.
In the midst of the June-July rainy season, the daily downpours made Robles’ Way of Sorrows even more physically difficult because of the thick mud. When he faltered, it was at La Loma where one of the men, who had brought an additional horse, offered it to Robles.
And the darkness. With only a thin strip of the waning crescent moon shedding the faintest glimmer of light, the group lost its way. When one of his captors grew irate, the priest pulled a small candle stub from his pocket and lit the wick to show the way to his death.
After the arduous journey of nearly four hours, the group arrived early in the morning at the summit of Sierra de Quila and stopped at an oak tree, around 4 a.m., still dark, on June 26, 1927.
The agraristas readied the noose and tossed the rope over a branch of a leafy, gnarled, old oak tree, with speed, for they did not want the villagers to learn of their presence before the deed was done.
During the last days and weeks of his life he had frequently exclaimed, “Yes! The Eucharistic Heart of Jesus will take me on this day.”
His day had arrived. Understanding that his moment of martyrdom neared, Robles fell to his knees, prayed for a few minutes, raised his hand to bless his parish, and raised his hand to bless his executioners, forgiving them for what they were about to do. He then kissed the ground and stood.
A man with a rope approached the priest. The two knew one another. He was Robles’ compadre, Enrique Vazquez.
“My friend, do not stain your hands,” Robles said.
Taking the noose, he blessed the rope and kissed it as if it were a priest’s stole, acknowledging the yoke of Christ, and pulled it over his head until it encircled his neck and draped over his shoulders.
“May my blood fall on my people as a sign of blessing and forgiveness,” he said.
Seconds before his hanging, he exclaimed, “Yours, always yours, Eucharistic Heart of Jesus! Father, into your hands I entrust my spirit!”
Execution accomplished, the agraristas dropped the still-warm body and walked to nearby houses in Quila, a small village. They approached some muleteers and told them about the dead priest under an oak tree. Employees of a coal factory retrieved the body and placed it in a nearby coal cellar. When they learned the executed was a priest, they disinterred the body and reburied it in the cemetery, from where he was later exhumed and moved to Guadalajara, June 26, 1932.
A poet at heart, hours before his martyrdom, Father Jose Maria Robles Hurtado penned his final verses:
I want to love your Heart
My Jesus, with delirium,
I want to love you with passion,
I want to love you until martyrdom.
With my soul I bless you,
my Sacred Heart.
Tell me: has the moment come
of happy and eternal union?
Stretch out your arms to me, Jesus,
because I am your little one;
from them, safely protected,
where you order it, I go!!
Under the protection of my mother
and running on her account,
I, the little one of her soul,
I fly into her arms smiling.
Decades after the death of Father Jose Maria Robles Hurtado, the oak tree – on which he hanged – perished, like its famous victim. A church dedicated to his memory was built, in Quila, on the spot by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In the courtyard, another very old oak tree still stands and is honored as the Arbol Testigo (witness tree), because it witnessed the hanging of a martyr, who was beatified on the Feast of Christ the King, on November 22, 1992, and canonized on the fifth Sunday of Easter, May 21, 2000.
I would like to especially thank Sister Eugenia Mayela Ortega, Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (las Hermanas del Corazon de Jesus Sacramentado). Without her, this piece would not have been possible.
Miscellanea and facts were pulled from the following: New York Times; “San Jose Ma. Robles Hurtado: Sacerdote, Fundador y Martir,” by Ramiro Camacho, 470 pages; and “San Jose Ma. Robles Hurtado: Sacerdote, Fundador y Martir,” by Ramiro Camacho, 174 pages.
Theresa Marie Moreau, an award-winning reporter, is the author of Martyrs in Red China; An Unbelievable Life: 29 Years in Laogai; Misery & Virtue; and Blood of the Martyrs: Trappist Monks in Communist China.
This piece was originally posted in The Remnant Newspaper:
On June 27, 2010, "With God in China" won top Los Angeles Press Club Journalism Award in the News Feature Category
Judges' comments: “Her gripping account of life for two Catholic priests in China is superb. She calmly explains the constant political upheaval in China, the awful effects of those changes on Winance and Zhou — and their unflinching faith — and finally, how they emerged later with new lives. It’s a history lesson, a faith lesson and a stark recitation of a dark time in history.”
Father Eleutherius and Brother Peter, in 2009.
With God in China: Father Eleutherius and Brother Peter
by Theresa Marie Moreau
First Published in The Remnant, April 2009
Joseph Marie Louis Stanislas Winance was 4 years old when he stood on a train platform in Mons, Belgium, in 1914. Surrounded by his family, he squeezed his way past long skirts and stepped over thick leather shoes to say goodbye to his Aunt Marta Reumont, who was heading to China that June morning to become a novitiate with the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary.
“Aunt Marta, one day I will go to China and be your cook,” he said, looking up into her smiling face.
Little did that small boy realize how part of his childhood pledge would come true. For 20 years later, as a cleric in St. Andrew Abbey in Bruges, Belgium, Winance was walking along the cloister, reading his breviary when he received an order to go to the office of Father Abbot Théodore Nève.
“My dear son,” Nève said to the 24-year-old dressed in the long black Benedictine habit, draped in the long black shadows of the late afternoon, “I plan to send you to China.”
Father Abbot Théodore Nève.
“Yes,” was all Winance said, but he wasn’t prepared for what he heard. He didn’t sleep all that night. His thoughts dwelled on the trouble the Communists had caused in Szechwan, the province where he would be sent. His Aunt Marta, who had become Sister Marie Jeanne Françoise de Chantal, mourned the loss of several buildings her order had built in the city of Kangting and that the Red armies had burned and destroyed.
Nonetheless, after a restless night, the morning brought a tranquility that sedated his soul. He accepted his fate as the will of God and wrote to tell his parents about the future mission of their eldest of four sons.
Two years later, on the morning of September 4, 1936, the bells of St. Andrew rang out to celebrate the departure of three newly ordained priests: Father Vincent Martin, Father Wilfrid Weitz and Winance, who as a novitiate had taken the name Eleutherius. They were all young men in their 20s who had dedicated their lives and their work to God. They were headed for the Republic of China.
Before leaving the cloister, Winance received a bon voyage gift from Nève. “The Rule of St. Benedict,” with the following inscription: “I wish never to see you again.” Winance smiled. He completely understood the message. Many had left the abbey for their missions, but some had failed and returned. He slipped the book into his leather suitcase – a gift from his Uncle Henri Reumont, a Capuchin missionary with the religious name Father Damian.
. Father Eleutherius.
The three priests traveled to China via Moscow, the Communist capital of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. There they boarded the Trans-Siberian Railway’s Trans-Manchurian line and readied for the 5,568-mile trip to Peking (old form of Beijing), China’s northern capital. There he paid a visit to a woman he hadn’t seen in many years.
“Here is my cook in China,” Aunt Marta joked as she introduced her lanky nephew to her sisters in the convent. She had not forgotten. It was a marvelous reunion.
From Peking, it was another train, to Hankow, a big city on the third longest river in the world – the Yangtze, also known as the Chang Jiang and the Blue River. Then west. Their steamboat coughed its way along the water, which flowed red, a prophetic color of muddied blood, and chugged between moss-covered sky-high gorges. Winance stared at the mountains that broke through the water and stretched straight up, endlessly. One of the wonders of the world, he thought.
Passing Chinese junks with their dragon-wing sails flapping, Winance’s boat pulled up for a breather in Chungking. Then one more ship, one more day, northward, to Hechuan, where Winance and his two confreres hired porters, lovers of the opium pipe who bore their burdens – priests and possessions – upon chairs dangling from poles that rode upon their calloused shoulders. Yes, the priests had traveled from West to East, from Occident to Orient, but in their journey, they had been, seemingly, transported – in all they saw, in all they experienced – from the 20th century back to the 14th.
Late one afternoon, after a week of traveling on foot and upon chair through Suining, Pengxi, Nanchung, a final deep valley led up a hill to the other side. At the top, the men paused. Winance walked to the edge and looked down. Just below, for the first time, he saw his future home: SS. Peter and Andrew Priory of Nanchung.
When they arrived at the hilltop, the day was gray. So, too, was Winance’s mood. I shall never be happy here, he thought.
It was 5:15 in the afternoon, November 19, 1936. The sun, still up, but sinking fast. Winance looked at the main building, designed with a classical Chinese style, its roof corners decorated with upturned eaves, like erect dragon tails. A courtyard peeked out from the center. To the left, a small red-sand mountain covered with rows of mandarin orange trees leaning sunward, lurching from their three hillside terraces. For the final 10 minutes of a 10-week-long journey, Winance jogged downhill.
The monastery had been founded in 1929, an answer to a plea for more priests in China that had been requested of Nève on Christmas 1926, during a visit to St. Andrew’s by the much-celebrated, newly ordained Chinese bishops, in photo below, from left to right: Bishop Kai-Min “Simon” Chu (1868-1960, Society of Jesus), Bishop Jo-Shan “Joseph” Hu (1881-1962, Congregation of the Mission), Bishop Chao-Tien “Aloysius” Tchen (1875-1930, Order of Friars Minor), Bishop Huai-Yi “Philippe" Tchao (1880-1927), Bishop He-De “Odoric Simon” Tcheng (1873-1928, Order of Friars Minor) and Bishop De-Zhen “Melchior” Souen (1869-1951, Congregation of the Mission).
The monks called their monastery Shi Shan, Chinese for Mountain of the West, in which it nestled. Although Winance knew French, Latin, Greek, English, he knew not a word, not a character of Chinese, so he had to learn the language. After a month-long rest, just before winter’s drizzle soaked monks and monastery, Winance headed – on foot – to Suining, about 70 miles.
For the next nine months, Winance made his home with the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris in their two-story priory and offered Mass in its adjoining chapel – both built in a European style that stood like palaces surrounded by a city of hovels. To pick up the everyday language of the local dialect of Mandarin, the language of mainland China, his days were filled with hours of repetition. But the real challenge came after lunch, when local children gathered around the priests resting outdoors in the chapel’s garden.
Among them was a slim, shy boy of 10, Bang-Jiu Zhou.
Zhou’s family, Catholics for who-knows-how-many generations, lived in a one-story, four-room wood structure without amenities. No electricity, only wicks soaked with oil of the colza plant gave light. Water, carried from a public well on the street corner. Bare earth served as the floor. Ventilation came from a hole in the roof above the coal cooker. Fresh air, and rain, entered from two broken windows in the loft. Property of the church, it was located on the other side of a wall behind the chapel, so close, that Zhou often attended and served daily Mass with his elder brother. But on Sundays and holy days of obligation, the Zhous walked several miles to the big parish church, located within the city walls.
One Sunday in the winter of 1934, Nève, father abbot of the Benedictine monastery in Bruges, and Father Gabriel Roux, then-prior of Shi Shan, had both visited Suining. After Mass, Zhou’s father, Zi-Nan “Paul” Zhou, had an idea. Although he persevered at selling eyeglasses from his sidewalk table, with seven sons, the few yuan he earned never seemed enough. He wanted his No. 6 son to have a future. Following thanksgiving prayers, he pulled Zhou from the pew, and the two walked to the priory, where Nève, Roux and the Chinese pastor sat in the lounge, waiting for breakfast. Zhou and his father entered, kneeled before Nève and kissed his ring.
Father Abbot Théodore Nève (seated, with pectoral cross); to his immediate right is Bishop Wen-Cheng “Paul” Wang, Bishop of Nanchung; photo taken at SS. Peter and Andrew Priory of Nanchung, on October 3, 1934, the Feast of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Patroness of the Missions.
Please, receive my son in the monastery as an oblate to study to be a monk,” Zhou’s father asked. The Chinese pastor translated for the Belgians into Latin in sotto voce.
The two visiting priests said nothing, but smiled. Four years later, in August 1938, when the monastery began accepting oblates, Zhou, at the age of 12, was one of the first. He wanted a better life, that was clear, but to be a monk, that was not clear.
Even though life inside the monastery was – on most days – peaceful, life in China was anything but, for the country had been in turmoil for years.
After the Republican Revolution of 1911, which ended a centuries-long dynastic rule, the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) was formed by a number of Republican cliques that had ousted the traditional rulers. But in 1927, the Nationalists – after Kai-Shek Chiang assumed leadership – ousted its Communist contingent because of its incitement and sadistic fondness of mob violence – especially at the encouragement of its ringleader Tse-Tung Mao.
But Mao, a notorious sore loser, never, ever forgot or forgave a slight. That snub in 1927 ignited the highly volatile on-again-off-again Chinese Civil War between the Nationalist and Communist factions that ravaged China for more than two decades.
However, the Communists weren’t the only problem. There was also the Empire of Japan, which saw the fractures in China’s infrastructure as an opportunity to make land grabs. In an attempt to establish their own political and economic domination, in 1931, they invaded Manchuria, a region in northeast China, where they wanted to get their hands on China’s natural resources of coal, iron, gold and giant forests. Then in 1937, the Chinese-Japanese War began when the Imperial Japanese Army marched victoriously into Peking, then into Shanghai and on and on throughout China. As part of its plan of aggression, the Imperial Japanese Air Combat Groups dispatched war planes that dropped bombs upon populated areas, killing countless Chinese.
When Japanese military aircraft crossed the Szechwan border, a high-pitched steam whistle all the way in Nanchung alerted everyone within earshot, including those in the monastery. Although several miles away, it was impossible to miss. Winance rounded up the oblates, including Zhou, and all sought safety outdoors, away from the buildings, usually under a rock or in a hole in the ground. More than once, as the planes dropped their cargo onto Nanchung, Winance listened to the descending whistles of the bombs before they exploded upon the earth.
During the height of the Japanese invasion, the no-holds-barred death match between the Nationalists and the Communists was given a lengthy timeout when Communists kidnapped Chiang and compelled him to sign a truce, creating on paper a superficial United Front in the War of Resistance Against Japan to fight the invaders.
That was the situation in China. It was a mess.
And in Europe, World War II raged. The result: no communication, no money between Shi Shan and St. Andrew Abbey in Belgium. Cut off financially from its motherhouse, the fledgling religious community had to shutter Shi Shan in 1942 and seek refuge in Szechwan’s capital city, Chengtu, where Bishop Jacques Victor Marius Rouchouse offered the Benedictines a monastery and financial help.
Slowly, the monks and oblates migrated from mountain to metropolis. Zhou moved to the new priory in July 1944. Winance stayed in Shi Shan until July 1945, when he received a short letter from the prior, Father Raphael Vinciarelli.
“Come to Chengtu,” Vinciarelli wrote.
With his breviary, diary, bits of paper with scribbles in Latin and Greek and a few other books packed away in the same leather suitcase his Uncle Henri had given him for his journey to Shi Shan in 1936, Winance shut the door to his cell a final time. He trudged up the hill he had jogged down 10 years before, turned and looked at the monastery one last time.
I was wrong. I was very, very happy here, he thought.
Never again did he see Shi Shan.
It was a familiar journey to Chengtu. Winance hiked one day to Nanchung, where he hitched a ride on a truck, which nearly killed him when it overturned. But he made it, exhausted, and finally walked through the front gate of his new home, 172 Yang Shi Kai (Goat Market Street). One month later, on August 15, 1945, on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, World War II ended, and with the defeat of the Japanese, the Chinese celebrated Victory Over Japan (V-J) Day.
But it wasn’t fun and firecrackers for long.
The end of the Japanese occupation also brought the end of the so-called truce between Mao’s Communists and Chiang’s Nationalists. An all-out civil war between the two ensued in an elimination battle. Mao hounded Chiang and eventually chased him from the mainland to Formosa (old Portuguese name of Taiwan).
Nonetheless, with the theophobic Communists marauding around the northern border of Szechwan, the future looked grim for Catholics. Then when Mao – the materialist messiah of the “new” China – stood at the Gate of Heavenly Peace overlooking Tiananmen Square, on October 1, 1949, and announced the birth of the Marxist monster, the People’s Republic of China – with himself the head of the beast – that was truly the beginning of the end.
But for Zhou, the theophilic Catholic, what happened in the material world mattered not to his spiritual world. On October 15, 1949, he stepped into the sanctuary of the monastery’s chapel, kneeled before the altar and was admitted into the novitiate. He dedicated his life to that Benedictine battalion in the Church Militant, his body received the habit and he received a new name: Peter.
The final stages of the civil war continued. Throughout October 1949. Then November. In December, a constant firing of weapons outside the city could be heard inside the city. The Nationalists weakened. They couldn’t hold it together any longer. Following a two-week battle between the enemies in the countryside surrounding Chengtu, the Nationalists finally retreated. They gave up the fight, gave up the city, gave up the war and gave up the country. To Communism.
Few realized what had happened at 3 o’clock that early Christmas morning.
Winance had no idea as he mounted his bicycle around 9 a.m. and steered for a boulevard outside the city, which had turned oddly quiet. An affable sort, he wanted to spread holiday cheer and wish Merry Christmas to some Protestant intellectuals he had befriended at the Provincial Academy of Fine Arts, where they all taught. Wheeling along, he noticed freshly raised red flags flying everywhere, snapping in the winter wind and many new posters pasted on the city walls, splashed with huge, bold Chinese characters: FREEDOM OF THOUGHT, FREEDOM OF SPEECH, FREEDOM OF RELIGION.
His friends, the professors, had already heard about the change in government and were all atwitter. Unhappy under the Nationalists because of economic crises that had dominated the news during their rule, the Marxist intellectuals looked forward to a new life under the Communists, who had promised everyone everything: Everyone would be rich. Everyone would have a piano. But in reality, by the end of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76), mostly only Communist officials would be rich, most pianos would be destroyed and an estimated 77 million Chinese would be dead as a result of the regime’s orders.
But nothing extraordinary happened at the monastery, until April 25, 1950. That night, at 9 o’clock, the monks heard the furious barking of their many dogs kept loose on the property to keep Communists out.
“Tie the dogs up,” shouted a stranger in the dark.
Slowly, deliberately, the monks calmed the dogs.
“We have an order to make a search of the buildings. Go to your rooms,” ordered a uniformed police officer, with 50 more behind him.
All the monks retreated. Behind a closed door, Winance listened to the goings-on outside his room. When he heard the clicking of gun metal in the room below, in the cell of Father Werner de Papeians de Morchoven, he opened the door to go downstairs and investigate.
“Stay in your room,” ordered an officer.
The situation in China had definitely taken a turn.
Winance returned to his room and quietly looked through his bureau. He found a photograph of de Morchoven dressed in his uniform as chaplain to the U.S. Air Force, which could cause definite trouble indefinitely. Winance immediately swallowed the photo. For six hours he stayed in his room. The officers didn’t leave until 3 a.m., after a thorough search for radios, transmitters, anything that could be used to make contact outside China. They also searched – unsuccessfully – for anything that could link the monks to the Legion of Mary, a benign, religious organization.
A year earlier, in 1949, the Communists had established the Three-Self Reform Movement, so named for its aim to be self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating. The Movement (later replaced by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association in July 15, 1957) was the Communist attempt to break completely with the Vatican and the Pope and to establish a schismatic Chinese catholic church.
When the Reds noticed that Catholics steered clear of the Movement, the regime decided to push their atheist agenda, and because the Legion of Mary, an apostolic association, had educated Catholics about the true intentions of the Communist-backed Three-Self Reform Movement, Mao launched a campaign of revenge. On October 8, 1951, the persecution of Roman Catholics officially began when Mao labeled the Legion as Public Enemy No. 1. Its group, counterrevolutionary. Its members, “running dogs of American imperialists.” So, too, were all Catholics who refused to cooperate and register with the Movement.
Freedom, Mao’s lie of the past, was followed by a new word whispered by everyone else: Purge.
Fear filled everyone.
Daily papers printed by the regime ran editorials of pure propaganda that were to manipulate public opinion for the Party’s purpose. Anyone who did not share the Party’s ideas was labeled an “enemy of the People,” and when “the People” (Communist officials) demanded justice, the enemies were hauled before “judges” (interrogators) and dealt with as they deemed. Consequently, freight trucks packed with the condemned, wearing big labels on their backs, ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE, headed day and night for Chengtu’s North Gate.
With tension taut, Zhou ventured outdoors very seldom, remaining in the monastery to study. On the other hand, to record for history what he witnessed, Winance continued to ride his bicycle around the city, where he noticed, at times, a certain man.
“A man of around 30 years old, clothed with the blue uniform of the ‘organized and conscious’ workers was inspecting the lorries with their load of human victims at the gate, among a roaring crowd,” Winance wrote in his diary.
“When the lorries were slowly passing the gate, the man ‘sketched’ in the air a small gesture while he looked at the lorries. That man was a priest, giving the last absolution to Catholics crouched in the lorries, all about to die. He was absolving some of his faithful parishioners lost in the crowd of ‘damned’ enemies of the People.”
Past the North Gate, a final ride across a bridge of stone, the victims were herded out of trucks and executed, usually shot in the back of the head as they knelt at the edge of a pit. Their limp bodies, tumbled headfirst into mass graves.
On November 4, 1951, Zhou was ordered to attend a public meeting, during which the Roman Catholic Church would be criticized. Before entering the monastery’s grand entrance hall, where the Communists ordered the meeting to be held, Zhou prepared a speech. In it, he described the Pope of Rome as the only visible head of the Roman Catholic Church, denounced the Three-Self Reform Movement as a Communist tool and defended the Legion of Mary as a religious organization.
As he wrote down his sentiments, he realized what effect his counterrevolutionary words would have on his future, which he summed up in his conclusion.
“My head is completely calm and clear. My soul is impregnated with the eternal truth of Jesus and with His inexhaustible goodness. In the final analysis, I know who Jesus Christ is. I understand where man comes from and where he goes after death. This gives me a more profound knowledge of the meaning of human life,” he said, in a clear and strong voice. He did not falter.
“Therefore, do no worry about me. Do not try to offer a hand of sympathy to save me from what are my chains of truth. I only ask you to do with me whatever you like, according to the common judgment of the masses. I deliver my body to you, but I keep my soul for the good God, for Him, who has created me, nourished me, redeemed me and loved me.”
Zhou was ready to accept his fate, and the chains.
So was Winance, who on the morning of February 5, 1952, received an order to go to the police station, where he underwent interrogation and insults. In a few hours, he found himself before the Supreme Court of the Military Government of Western Szechwan, who found him guilty of his “crimes”: that he had spread false rumors, opposed the Three-Self Reform Movement, etc., etc.
Sentence: “forever banished.”
That evening, around 6 p.m., Winance and 11 other foreigners, mostly elderly – five priests and six nuns – were marched forcibly through the streets of Chengtu and out the South Gate to walk along the old stone road. His Aunt Marta had left China years earlier. For 15 days, the political enemies were escorted by six armed guards as they traveled by foot, bus, train and boat until they reached China’s southern border on February 21, 1952. Many in the dirt-encrusted group were almost too weak, too sick to cross Lo Wu Bridge into Hong Kong, and into freedom.
Once safely on the other side, Winance wrote to his mother, “I come from hell.”
But in hell, Zhou remained. Because he was a native Chinese, he was not permitted to leave. And no one outside China heard a single word about him. Nothing. Nothing but complete silence. No one knew that the Communists forced him out of the monastery on April 26, 1952, after which he barely scraped by for a few years.
No one knew what happened to him on November 7, 1955, when he was wakened at 3 a.m. by the blare of a car horn, followed by someone pounding on the front door. He jumped out of bed, pulled on some clothes and started to answer the door on the first floor, when two police officers, each holding a revolver, ran up the stairs.
“Raise your hands,” they shouted.
For Zhou, that night he was arrested was the beginning of 26 years of torture.
Accused of crimes against the People’s Government because he had refused to join the Communist “church,” he was considered a counterrevolutionary, one who opposed the Communist Revolution, a political enemy. He was locked up and endured intense interrogations for nearly three years. At one point, his hands were cuffed behind his back for 29 days, in an attempt to get him to “reform” and give up his fidelity to Rome, to the Pope.
Zhou never gave in.
In August 1958, guards transported him to a courtroom and forced him to stand as his case was presented to three “judges,” who attempted to coerce him to admit his counterrevolutionary “crimes.” He was all alone. No defense attorney. No family. No friends. His “trial” lasted no more than 10 minutes. One month later, again he was led to a courtroom, where in fewer than five minutes he received his sentence: 20 years. After the pronouncement, he attempted to pull from his pocket a pre-written short declaration.
One of the judges jumped from his seat and ran toward Zhou.
“You needn’t read it! Just submit to us,” he screamed, snatching the paper out of Zhou’s hand.
For the next couple years, Zhou was transferred from one prison to another until June 15, 1960, when he was bused to No. 1 Prison of Szechwan Province. Upon arrival, he wrote on his registration form: “I was arrested without cause and imprisoned for the Church.” He refused to take part in the daily brainwashing “study sessions.” Prison rank and file didn’t like his “bad attitude.”
On August 10, 1960, he was summoned to the office of the section chief in charge of discipline and education.
“Do you admit that you have committed a crime?” the section chief asked.
“I have not committed any crime. I have only defended the faith of the Catholic Church,” Zhou answered.
Twice more the section chief asked the same question.
Twice more Zhou answered the same.
The section chief removed from his pants pocket a pair of bronze handcuffs and motioned for two of his assistants to grab Zhou’s arms and pull them behind his back. The section chief clicked the cuffs into place, about five inches above the wrists, and continued to tighten the cuffs, a click at a time. The right cuff, tightened almost to the limit.
For five days, Zhou endured not only the pain from the cuffs, but he had to endure harsh criticism and physical abuse from other inmates, who were forced to inflict punishment from dawn till dark or they could face the same. During an intense criticism session on August 15, 1960, someone grabbed the handcuff on his right forearm. Click. It was forcefully tightened to the fifth and last click.
Despite the pain – physical, mental, emotional – he resisted. Back in his cell, he prayed silently to Christ, to the Blessed Mother, to the Holy Ghost. He found tranquility.
In the unbearable summer heat, the cuff dug into the meat, the muscle. The rancid smell of the bloody mess stewing in his crematorium-like cell lured flies that laid eggs. When hatched, the maggots dined on his dying flesh. From the cuff down, his right arm grew completely numb, then withered. His fingers crippled, seized into a permanent claw-like grip. After four weeks, guards removed the cuffs, but clamped shackles onto his ankles.
After three years of dragging his chains, in May 1963, two prison guards summoned Zhou, all 5 feet, 1 inch and 90 pounds of him.
“Why do you not follow the example of the priest Wen-Jing Li? You must change your obstinate stand and take the path of siding with the Communist Party and the Chinese People. If you do this, you will gain a bright future,” they said.
Zhou completely rejected their suggestion; as a result, he was moved to solitary confinement.
Before slamming the door shut, they chided, “Here, you are to reflect carefully and do serious self-examination in this new situation.”
Enclosed in darkness for nearly two years, Zhou found an inner light as he reflected, prayed, meditated, composed lyrical lines of poetry.
On March 13, 1965, the door opened. Light bathed his filthy body.
“Thought reform is a long process, and you need a better environment to do self-remolding,” a guard said, removing Zhou’s iron shackles.
For the first time in five years, his ankles were free from the weight of the iron chains. It felt odd. He could barely walk. But there was never any freedom from torture in a Communist prison. For Zhou, it never ended.
For reciting one of his poems aloud, to show his unfaltering faith to God, an additional five years was added to his sentence in September 1966. On Ash Wednesday, February 24, 1971, when he refused to read the “Quotations from Chairman Tse-Tung Mao,” he was placed in solitary confinement, again handcuffed and shackled. He remained there for eight months. He spent another five months in solitary, when, on September 9, 1976, he refused to read an obituary glorifying the deceased Mao. Another five years was added to his sentence when, on Labor Day, May 1, 1977, he refused to purchase the fifth volume of “Selected Works of Mao Zedong,” with the few cents he earned for his prison labor.
But with the death of Mao in 1976, Xiao-Ping Deng rose to power. Best known as the Leader of China (1978-79), Deng opened China to the world, especially after December 1978, when he announced his capitalist reforms and Open Door Market Economy Reform Policy, which loosened the binds – a bit – that had constricted China under Mao. Some Chinese unjustly imprisoned were released.
Zhou was one of those.
On July 22, 1981, Zhou received word that his sentence would be reduced and that he would be immediately set free. At the age of 54, he packed up his few belongings. Over the years, he had been able to purchase from the prison store, small calendars, on which he had marked days of particular note regarding his imprisonment and treatment. Those, he concealed between pages of the dictionaries that he packed among his bits of clothing.
On July 25, 1981, without hatred or bitterness, he bid farewell and walked through the two iron gates to freedom. Prison officials assigned a reliable inmate to carry Zhou’s belongings the few miles to the Jialing River and across to the city of Peng’an, where Zhou spent his first night in nearly 26 years as a free man.
But almost 55 years old, he had no future. What was he to do.
Not knowing if it were possible to rejoin his monastic community, or if it even existed, he attempted contact. On July 28, he wrote and sent off three letters to St. Andrew Abbey in Bruges, and a fourth to Yu-Xiu “Pansy” Lang, an old friend of the monastery. On December 22, he learned that, yes, the monastery had survived and had reestablished itself in Valyermo, California, in 1956.
After all those years, after almost 30 years, it was possible. Yes, he would rejoin his community.
Zhou’s old teacher Winance was in Tournai, Belgium, visiting his brother André, when he received a letter from Father Gaetan Loriers, one of the monk-priests in Valyermo.
Opening the envelope and pulling out the letter, Winance read, “Brother Peter is alive.”
He’s alive! Winance thought, stunned with joy. Brother Peter’s alive!
Brother Peter bares his scars, Valyermo, 2009.
POSTSCRIPT: On November 27, 1984, Bang-Jiu Zhou (Brother Peter) was reunited with his religious community. At the age of 58, he professed his solemn religious vows on June 29, 1985. Zhou, now 82, and Joseph Marie Louis Stanislas Winance (Father Eleutherius), who will celebrate his 100th birthday on July 10, were interviewed extensively for this story. In addition, some facts and quotes were pulled from the unpublished memoirs of Father Werner de Papeians de Morchoven, Winance’s 1959 book, “The Communist Persuasion: A Personal Experience of Brainwashing,” his unpublished diaries (one in French, another in English) and Zhou’s autobiography, “Dawn Breaks in the East: A Time Revisited,” which may be purchased from him. Winance’s book, although currently out of print, may be found for sale online. Both published books are must reads. Greetings and requests may be sent to: St. Andrew Abbey, 31001 N. Valyermo Road, Valyermo, CA, 93563.
POSTSCRIPT II: Father Eleutherius passed away on August 15, 2009. He was 100 years old, plus one month. On the day of his funeral, Friday, August 21, it was the most gorgeous weather: sunny, no wind, calm, very typical of the high desert. However, the minute his funeral Mass began, the skies darkened, and the wind picked up, roaring through the church’s open doors, and thunder pounded the air, punctuated with flashes of lightning. As soon as Mass ended, and the pall bearers slowly carried Father Eleutherius' coffin to the hearse, the rain poured as the the wind continued roaring, accented with the thunder and lightning. You have to remember that the monastery is in the high desert of Southern California, where it rains rarely, especially in the summer. The very strange weather continued straight on until the moment Father Eleutherius' coffin touched the bottom of his grave, then again the sun began to shine, the wind calmed, the thunder silenced and the lightning disappeared. It was all so strange, but the monks smiled, and many agreed that Father Eleutherius couldn't resist playing one last prank.
ENDNOTE: All Chinese names have been written in a manner to avoid confusion and to remain consistent with the English standard of writing proper names: given name first, family name last. In Chinese, names are traditionally written with family name first, given name last.
After the Nazis and Soviets invaded Poland, in September 1939, a revolutionary committee in the border village of Kołki, who welcomed the invading Soviets, stepped forward and ordered that the ethnic Catholic Poles surrender their weapons. After refusing, several were executed, including Seminarian Wladyslaw Burzynski and his blood brother, Miechyslav, on September 18, 1939.
After the Bolsheviks took over Russia, Roman Catholic Polish priest Father Konstanty Romuald Budkiewicz -- living in Saint Petersburg, shepherding to the Polish community -- conducted non-violence resistance against the atheist, anti-Catholic movement in the Communist nation. He was arrested, on March 13, 1923, along with Archbishop Jan Cieplak.
Charged with attempting to organize a conspiracy to overthrow the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, being a secret agent for a foreign country, and transgressing of state–church separation laws, Father Budkiewicz was senteneced to death after a show trial.
In the early-morning hours of April 1, 1923, between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, Father Budkiewicz was executed, shot from behind, as he stepped down into the cellars of the Lubianka Prison.
After the 1939 invasion of Poland by Socialist forces -- the Nazis and Soviets -- Seminarian Jan Brzozowski relocated to the headquarters of the Congregation of Saint Michael the Archangel, in Sturga. When expelled, he found sanctuary in Warsaw's theological seminary building, until the Germans forced him to the Pruszków transit camp, where they executed him along with Seminarian Edward Kosztyła and religious Brother Joseph Cisek, on August 9, 1944.
Accused of spreading religious propaganda, including baptizing children, Father Mateusz Bryńczak was arrested by the Soviets. Tried in a secret, speedy trial by a troika (triad) of the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD, predecessor to the KGB), the Catholic Polish priest was banished to eastern Siberia, afterwhich, he perished on April 28, 1936.
During the Soviet winter offensive, the Communists captured the Polish village of Zimnice Wielkie. On January 27, 1945, Red Army soliders stormed into the parish rectory. Before lighting the Catholic church and rectory on fire, they cut off the head of priest Father Karol Brommer, placed it on the end of a pike and paraded around with it.
After the post-World War II subjugation of Poland by the Soviet Union, Communist authorities arrested Father Jan Kazimierz Borysiuk, because he was a Catholic priest. Sentenced to 10 years in a gulag: a Soviet slave labor camp, mostly for political prisoners, which is what Father Borysiuk was because of his Faith. First transported to SibLag (Siberian Gulag, one of the largest), he was transferred to OmLag (Omsk Gulag), where he perished, in 1953.
After the subjugation of Lithuania by the USSR, Bishop Wincenty Borysewicz was arrested by the Soviets on February 5, 1946, and held in Vilnius prison. Interrogated and tortured, because he was a Catholic bishop, he was accused of "treason of the homeland, collaboration with anti-Soviet partisans, anti-Soviet activities and propaganda." Sentenced to death, he was executed, on November 11, 1946, in Vilnius Prison and dumped in a mass grave.
Having escaped from Poland when invaded by Nazis and Soviets in September 1939, Father Henryk Borynski settled in England, where he ministered to Polish refugees and emigrants. Vehemently anti-Communist, he mysteriously disappeared on the night of July 13, 1953 and was never seen again. Socialist-Communist party hitmen were suspected murderers.
From the #AngelicDoctor...
"All the creatures of God in some respects continue for ever, at least as to matter, since what is created will never be annihilated, even though it be corruptible...For corruptible creatures endure for ever as regards their matter, though they change as regards their substantial form."
-- #SaintThomasAquinas (1225-74)
THE MARTYRS OF LEON
By Theresa Marie Moreau
I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the Church has done so often in human history.
― Cardinal Francis George
Socialist revolutionaries grabbed control of Mexico.
Religious persecution descended upon the country’s Catholics who resisted the atheistic ideology pushed in legislation concocted by political authorities scheming to outlaw the Church and Her traditions.
As the Catholic faithful cried for religious liberty and freedom from the oppressive regime, the Mexican episcopate issued a public statement about the takeover of the country by Bolshevism, the revolutionary Socialist ideology of the Bolshevik Party founded, in 1903, by Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924). In Russia – following the Bolshevik-led October 1917 Revolution and the ensuing Russian Civil War (1917-23) – the Bolshevik Party “progressed” into the Communist Party, which led the brutal, Christophobic, single-Party regime in what would become known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (1922-91).
The Mexican bishops rang alarm bells – not only about the future of the country’s Catholics, but also of its Christian civilization – in their pronouncement, published in the New York Times, on November 24, 1926:
“There are two factions in the fight, Christianity and Bolshevism. The defense of Christian civilization is based upon religion, the sanctity of matrimony, private property, sane liberty, as against the Communistic Utopias of Socialism, free love and the subjection of religion to the State.
“For this reason, the problem that Mexico has again raised with its Constitution and laws is of world interest, as trying to abolish the Christian civilization of a daughter of the Church, which for 20 centuries gave life to Europe and to which America owes its greatness.
“All this explains why the Pope is interested in this problem. The defense of religious liberty, which Catholics in Mexico claim, is not only in our favor, but affects conscience, the press, the teaching profession, for all, without distinction of creed.
“Enough has been read into the Constitution of 1917 and Mexican laws to convince all that not only liberty of religion, but the liberty of many other things, which for the basis of civilization, are gravely endangered.
“For Mexicans, the encyclical [“Iniquis Afflictisque: Encyclical of Pope Pius XI on the Persecution of the Church in Mexico,” November 18, 1926] of the Pope is a matter of profound gratitude, as much for the interest which he shows in our country as for the inspiration given to Catholics during this prolonged violent situation.
“The Pope, finally, in this statement, demonstrates the right he has to intervene in the religious affairs of the Catholic Church in any country, and at the same time indicates to our governors the road of concord and conciliation. Our governors ought to amend the laws, in spite of the obligation which they have to do so, as much for justice to Catholics, even though they were a small minority, as for the majority of citizens who request amendments.”
In Mexico, the Socialist politicians, their followers and their supporters used Bolshevism as the Marxist-Leninist, anti-Christian model of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat to guide them in an active Revolution of the Vanguard against their own people, to destroy social order. They agitated Communists against Christians and Collectivists against Individualists.
It is important to understand that one of the many reasons why Christianity created such a positive force in the development of Western Civilization and is unique in the entire history of mankind is because of Individualism: the principle of Christian ideology that human rights are intrinsic to the human being, granted by God, and that each human is sacred, with its own special part in the natural order of the world, per the Will of God, the Author of Nature, the Universal Cause of All Things, the First Intellectual Being.
Equally important is to understand the anti-Christian, atheistic ideology of Collectivism – the oppressive Socialist theory of rule – that denies individual rights and insists that rights are granted by the State, which is ruled by a politically elite vanguard headed by a “great” and “glorious” leader who speaks for the “People.” For collectivists, the group is greater than the individual, who must be crushed and sacrificed for the “greater good” of the greater number. In such a society, individual life has no value except what it can offer the State, and if an individual has nothing to offer the state, then it has no value.
Following the release of the bishops’ public statement, the Mexican National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty distributed, in December 1926, its own statement, “To the Nation,” a document that called for the Catholic faithful to stand against the tyrannical government:
“To the Nation.
“The current regime that oppresses the Mexican Nation keeping it humiliated under the rule of a group of men without conscience and without honor, is based on the destructive and subversive principles of a policy that aims to turn the homeland into a field of brutal exploitation and citizens in a throng subject to slavery.
“Destruction of religious freedom, of politics, of teaching, of work, of the press, denial of God and creation of an atheistic youth; destruction of private property through dispossession, socialization of the productive forces of the country, ruin of the free worker through radical organizations; waste of public goods and plunder of private property, ignorance of international obligations, such is, substantially, the monstrous program of the current regime.
“In a word, the systematic and deliberate destruction of the Mexican nation, annihilating its being inside and achieving hatred abroad; the implacable domination of a regime of bandits over an unarmed, honest and patriotic population; the total and cynical relaxation of the rights of others in all orders, political, civic, moral, economic and religious. An ironclad slavery imposed with weapons and terror by tyrants, who must be destroyed by terror and weapons.
“The holy right of defense, that is the whole moral basis of this movement. The national conscience strongly adheres to this inalienable right.
“The vital need to destroy forever the vicious faction regimes to create a national government; the irrepressible aspiration to abolish the prerogatives of force with the irresistible force of law, that is the reason for this movement, which is the popular impulse made a living reality. Mexico is in need of saving itself from its tyrants and for that it needs to destroy them.
“It is not a revolution; it is a coordinated movement of all living forces in the country.
“It is not a rebellion; it is the energetic and uncontrollable repression against the true rebels who, in defiance of the popular will, are exercising power.
“The rebellion is there, in the so-called government, which is destroying the common good against the mission of the true governments. The rebellion is in justice denied, in freedom destroyed, in the law run over, and that rebellion against society and the homeland is all the more wicked and criminal, since in order to legitimize it, the august functions of public authority are usurped.
“The people of Mexico, who want to definitely remake their nation, want to pick up the body, torn apart and throbbing, resuscitating it with the generous and fruitful blood of a good administration that circulates through the arteries of the social organism.
“Mexico is subjugated; but a strong will lives and encourages it. The tyrants will know for the first time in their lives about the worth of a people who defend their freedom and who know how to fight and die for it.
“We do not want privileges for anyone; we want justice for all, freedom and guarantees within freedom.
“Here is the program.
“In this principle, our broad and complete program is enclosed, which is published separately and whose basic points follow. The hour of the fight has sounded. The hour of victory belongs to God.
“Basic Points of the Program:
“I. Freedom of religion and of conscience. Absolute independence between the Church and the State.
“II. Freedom of teaching.
“III. Political freedom.
“IV. Freedom of the press.
“V. Freedom of association.
“VI. Guarantees for the worker.
“VII. Guarantees for national and foreign capital.
“VIII. No retroactivity of the laws.
“IX. Respect for private property.
“X. Fair ejido [state-supported communal farmland] endowment and creation of the small property.
“The Mexican people and army are called to arms, under the banners of freedom proclaiming the following plan:
“1. The Executive, Legislative and Judicial of the Union are unknown.
“2. The powers are unknown. Executive, Legislative and Judicial in the territory controlled by the usurping government in everything that does not contradict the fundamental principles of this program.
“3. The City Councils of the Republic are unknown and during the provisional government the municipalities will be appointed by the Chief Executive Power in Mexico City, in the Federal District and in the federal territories, and by the governors of the States in their jurisdiction.
“4. The initiator of this plan will assume the position of Chief of the Executive Power.
“5. The Chief of the Executive Power will designate an advisory body and will name the personnel that integrate the Secretariats of State, to the Governors of the States and will authorize the military offices superior to the rank of colonel.
“6. The person in charge of military control will have the function of maintaining discipline, unity and cohesion in the army, will grant ranks lower than that of colonel and will promote ranks and promotions higher than that.
“7. The political, economic and social reorganization of the country is in charge of the National Liberation Government.
“8. In the meantime, this reorganization will be carried out and in order to avoid the damages of a pre-constitutional regime, Articles 3, 16, 18, 19, 20, 32 and 37 of the Constitution of 1857 are recognized as individual guarantees, as they were written in that year, and Articles 1, 2, 4 and 5, deleting from the third paragraph from the words “or religious devotee” until the end of that paragraph, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 , 17, 21, 22, 23 and 24 (deleting in paragraph 10 from the words “or in temples” until the end of that article), 25, 26, 28, 29, 30, 31, 34, 35, 36 , and 38 of the 1917 Constitution.
“With regard to Article 27 of the current Constitution, it will be amended in accordance with the basic principles of respect for private property and the non-retroactivity of laws.”
“To the Nation” was signed by three generals: Juan B. Galindo, Nicolas Fernandez and Agustin Escobar, as well as Rene Capistran Garza, vice president of the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty, established on March 9, 1925, to oppose the formation of the government-backed Mexican Apostolic Catholic Church, which aimed to destroy the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico.
Capistran Garza was quoted by the New York Times, on December 5, 1926, as describing then-President Plutarco Elias Calles (1877-1945) and his goons as Socialists, “a Red minority, armed and violent, oppressing a large majority, unarmed and peaceful…Their main object is to annihilate wealth, putting the State in the hands of Red organizations, destroying all property rights and Socializing all the economic resources of the country. In Russia, it was done all at once; in Mexico, Calles is doing it gradually.”
Heeding the call in “To the Nation,” some Catholics – suffering under the weight of persecution stemming from the Constitution of 1917 and the 1926 Law for Reforming the Penal Code (commonly referred to as Calles Law) – decided to take up arms against the Reds, the Socialists who had muscled their way into power.
One of the first actions was planned to take place in El Coecillo, a working-class, Catholic neighborhood in Guanajuato’s city of Leon. A coup was planned by a small group of young men, acejotaemeros, militant members of the ACJM, the Asociación Católica de la Juventud Mexicana, the Catholic Association of Mexican Youth, established on August 12, 1913, in Mexico City, by Father Bernardo Bergöend, (1871-1943, Society of Jesus), a French Jesuit dispatched to Mexico to organize Catholic youth to restore Christian social order, with a trinity of piety, study, action.
Planners scheduled the coup to take place in the early morning hours of Monday, January 3, 1927. They had also reached agreements with other Catholics from nearby villages and towns to assist in the attack from the outside as the Leon acejotaemeros would attack from the inside.
The time arrived.
Jose Valencia Gallardo and Salvador G. Vargas – good friends, united by love for the Mother Church – stood guard at La Brisa gate, which rose between an immense orchard and an alley.
An approaching noise alerted the two waiting for the arrival of three more: Jose Vazquez, Nicolas Navarro and Domitilo Torres, who – despite being police commissioner of El Coecillo – had been asked to join the coup by Navarro, who had trusted his good friend because one had served as matrimonial godfather at the other’s wedding.
“Stop, there! Who lives?” Valencia Gallardo and Vargas shouted at those who approached.
“Cristo Rey,” replied someone, weakly.
The voice in the dark was Torres, accompanied with a gang of civil authorities, who, minutes earlier, had attacked, seized, arrested and tied up Navarro and Vazquez, while they were walking down Chayote Street, on their way to La Brisa. Torres had betrayed his friend, Navarro.
Valencia Gallardo and Vargas stood at the gate, as Torres and his accomplices rushed forward, attacked, disarmed and placed them under arrest.
Other acejotaemeros, hunkering down in a nearby field beside a murky river, waiting for the time of attack, heard the commotion at La Brisa gate and sent two – Agustin Rios and Ezequiel Gomez – to investigate.
Cautiously, they approached the gate through the alley and shouted, “Who lives?”
In the dark, an unfamiliar voice answered, “Move on!”
Undaunted, they continued, and they, too, were attacked and captured.
When they failed to return, another two men were dispatched. Of those, AJ Isabel Juarez was caught, but the other was able to flee, returned to the group and reported that the others had been seized, lined up, tied tightly together with rope and held as prisoners.
Those captured were: Jose Valencia Gallardo, Salvador G. Vargas, Nicolas Navarro, Jose Vazquez, Agustin Rios, Ezequiel Gomez and AJ Isabel Juarez.
– Jose Valencia Gallardo, 27, born in Buenavista Tomatlán, Michoacan, was single.
Consecrated to Christ and His Mother, at the age of 4, he was taken to a parish church in Buenavista by his own mother, Martina Gallardo, who forced him to kneel at the foot of the main altar where she said the following prayer:
“My Lord Jesus Christ, I offer you, as well as your beloved mother Maria, this dear fruit of my womb See it, my Lord and my God, I return him to you with all my heart, just as you have given him to me, to you who are the sovereign and the most loving father of the mother and the son; the only thing that I beg of you, the only one grace that I dare to ask of you, is that you deign to receive this little one, bathed in my tears and with your holy baptism, the number of your servants and your friends, and that you give him your holy blessing.”
As a young man, he found employment as headmaster of the children’s day school and the adult night school, in El Ebano, San Luis Potosi, where local authorities pushed Communist ideology among the workers. Undeterred, he found it an opportunity to teach catechism to combat the Socialist propaganda; however, when the local political boss heard about it, he began secretly agitating a struggle against the young teacher, using workers and children who attended Valencia Gallardo’s lectures and classes.
One night, a group of overwrought young men demanded that they be allowed to use the school auditorium for a dance. When refused, they attacked Valencia Gallardo, raged that he was a “fanatical professor,” dragged him to the outskirts of the village, beat him and tied him up. Subsequently, night after night, they attacked his home. Then the Socialists agitated school boys, who verbally attacked their teacher, calling him a “corrupter of morals,” because for Socialists, Catholicism is a corrupter of the Socialist morals. He endured all in silence.
In 1924, the young teacher left El Ebano and was hired – upon the recommendation of San Luis Potosí Bishop Miguel María de la Mora y Mora – as a professor at the Catholic College of Leon, where he became the regional delegate of the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty.
Valencia Gallardo also had a literary bend, publishing his own newspaper, The Voice of the People, and a monthly magazine, Argos, which denounced the enemies of Christ, encouraged the combat against them in defense of Christ and of His Church, documented the government’s persecution of Catholics, and reported the closure of churches, convents, religious communities, welfare asylums and Catholic schools.
On Sunday, January 2, to prepare for the impending battle, Valencia Gallardo received Communion late in the day. The last time he saw his mother, who knew nothing of the coup, he asked for her blessing and then kissed her goodbye.
– Salvador G. Vargas, 20, was single.
Submissive to the will of God and accepting of the Catholic duty to his station in life, he contentedly worked in a shoe manufacturing plant, where he served as a model of virtue and shared his faith with co-workers, drawing many deeper into the Church.
Although vulnerable to temptations, he maintained his virtuous chastity, embraced piety at a young age, nurtured a devotion to the Holy Mother and humbly and respectfully received daily Communion, from which he drew his strength.
Hungry for the intellectualism of the Church, he compiled his own library with books on religion, morals, Christianity and history, which helped deepen his knowledge through reading and meditation on the Truth. As a member of the ACJM, he learned not only the philosophical dogma of the freedom of the Church, but he also learned the apologetics on how to defend Her.
A good friend of and assistant to Valencia Gallardo, the two worked closely together to defend and fight for the Church.
On August 29, 1926, Valencia Gallardo sent Vargas to Teatro Doblado. His mission: encourage those who stood in line at the ticket box office to refrain from going into the theater, to participate in the anti-government boycott declared weeks earlier by the League. At noon, in front of the theater, he was arrested, which caused a riot by outraged Catholics storming the streets. Soon released, the rioters greeted Vargas, who – while still at the jail’s threshold – shouted, “Viva Cristo Rey!” to which celebrants replied, “Viva al Rey de Reyes!” They picked him up like a war hero and carried him around while shouting and cheering.
The night before the planned coup, a friend asked him, “And what are your chances of triumph?”
“I believe that we will die,” he confided. “We will not see the triumph, but Mexico needs blood, a lot of blood for its purification. I assure you that the triumph will come. Christ will receive the tribute that is due to Him. I assure you, as certain as I am here alive and tomorrow dead.”
Dedicated to duty, he was an obedient and affectionate son. When he left his home for the last time, at noon, he gently said good bye to his mother.
– Nicolas Navarro, 20, born in El Coecillo District of Leon, Guanajuato, was married, with one son.
After fasting all day January 1, he received Communion the next day, after which he received the blessing of his parents; however, before he left to take part in the coup, his young wife of two years frantically begged him to reconsider his decision.
“What! it doesn’t hurt to leave your son and me!” she cried, pointing to their son.
Standing up, he answered, “No. First, I must defend the cause of God, and if I had 10 children, I would leave all 10 for God. When my son grows up, you will tell him that his father died for defending his religion.”
– Ezequiel Gomez, 23, born in Leon, Guanajuato, was single, dating a devout Catholic but put marriage plans on hold while he fought for the freedom of the Church.
A loving and devoted son, he happily worked in a foundry to support the family after his father died. With a joyful nature and a youthful enthusiasm, he easily made friends. A pious Catholic in private and public, he taught catechism each Sunday to children.
To prepare for the coup, he fasted, prayed and received Holy Communion.
When he left his home the final time, he revealed to his mother, “I want to die, because I know that the Lord wants my blood to save the country.”
Not much is known of the following three:
– Jose Vazquez, 35, born in Ibarilla District of Leon, Guanajuato, was married, worked as a muleteer and also earned money on sailboats;
– Agustin Rios, 21, born in El Coecillo District of Leon, Guanajuato, was married, with a 2-year-old son;
– And AJ Isabel Juarez.
The captives were lined up, tied up and escorted to El Coecillo Police Station, where the Catholic men – considered by authorities as enemies of the State – were loaded into a truck called La Julia, which traveled down Calle San Francisco de Asis, over a bridge and continued through Santiago to a destination where they were to be interrogated.
For the occasion, a War Council had been formed ad hoc and consisted of: Ramon Velarde (president of the civil administration board), Jose Rodriguez C. (professional politician), Pascual Urtaza Gutierrez (professional politician), Antonio Galvez (paid false witness), J. Natividad Lopez (Leon police inspector) and several others.
Natividad Lopez, like Torres, had been invited to join the coup, although those who invited him were warned against it, because he was part of the government, all considered traitors and scoundrels. However, for some reason, he was erroneously esteemed as a man of honor. With joy, not only did he accept the invitation to join the movement, but he also promised to bring an additional 40 armed and mounted rural and urban forces. His only stipulation: He wanted the rank of colonel.
Captain Alcantara – head of the garrison – had been contacted to form part of the War Council; however, when he recommended that the captives be transported to the Guanajuato Operation Headquarters, his suggestion was completely rejected.
During questioning, the devout Catholics all declared that they had planned the coup to gain freedom for the Church and for their country. The written admissions that they signed were simple declarations of faith and conviction.
With confessions in hand, Velarde, head of the War Council, rendered a verdict in the kangaroo court: The men were rebels and should be shot.
Alcantara refused to execute the order. He explained that he needed the directive to come from Guanajuato Operation Headquarters and insisted that the accused be placed at their disposal.
“Nothing is going to be made available to anyone. What is not done hot, is not done later,” argued Rodriguez.
And, so, it was decided.
Lined up and tied together once again, the prisoners were escorted at gunpoint down Boulevard Miguel Hidalgo and led back to La Brisa.
As preparations were being made to execute the men, Valencia Gallardo stood up majestically in the terrifying situation and faced his executioners, reprimanding them with kindness and integrity, and, at the same time, encouraging his companions to be strong, for they deserved the reward that God and his Holy Mother would bestow upon them in Heaven.
Valencia Gallardo’s final words were to ask his companions to die with an ending prayer: “Viva Cristo Rey! Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!” But he was not able to finish the prayer, because when the members of the War Council heard the name of Christ, they brutally attacked him and ripped his tongue from his mouth.
“Now, speak!” they mocked.
Determined to show his faith, with superhuman strength, Valencia Gallardo rose, loosened the binds from his hands and pointed one finger to Heaven.
Enraged by his faith, his executioners fired their guns at him, and he fell to the dirt-covered earth below. A soldier stood over the fallen Catholic and smashed his skull.
When one of the torturers tried to grab a document from Navarro, who suffered from stab wounds, he reacted by successfully swallowing the evidence.
Enraged, his attackers beat him until they broke his teeth and blood flowed from his eyes.
But he still managed to encourage the others: “Courage, comrades, remember the cause we defend! Yes! You die for Christ, who never dies! Viva Cristo Rey!”
Overcome with hatred, the executioners stabbed him twice more and then raised and pointed their guns at the others
“Viva Cristo Rey!” shouted Gomez, Rios and Vazquez, as Vargas shouted with all his might: “For God! and for His Glory!”
Shots sounded through La Brisa.
The martyrs fell to the ground.
All died except one: AJ Isabel Juarez. Although shot along with his fellow Catholics, he was the only one to escape, the only living witness to spread the truth about the mass executions of the six martyrs of Leon: Jose Valencia Gallardo, Salvador G. Vargas, Nicolas Navarro, Jose Vazquez, Agustin Rios and Ezequiel Gomez.
At 5 a.m., acejotaemeros from the surrounding areas entered the city of Leon, and, as previously agreed upon, captured the plaza, the barracks and the police station; however, since the coup in La Brisa had failed, they had to retreat. During the attack, Benito Puente and Epifanio Sanchez perished.
Triumphantly, the Christophobic members of the War Council dragged their victims’ bodies – which revealed the horrors of the tortures – to the door of the municipal palace, originally the Grand Seminary College for Pauline Priests.
Dumped unceremoniously upon the ground, the martyrs were to serve as a chilling warning – reminiscent of Lenin’s shock tactics in Russia – to terrorize and to instill fear into the Catholics of Mexico.
Miscellanea and facts were pulled from the following: “Los Martires de Cristo Rey,” by Andres Barquin y Ruiz, with prologue by the Most Reverend Jose de Jesus Manriquez y Zarate, Bishop of Huejutla, 1937.
Theresa Marie Moreau, an award-winning reporter, is the author of Martyrs in Red China; An Unbelievable Life: 29 Years in Laogai; Misery & Virtue; Blood of the Martyrs: Trappist Monks in Communist China, and the forthcoming Cristero War: Mexican Martyrs.