Daughters of Charity: Martyrs in Madrid
by: Sister María Ángeles Infante, DC
[This article was first published in Anales, Volume 120, #4, July-August, 2012, pp. 362-392 and has been translated with the permission of the editors].
Brief Historical Introduction
The announcement by the Episcopal Conference of Spain of the beatification of a group of martyrs, a ceremony that will occur at the time of the closing of the Year of Faith, 2013, provides us with an opportunity to share some information about the Sisters from Madrid and Valencia who are included in this group of faithful witnesses. In a recent issue of Anales we presented the biographies of the group of Sisters from the Archdiocese of Valencia; in this issue we present the biographies of the Sisters from Madrid.
The cause for the declaration of the martyrdom of these Sisters was accomplished in two phases. The first phase was initiated on November 7, 1960 during the celebration of the 300th anniversary of the death of our Founders. In 1966, for pastoral reasons and with the advice and at the initiative of Pope Paul VI, these proceedings came to a halt. Pope John Paul II, on the occasion of the fall of the Berlin wall, advised the major superiors of our Institutes to continue the process. Our superior generals decided to continue the cause for a declaration of martyrdom. More specifically, on April 28th, 1998 the cause of the Sisters from Madrid was reopened on a diocesan level and was concluded on May 25th, 1999. The Diocesan Tribunal worked under the leadership of César Franco, Auxiliary Bishop of Madrid. The documents were then examined in Rome and received a unanimous vote from the Congress of theologians and historians in April, 2011. We are now preparing for the celebration of their beatification and we endeavor to learn from these Sisters some lessons of faith, fidelity, and availability. Let us briefly examine their biographical profiles and some information about their martyrdom.
Two persecuted communities in Leganés
In July, 1936 there were two communities of Daughters of Charity in Leganés (Madrid). One at the school of the Inmaculada (the Immaculate Conception) with ten Sisters and the other community of twenty-one Sisters resided at the psychiatric hospital of Santa Isabel (Saint Elizabeth). All of them were affected by the religious purification that resulted from the July 21st, 1936 legal decree of the Republican government that removed the Sisters and the members of all religious communities from health and educational institutions as well as other beneficent agencies. The school belonged to the Company of the Daughters of Charity and when the Sisters were removed from the other houses in Madrid some of the women sought refuge in the school … there the number of Sisters grew to forty-six. Members from both of those local communities died as martyrs: Sister Melchora Adoración Cortés, Sister María Severina Díaz-Pardo, Sister Estefanía Saldaña, Sister María Dolores Barroso, and Sister Asunción Mayoral Peña. From the time of the proclamation of the Republic persecution was initiated in some places. Sister Estefanía Saldaña wrote her parents on May 15, 1931: I had written this letter before the events that occurred in Madrid and the surrounding area (the burning of convents on May 11th). The militia has now arrived in Carabanchel and any day they will come here … this has already been announced to us. They told us to prepare ourselves and it is possible that they will begin with the persecution of the Daughters of Charity since they want the complete extinction of the religious orders.
With the passing of time the situation became more critical but the Sisters continued to carry out their mission in each house with peace and serenity. They performed many works of charity and did not allow anyone to go without food. They made clothing for the needy children in Leganés. They had a small statue of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal and they brought this statue with them when they visited the sick … this statue remained in the house of the infirm person for five or six days. This was the testimony that was given by some former students. The motive for the persecution was simply the religious purification that had been decreed by the government. The martyrdom of the above named five Sisters was the result of this situation.
Sister Melchora Adoración Cortés Bueno
Melchora Adoración was born on January 4th, 1894 in Sos (Zaragoza). Her parents were Jerónimo Cortés (a shepherd) and Eusebia Bueno. Both parents provided their children with a solid Christian education. The girls were educated in the school of the Daughters of Charity and the boys in the school of the Piarists. From the time that she was a little girl, Adoración cultivated her faith … she was outgoing, open-minded, intelligent and communicative. Her situation allowed her to complete her studies in education before entering the Company of the Daughters of Charity. She was a member of the Association of the Daughters of Mary of the Miraculous Medal during the time of her studies and as such she participated in this Association in a committed and responsible manner, revealing herself to be pious and at the same time sensitive to the needs of the poor. It was in the midst of this situation that she experienced the Lord’s call.
Encouraged by her confessor and her maternal aunt, Sister Patrocinio Fernández Cortés, DC, she left her home town and traveled to Sangüesa (Navarra). There she completed her formation and took further studies in education. She entered the Company on March 15th, 1914 after having completed her postulancy in the hospital in Sangüesa. At the end of her initial formation she was missioned to the school of Riquelme in Granada and then to the school of Aleixar (Tarragona). She ministered there for several years as a teacher and prepared for vows which she professed on March 25th, 1919. The following day she wrote to her sister, Incarnación, and sent her the following prayer that she, herself, wrote: I consecrated myself to God who deigned to accept my consecration. What great goodness on the part of God! What happiness for me! … How will I repay the Lord for such incomparable mercy? … God has no need of me and I can give nothing to him that he does not already possess … But there are so many children who need Christian instruction and education! And what I do for these children God sees this as being done to him. I love these children very much … whatever I suffer for these children the Lord will reward me because he understands that I have suffered all of this for him. Yes, the Lord also suffered greatly for me… My God, for as long as I live I will dedicate myself to leading these children to you! … And I will be continually blessed through these children who, through my mediation, come to know you and love you and serve you … and they will glorify you for all eternity in heaven! Lord, may their prayers and your infinite mercy lead me to your dwelling place. Amen.
These dispositions of her youth were strengthened in other missions: the hospital and the school of Corella (Navarra), 1921-1924 and the school of the Inmaculada in Leganés. She was enthusiastic and creative as a teacher and she wanted the students to enjoy themselves as they engaged in the process of learning. During those years, she, together with Sister Maria, organized the school choir, a theatre group, visits to the sick, summer camps, pilgrimages to the various Marian shrines, and prepared a group of catechists who instructed the children in the parish of El Salvador. At the beginning of 1933 she was sent to the hospice at Vitoria as a teacher. But after a few weeks there she became ill and had her right kidney removed … this surgery was performed at the provincial hospital of Zamora where her aunt, Patrocinio Fernández Cortés, resided. In September, 1934 she returned to Leganés and engaged anew in her educational ministry with joy, creativity and courage. A former student has given us this image: Sister Adoración was gracious is providing us with that which was needed without humiliating us. She was joyful and animated our celebrations …when confronted with adversity she would tell us: “Do not worry because in the Kingdom of Heaven, the last will be first!” … She was charitable toward the neighbor and not only cared for the poor who arrived at the front door of her residence but was also concerned about the young girls who were unable to pay for their education … she helped those in need in a gracious and prudent manner, in a manner that did not humiliate those who were being assisted. Thus Sister prepared for her martyrdom: uniting herself to Christ in prayer, in the celebration of the Eucharist and in her service toward others. On August 12, 1936 as a faithful witness to the faith she handed over her life to God. She was forty-two years old.
Sister María Severina Díaz-Pardo Gauna
Sister María Severina Díaz-Pardo Gauna was born in Vitoria on August 23rd, 1895 and became a member of a large Christian family. Her parents were Don Luis Díaz-Pardo Ugalde, the owner of the Libería Religiosa de Vitoria (Religious Bookstore of Vitoria) and Doña Peregrina Gauna Barrio. With great satisfaction her father stated: I have always been able to baptize all my children on the same day as their birth or on the following day. Thus he was able to do this with the second of his eleven children. On October 15th, 1905 Maria received her first Communion in the school of the Niño Jesús (Child Jesus) that was administered by the Carmelite Sisters of Charity … she was a student in said school. The family enjoyed a good social position but for the family their values were more important than their economic and/or social position and here we refer to their faith, love, respect, truth and concern for the moral education of their children.
Don Luis Díaz-Pardo was president of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society in Vitoria. On more than one occasion María accompanied her father as he visited the children in the Hospice of Nieves. This man of great faith carefully preserved the seventy-two letters from his daughter, convinced that her martyrdom was a grace for the family and for the Church and equally convinced that at some time she would be canonized. Sister Maria, as she was known in community, responded to God’s call which was heard in the midst of this religious and Christian environment. Her father and brothers and sisters called her the outstanding one because of the high marks that she received in school. She studied music and pedagogy before entering the Company. The family was blessed as six of the children entered religious life: Conchita (a Servant of Christ the King), Remedios (a Sister of Saint Brigid), Elias and Pedro-María (Jesuits), Francisco Javier (a diocesan priest) and Sister María (a Daughter of Charity). A friend from the time of her youth, María Josefa López de Uralde, said of her: She was an exceptionally good friend and companion. When I heard of her martyrdom I remembered this good, pious, loving young girl whom I had known … I thought the Lord had rushed this matter of granting her a reward.
María did her postulancy in the hospital Jesús Nazareno, a hospital in Madrid for dying women. There she began her ministry of service on behalf of the poor. She entered the Company on August 2nd, 1917. In 1918 she was missioned to the orphanage in Pamplona. These children who had no home or parents touched her heart. The work there was very tiring: classes, keeping night watch over the children, being attentive to and caring for the children … her health suffered as a result of the work and she had to take some time to rest and recuperate in the Asilo de Mendigorria (Navarra). After recovering, she returned to Pamplona and after five years of vocation ratified her consecration to God through the profession of vows on August 15, 1922. Soon after she was missioned to Casa Misercordia (Mercy House) in Valmaseda (Vizcaya). The children did not live there and so there were no night vigils. The community was composed of five Sisters who cared for the people in a small hospital and also for the children in the schools of that area. There she felt very much at home and dedicated her time to teaching music to the children. When the school year of 1922-1923 came to a conclusion, she was missioned to the school of the Presentación in Segovia where a Sister was needed to teach music and direct the choir. This was her mission and she remained there during 1923-1924. Soon thereafter she was called to another place to undertake the identical mission.
She arrived at the school of the Inmaculada on November 8th, 1924. She immediately adapted to the community there. Her letters enable us to catch a glimpse of her desire to become holy and to be molded in conformity with the will of God and her love for the poor. She was faithful and fervent in prayer and in her sacramental life and she was available to serve her community. She was most happy as a teacher and choir director. Guided by the Holy Spirit she was martyred with Sister Adoración and her companions on August 12th, 1936. She was forty years old and nineteen years in vocation.
Sister María Dolores Barroso Villaseñor
Sister María Dolores was born in Bonares (Huelva) on November 9th, 1896 into a humble and Christian family. Her parents were Francisco Barroso Vega (an agricultural worker) and Francisca Villaseñor Márquez … both were natives of Bonares where they married. They had four children: Francisco (1891), José María (1893), Francisca (1895) and María Dolores. Her father worked in the fields of the county of Niebla, often from sunrise to sunset. His wages were insufficient to support the family and they decided to move to Alcalá de Guadaira (Sevilla) in search of a more permanent and better paying job. There the maternal grandmother took charge of caring for the children while both parents worked.
Soon after arriving in Alcalá de Guadaira her brother, José María and her sister, Francisca, died of tuberculosis and a short time later her father was afflicted with the same illness. Doña Francisca was able to find a position in the rectory of Antonio Ojeda Campos, the pastor of Santiago. This provided her with the necessary time to attend to, accompany and educate her children in a Christian manner … the children attended the school of the Daughters of Charity in Alcalá de Guadaira. There María Dolores received her basic education and at the same time her lively and simple faith was strengthened. Francisco entered the seminary and received subdeaconate but died of tuberculosis while preparing for his priesthood ordination. María Dolores worked as a seamstress to help her mother. At the age of adulthood she experienced the Lord’s call and after a process of serious discernment and counsel from her confessor she decided to respond to the call.
She did her postulancy in the hospital of Morón de la Frontera (Sevilla). There she took her first steps in serving those persons in need and then some months later entered the Company on December 2nd, 1926. She was received by Sister Antonia Alvira, the Visitatrix and Sister Justa Domínguez de Vidaurreta, the director of the seminary who guided her along paths that were faithful to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit, thus assisting her to become a true servant of the poor. During this time she strengthened her trust in God and her life of prayer. Through the teachings that she received she grew in love for her vocation, the Church and the poor. In the autumn of 1927 she was missioned to the Asilo in Málaga. Animated by the fire of love she arrived there with the words of her director etched in her mind: If some difficulties arise, enliven your faith because in times of difficulty the Lord invites us to be more generous. From a perspective of faith and trust in God may our response be a “yes”! In Málaga she dedicated herself to ministry with the elderly … she was responsible, attentive and loving. At the same time she prepared for the profession of vows which took place on December 8th, 1931. Devoted to the Blessed Mother, Sister María Dolores always attempted to imitate Mary’s fidelity to God’s will and took her as a companion for her journey of faith and commitment. She experienced happiness living in community and ministering to persons who were elderly. While in Málaga there were demonstrations against the Church and the bishop … Sister was attentive and watchful. In 1933 her mother died and Sister María Dolores expressed her dispositions in a letter that she wrote to her aunt Isabel: This world is passing and therefore one should not become attached to the things of this world. The devil is very astute and cunning and wants to assault and rob good people … therefore one has to be watchful!
At the beginning of 1934 she was missioned to the psychiatric hospital of Santa Isabel int Leganés (Madrid). From the time of her arrival there people noticed her goodness. Witnesses stated over and over again that she was a good woman and was good to all people: nurses and employees. The manner in which she received people and listened to them radiated goodness and understanding. Calumnies began to circulate against the Sisters and it was said that they abused the patients … Trusting in God, Sister María Dolores remained silent and prayed, and at the same time continued to smile and remained obedient like Jesus who was obedient to the time of his death on the cross. With those attitudes she handed over her life and sealed her faith with her blood. She was thirty-nine years old and nine years in vocation when she died.
Sister Estefanía Saldaña Mayoral
She was born on August 31st, 1873 in Rabé de las Calzadas (Burgos). She was the first daughter after four sons. Her parents were Venancio Saldaña and María Mayoral. She was baptized on September 2nd, 1873 in the parish of Santa Marina. Three of the eight children became religious: Crescencio and Fidel entered the Congregation of the Mission and Estefanía entered the Company of the Daughters of Charity. Her family was distinguished in the town where she lived because of their material and spiritual blessings. As time passed, things changed and when Estefanía was born the family distinction was rooted in their fidelity to work, their compassion toward the poor and the depth of their convictions with regard to the faith.
Her parents were encouraged by Father Aquilino Valdivielso, a member of the Congregation of the Mission and an uncle of Estefanía, to allow her to study at the school of Saldaña (Burgos). There she received a good cultural education but her time of study was marked by the sudden death of her father, an event that occurred a short time after she celebrated her fourteenth birthday. This event left her with unforgettable memories and weakened her psychologically. In contrast to Estefania’s weakness, her mother, María Mayoral, confronted this same situation with courage and confidence and diligently and courageously provided for her eight children.
The year following the arrival of the Daughters of Charity at the School of the Miraculous Medal in Rabé de las Calzadas, Estefanía (now in her eighteenth year) requested entrance into the Company. She was missioned at the hospital of La Princesa de Madrid where she did her postulancy. There she came to know poverty and physical suffering. Assisted by the Sisters in her local community she learned how to care for, heal and watch over those who were ill. At the conclusion of her postulancy she entered the seminary on August 9th, 1890. In 1891 she was missioned to the hospital and the school in Corella (Navarra) where she specialized in teaching small children. After three years (1894) she was sent to Saint Vincent de Paul School in Bilbao. The following year she was assigned to the hospital and the school in Briviesca (Burgos). She remained there for ten years and taught in the school. After a lengthy preparation she pronounced her vows on August 15th, 1896. Her correspondence with her spiritual director reveals that from the time she professed her vows she had an on-going desire to grow in holiness. With all her heart she loved God, the community and the poor.
In 1905 she was assigned to the children’s home in Zaragoza and the following year to the hospital and the school in Sigüenza (Guadalajara). There she became ill and was assigned to Asilo de Niños Desamparados in Madrid. In 1908 she was teaching in Sesato (Vizcaya) and then assigned to the Casa San Nicolás in Valdemoro (Madrid). Her letters reveal that the many changes in her assignments were due to her ill health. From 1912-1914 she was in the Casa Beneficencia in Cuenca and from 1914-1916 she was in Saint Vincent de Paul School in Barbastro (Huesca).
In 1916 she was sent to Leganés where she spent twenty years teaching children. In her letters she affirmed: I very much love my vocation and I give thanks to God for having chosen me to be one of his spouses, for having shown preference to me over others … I live in conformity with his will and I embrace and am resigned to the trials and the crosses that are presented to me … I ask God to give me the strength to do what he asks of me and to endure suffering when he so wishes.
Sister María Asunción Mayoral Peña
She was born on August 19th, 1879 in Tardajos (Burgos). Her parents, Mariano (a farm worker) and Brígida, baptized her on the day after her birth. She was the eldest child and her brother, Facundo, was born after her. Her father died at a very early age and Asunción had to help her mother so that the family could survive. Her infancy and youth were marked by austerity, work and piety. Asunción was thirteen years old when the Missionaries of the Congregation arrived in Tardajos to establish a minor seminary. This event gave birth to her vocation. To leave her mother alone with her brother was very difficult but Brígida was a woman of great faith and she encouraged her daughter to follow God’s call.
Encouraged by the Sisters in Rabé de Las Calzadas (Burgos) and by her cousin, Sister Estefanía Saldaña Mayoral (who was being missioned to Briviesca), she requested admission into the Company when she eighteen years old. She did her postulancy in the hospital of Santa María de Esgueva in Valladolid where she was trained in serving the sick poor. She entered the seminary on calle Jesús (Madrid) on March 17th, 1897. At the conclusion of her time in the seminary she was missioned to Misericordia Hospital in Segovia where she pronounced her vows on August 15th, 1902. From Segovia she went to the local hospital in Benavente (Zamora) and after that we find her in the hospital of Carrion de los Condes (Palencia), the Casa Beneficencia in Palencia, Casa Misericordia in Lérida, the hospital of the Venerable Third Order of Saint Francis (Madrid), the home for the blind, La Purísima (Madrid) where she was Sister-Servant. From there she was named Sister-Servant at the Sanatorio de Santa María del Naranco in Oviedo where she experienced the Asturias Revolt in 1934.
At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century there were outbreaks of measles, typhus and tuberculosis … epidemics that affected the poor and defenseless persons. Sister Asunción was one of the many Sisters who was always available to minister in those places of urgent and great need. When the Asturias Revolt was concluded she was reassigned to her beloved mission at the Center for the Blind in Madrid where the patients had insisted on her return. In Oviedo, where she lived in the midst of gun battles and explosions, she revealed that she was not afraid of death and affirmed that she was willing to serve Christ and willing to die for Christ. At the home for the blind she ministered several days during the week at a soup kitchen that had been established in the parish of San Pedro in Vallecas. There she prepared food and attended to the needs of those persons afflicted by hunger and unemployment. She engaged in this ministry from November 1934 until May 1936. As a result of her strong faith she was able to confront the events that followed with serenity and hope.
On July 21st, 1936 as a result of enforcing the decree of religious purification, the Sisters were expelled. The companions of Sister Asunción testified about the events that occurred. A group of armed militia accompanied us to Leganés as we searched for refuge … During this journey Sister Maria Asuncion referred to her willingness to accept martyrdom and she publically professed this willingness despite the threats and the ridicule of the militia. Her cousin, Estefanía was in Leganés and this prompted her to seek refuge there … thus having gathered with the Sisters there she would eventually be led to martyrdom. When she arrived there she stated that she did not fear death … she did fear the barbarous manner in which the militia treated the Sisters, but she did not fear martyrdom.
With this disposition she accepted her situation. Trusting in the Providence of God she forgave her enemies and was willing to sacrifice her life in order to remain faithful to God and to her vocation. She remained firm and calm during the time she spent at the boarding house as well as during the time of her arrest and death. Together with her companions in martyrdom she celebrated the Eucharist clandestinely and on August 12th, 1936 she offered her life as a holocaust of love. She was fifty-seven years old and thirty-nine years in vocation.
Itinerary of the martyrs
On July 21st, 1936, a group of militia entered the hospital with orders to remove the Sisters and detain them. The superior, Sister Leoncia Aoiz, went to the chapel and in order to prevent the desecration of the hosts that the soldiers had planned, she opened the tabernacle and gave the consecrated hosts to the entire community. Two armed militiamen seized the ciborium and threw the hosts on the floor. Sister Leoncia told them: Don’t do that, this is our Lord! The soldiers responded: The Lord doesn’t give orders here! We are the ones who give orders! Sister then gathered up the hosts from the floor and continued giving communion. All the Sisters were then taken to their community room where they were unable to communicate with anyone for the next five days.
The same situation was repeated in the community at the school. After five days, the two communities were brought together in the school. There were a total of forty-six Sisters there and barely room for them all in the community room. During the evening of July 26th the Sisters were shoved into two pickup trucks and brought to the prison of the General Bureau of Security (Madrid). Several former students were imprisoned there but no one was allowed to communicate with the Sisters. The students were detained there for two days and given no food. During their interrogation the students defended the Sisters and spoke forthrightly as they refuted the charges against the Sisters, charges that were based on the simple fact that the Sisters did good on behalf of others. Sister Adoración Cortés was told to renounce her position as a religious and accept the position of administrator of the government schools. The officials were very aware of Sister’s credentials, her professional formation and her experience as a teacher. Again they demanded that she renounce her situation as a Christian and a religious woman. She refused to do this and forcefully affirmed the fact that she was a Daughter of Charity and that she would continue in said state until the time of her death.
The Sisters were then freed on condition that they notify the authorities concerning their future place of residence. Sisters Leoncia Aoiz and Sister Aurelia Armendáriz, the superiors of the two communities, counseled the Sisters to return to their families or, in groups of two or three, to seek lodging in a trustworthy boarding house. Petra Saldaña, the sister of Estefanía, received eight Sisters in her boarding house at 15 calle Arenal. There the Sisters lived clandestinely like the early Christians. Before sunrise, Father Lumbreras (a Vincentian) celebrated Mass for the Sisters every morning. Some hosts were secretly reserved for adoration and atonement. The Sisters were strengthened and consoled by the Eucharistic celebration. At the same time two former students from Leganés (who had entered the militia) would visit the Sisters … their actual intention was to inspect the living quarters and gather information concerning the priests and Sisters who were seeking refuge. The Sisters remained in this situation from July 29th until August 12th.
On the morning of August 12th, a group of the militia belonging to the FAI (la Federación Anarquista Ibérica [Iberian Anarchist Federation]) arrived at the boarding house and conducted a search. They were looking for the Sisters and found them. The Sisters had been denounced by the two students who had visited them on a regular basis. The Sisters openly revealed their identity: Yes, we are the Daughters of Charity from Leganés …The members of the militia said they would return in the afternoon … They were looking for the priest who celebrated Mass but Father Lumbreras and two young Sisters were able to escape to another boarding house. The others, however, had nowhere else to go and so remained there. The popular tribunal had decided to shoot the Sisters as well as the priest. The soldiers returned at six o’clock and conducted another search. When they could not find the priest they became furious and threatened the Sisters who, startled and fearful, began to pray with much faith.
At 10:45pm the soldiers returned for a third time and put the Sisters and Doña Petra Saldaña and her son-in-law, Santiago, into two pickup trucks. Sister Nieves, elderly and infirm, begged: Take me with them! But the commander responded: Leave the old woman here … she will die alone! When they arrived at the top of Puerta de Hierrro (Iron Door) at the northern entrance of Madrid, they removed the five Sisters and placed them alongside a ditch on the side of the Aravaca road. The soldiers gathered together and decided how to proceed … some of these members of the militia had been taught by the Sisters in Leganés. The Sisters prayed in silence asking for forgiveness for their assassins … Santiago, an eye-witness of these events, described their martyrdom: In front of the Sisters, the soldiers stood between the two trucks … leaning on one another’s shoulders they deliberated in a low voice (this was the manner in which the popular tribunal came to a final decision). They made the decision to kill the Sisters … we were filled with fear and terror and we listened to the voice of Sister Estefanía: kill us, for the love of God and do not let us suffer too much. It was a dark night. We were ordered to get into the truck whose lights had been turned off. In less than thirty seconds we heard about twenty or thirty shots from a machine gun. After two or three minutes a soldier approached the door of the truck and we heard another five shots at intervals of fifteen seconds … that was the coup de grace … Then they brought my mother-in-law and myself to our house at 15 Arenal but we now returned along a different route. The assassination took place at 11:56 on the night of August 12, 1936.
The reason for death of the Sisters was the fact that they openly professed themselves to be Daughters of Charity. Sister Adoración and her companions had refused to become teachers and nurses at the price of denying their faith in Jesus Christ and their vocation. They were followers of Jesus and the evangelical promise was fulfilled in them: If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you (John 15:20).
The bodies of the Sisters were left in the ditch beside the road that goes from Madrid to Aravaca. The following morning their bodies were gathered up by Don Manuel Ceán Bustos, who buried them together in the cemetery. Today that place is fenced and protected ... It is the Cementerio de Mártires de Aravaca (The Cemetery of the Martyrs of Aravaca). Over eight hundred persons are buried there … persons who died violently because of their religious or military situation. The Sisters are buried in plot #2 with several priests and other persons who were assassinated on the same day. A tombstone with the Miraculous Medal has been placed there to facilitate the veneration of these persons. The person who buried the Sisters stated that their bodies had been riddled with bullets but he knew they were Daughters because they had a rosary, a prayer book, a crucifix and a Miraculous Medal. Sister Adoración Cortés and her companions were the first Daughters of Charity to seal their Christian faith with their blood … that occurred on August 12th, 1936. From that time their place of burial has become a place of prayer and veneration.
Very soon the readers of Anales, and all those persons who desire, will be able to read in greater detail and with more graphic material the biographies of all the Sisters who will be beatified in October 2013. The books is entitled Un diamante de trienta caras (A diamond with thirty faces).
The martyrs of Vallecas (Madrid): other events in Albacete
The document regarding the religious purification of La Casa Beneficencia that is preserved in the archives of the Provincial Government reveals the following:
• On May 25th, 1936 the Administrative Commission of the Provincial Government of Albacete made the decision to expel the Sisters. This was done in response to the request of Mr. Hernandez de La Asunción, the director of the orphanage and the maternity center.
• The expulsion of the Sisters should begin with those residing at Casa Misericordia and thus Article #3 of the Constitution of the Republic will be fulfilled: In order to put into practice the constitutional precepts contained in the republican ideal, those forms of assistance that are provided by the provincial administration of said religious institutes are to be suppressed and the members of this institute are to have no influence in deciding who is to become responsible for the various positions that are vacated by the religious.
• In view of this decree the members of the Administrative Commission should expel the forty-one Sisters from their houses: the child caring and maternity center, the provincial hospital, Gota de Leche Dispensary (Drop of Mile Dispensary) and Casa Misericorida. The first to be expelled were those who resided at the child caring and maternity center and from there the religious purification was extended to the other houses.
• The minutes of the above cited meeting of the Commission state the following: on this same day, May 25th, 1936 the President of the Administrative Commission proposed the appointment of various individuals to replace the present directors, including Sister Dolores Caro. The persons appointed to these positions are all lay persons.
• The following was decreed with regard to the expulsion of the Sisters: when the Sisters are removed from the house they will not be allowed to take with them any items that do not personally belong to them; this includes clothing, money, food and any items that they cannot prove belong to them. Doubtful items will be resolved by one appointed by this commission.
The Daughters of Charity had lived in the house there for seventy years. They cared for small children, adolescents and the elderly and ministered in the schools, in the kitchen, in the laundry and the second hand clothing shop. Their mission was to reach out to and serve and care for and educate all people. They were to make the gospel of Jesus Christ present in the midst of people through the practice of charity. On July 25th, 1936 ten Sisters from Casa Misericordia were arrested in their residence. On that same time the Sisters were warned by the caretaker about the evil intentions of the popular tribunal, namely a decision had been made to shoot them when they left the house. Aided by the caretaker, the Sisters decided to dress as laywomen and all were to leave before the dawn of July 26th. Sister Maria Dolores Caro, the superior, asked Sister Andrea Calle (she was responsible for the second hand clothing shop) to provident the sisters with clothing from the women who were living in the home for elderly … no other clothing was available to them. Assisted by the caretaker they were able to leave unseen and they traveled to the station where they took a train to Madrid. The following day an order was issued for the search and arrest of Sister Andrea Calle who was accused to theft … she had taken clothing without the permission of the new director of the center.
Thus the Sisters escaped and arrived by train in Madrid where they looked for a safe place to reside. They were unable to live at the central house of the Daughters because of the large of Sisters (including the Visitatrix and her council) who had already gathered there. They were told that if they entered they would not be allowed to leave. A nephew of Dolores Caro, Santiago, allowed the Sisters to live in the basement of the house where he worked as a porter … this house was located at #5 on the plaza de Olavide. There they prayed and worked at whatever was possible; they experienced many needs but as a result of the courage and astuteness of Father Elias Fuentes, the Sisters were frequently able to celebrate the Eucharist.
Sister Dolores-Úrsula Caro Martín
Sister Dolores-Úrsula Caro Martín was born on August 21st, 1893 in Granátula de Calatrava (Ciudad Real). Her parents, Santiago and Dionisia, were teachers. Dolores was the second of two children. She was baptized on October 23rd, 1893 in the parish of her birthplace. Her infancy was developed in a tranquil manner in this town, devoted to the Virgin of Azuqueca, whose shine (following the tradition of the people there) she visited with her parents and her brother.
During her infancy she attended school and participated in catechetical formation. She grew up in a healthy family environment and developed her personality on a foundation of Christian values (knowledge and piety). She was serious and responsible, firm in her decisions, prudent and faithful. Following the family tradition, she and her brother also became teachers. When Dolores was fifteen years old her parents moved to Manzanares (Ciudad Real) where they continued to teach. A few years later both her parents died at an early age. Dolores completed her studies in the field of education and obtained a position in the schools of Manzanares.
There she met and became engaged to a young man from a good family … a friend of her brother. A few months before her marriage she experienced a call from the Lord to follow him. She knew the Sisters at the hospital of the Asunción in Manzanares who arrived there in 1915 to take charge of the hospital. She saw them pray and serve the elderly poor with a special dedication. She continued to experience the silent voice of her calling. She decided to respond to this calling and overcame the opposition of her brother and the resistance of her intended husband. Her niece affirmed: She wanted to be a Daughter of Charity but her brother would not allow her to because she was already engaged. She had to enter into a lengthy struggle in order to obtain his consent … Finally, the situation was resolved and she was able to be faithful to her vocation. Sister Benita Sainz, the superior at the hospital, helped her and made the necessary arrangements for her entrance into the Company.
Upon her arrival in Madrid and after consulting with the Provincial Visitatrix, she engaged in a one year experience of service at the homeopathic hospital of San José. There she became more rooted in her vocation and also studied nursing. She then did her Postulancy in the hospital and the school at Viana (Navarra). She entered the Company on May 9th, 1917. From this time forward she dedicated herself to her formation, to the cultivation of her interior life and to becoming knowledgeable about the Rule of the Company. After she completed her time at the seminary in 1918 she was missioned to the school of Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes (Our Lady of Mercy) in Madrid … a school that cared for 200 students who boarded there as well as numerous students who traveled each day from their home to the school. She became responsible for the infirmary at the school and also taught the students in fourth grade. In her educational ministry there was something new here, namely, her perspective of faith and her conviction of continuing the mission of Jesus Christ as Teacher. She spent thirteen years in this ministry.
In 1935 she was named superior of the community at Casa Misericordia in Albacete. She knew that the situation there was difficult but in a spirit of obedience she accepted this new assignment. Some of the testimonies speak of her as virtuous, a friend who did good, a woman with a great supernatural spirit. Sister Dolores maintained calm and peace and serenity in the community until July 25th, the day on which they were arrested. She made the Sisters leave the house and they traveled to Madrid and sought refuge in the basement of a house located on the Plaza de Olavide. These were difficult times for everyone. After two months there they no longer had any money. Realizing that this put Santiago Caro in a difficult position she asked the Sisters to explore the possibilities of living with family members and/or friends in Madrid. Santiago was married and had several small children and his salary as a porter was not sufficient to provide food for so many people. Sister Concepción had an uncle in Vallecas and she decided to travel to her uncle’s house in order to alleviate the situation. Sister Dolores and Sister Andrea accompanied her but on the way there they encountered martyrdom. Sister Dolores was forty-three years old and nineteen years in vocation.
Sister Concepción Pérez Giral
She was born on January 10, 1887 in the neighborhood of Lavapiés, Madrid. She was born into a humble family with strong Christian roots. Her parents baptized her on January 13th in the parish of San Cayetano. She was the second of three daughters: María, Concepción and Pilar. Her father, Victoriano Pérez de Rojas, was a construction worker and was originally from Metapozuelos (Valladolid). Her mother, Tomasa Giral Marcos, was originally from Sarvisé (Huesca) and had gone to Madrid in search of some type of domestic work.
Concepción’s infancy was sad as a result of the premature death of her mother who died when Concepción was five years old. In light of the new family situation her mother’s family took charge of the two oldest daughters and an uncle on her father’s side of the family took responsibility for the youngest child. Concepción went to the house of her uncle, Francisco, in Almunia de Doña Godina (Zaragoza). There she learned to read and write in the school located in that town and also received the necessary family support. During her adolescence she and her sister, Maria, went to the house of a family in Jaca (Huesca). This created a great change in her life. Soon thereafter she moved to Matapozuelos (Valladolid) where she joined her sister, Pilar, who lived with her father’s family. There she adapted herself to the rural life of honest and hard work. She experienced warm acceptance and worked in a way that was possible for her. Directed by the pastor in that area she became a member of the Association of the Daughters of Mary … she learned to pray on a daily basis and during the early years of her youth she made a private vow of chastity.
Because of the closeness of Metapozuelos to Valladolid she began to visit the children at the Casa Beneficencia and felt attracted by the service that the Sisters provided there … this helped her in her vocational discernment. In 1919 she moved to Madrid and began her postulancy at the general hospital there (today that place is the Museum Reina Sofía). There she realized that she did not have sufficient knowledge about the charism and asked to prolong the time of her postulancy. This request was granted and she was able to remain there for another eight months of trial and discernment. She entered the seminary on September 20th, 1919. During the time of formation and internalization she learned that to be a Daughter of Charity meant that she had to allow herself to be guided by the Holy Spirit in order (as narrated in the gospels) to continue the mission of Jesus Christ among the poor.
Her first mission in 1920 was the community at the hospital and school in El Puente del Arzobispo (Toledo). There she cared for the elderly and helped in the school. She also offered sewing classes, cared for the farm animals and visited the poor in their homes. In 1923 she became ill and was sent to Casa San Nicolas de Valdemoro, a house for Sisters who were ill. There, through the profession of vows, she reaffirmed her commitment to God and with faith asked for healing which did not come until ten years later. These years became a time for interior purification and patience.
The premature death of her mother had an effect on her … she was very sensitive and also timid and somewhat insecure (this created some difficulties in her attempts to relate to others). She was very pleasant when dealing with others and was very sensitive to the suffering of others. In 1934, having recovered her health, she was missioned to the dispensary and the doctor’s office in Gota de Leche in Valladolid. Besides distributing food to the children, she also prepared food in the soup kitchen that was located adjacent to the doctor’s office. In 1935 she was missioned to Casa Misericordia in Albacete where she engaged in a similar ministry. There she respected the established norms and gave herself wholly to the children as well as the elderly. She accepted with calmness the calumnies and verbal offenses that were inflicted on the community. She allowed herself to be guided by Sister Dolores with whom she was martyred.
When she arrived in Madrid she remained calm as she lived with the other members of her community. When their money ran out and they could no longer obtain food, the Sisters began to look for a family who might help them. Sister Concepción remembered her uncle who was living in Vallecas. Sister Dolores and Sister Andrea accompanied her (this was a gesture of charity that seemed to be proper to this community that was united). During their journey they encountered martyrdom. Sister Concepcion was forty-nine years old and seventeen year in vocation.
Sister Andrea Calle González
Sister Andrea was born on February 26th, 1904 in Plasencia (Cáceres). She was the youngest of eight children but only three survived to adulthood. Her father, Valeriano, was a carpenter with his own workshop. Her mother, Mónica González was a good housekeeper and faithful administrator of the home. On March 2nd Andrea was baptized in the cathedral parish of Santa María in Plasencia. The family had deep Christian roots and educated their children in gospel values. Emilia and Andrea became Daughters of Charity and Gregorio followed in the footsteps of his father and became a carpenter.
At that time there were two communities of the Daughters of Charity in Plasencia: one at the hospital and the school near the cathedral and the other at the psychiatric hospital on the outskirts of the town. Andrea and her sister were students in the school of the Daughters. There they learned to read and write. Emilia and Andrea frequently went to the psychiatric hospital accompanied by their maternal grandfather who raised cows and provided milk to said institution. In their visits to the hospital they experienced God’s call, first Emilia and a few years later, Andrea. They prayed together in their home as a family and helped the poor … an environment that contributed to the development of their vocation. Following the example of her sister Emilia, who was nine years older than her, Andrea became a member of the Association of the Daughters of Mary. In the midst of this group she found an environment that contributed to the cultivation of her faith and that enabled her to serve the poor. In this context she decided to respond to the Lord’s call.
Her parents were hesitant since they had already allowed Emilia to leave in 1917 and it seemed to them that giving one daughter to the Lord was enough. They wanted Andrea to remain with them so that she would be able to provide for them in their old age. Therefore Andrea waited until she was an adult and had been able to provide some money to the family. This she was able to do as a result of her work as a dressmaker. During this time she worked overtime and provided housecoats to the women in the seminary at Plasencia. The money that she received from this work was used to obtain those things that she needed in order to enter the Daughters of Charity … including her studies in nursing at La Fundación Nájera in Carabanchel. There she obtained a degree and she became more convinced of her decision to enter religious life. When she completed her nursing studies she began her postulancy in the general hospital in Madrid. She then entered the Company on September 11th, 1930 and felt very happy to be able to prepare herself to be a good Daughter of Charity.
When she completed her initial formation in the seminary, she was missioned to the psychiatric hospital and the school in Almería. There things were very similar to the situation she had experienced in Plasencia. Sister Andrea cared for those with mental illness and contributed to the efforts to create community in the local house where she resided. She remained there for three years (1931-1934). Then she was missioned to the psychiatric hospital in Zaldivar (Vizcaya) and became a member of a community composed of twenty Sisters who maintained a good spirit among themselves and who were excited about their work. This was also the attitude of Sister Andrea. A few months later she was missioned to Casa Misericordia in Albacete where she was responsible for the clothing department. She was not only responsible for the clothing of those who resided there but also had to teach the older girls how to sew. Those were difficult times. Unjust and calumnious accusations were made against the Sisters and the provincial superiors decided to send a new group of Sisters, thus the local community was composed of Sisters who were newly missioned there. Her two companions in martyrdom, Sister Dolores and Sister Concepción, were also new to this community.
Sister Andrea was always in situations that demanded dedication, self-sacrifice and commitment. She enjoyed good health, was calm and happy and well prepared for ministry. She had great faith and trust in God. The situation before her martyrdom which led her to accept being missioned to Albacete reveals her love for God, the Church, the community and the sick poor. These attitudes were her best preparation for martyrdom which would occur in the midst of an environment that was hostile to the faith. Placing herself in God’s hands and trusting in Divine Providence, on March 16th, 1936 Sister Andrea reaffirmed her commitment to God through the profession of vows. Because of the situation in Albacete she told her mother not to come there. In her letter she stated: we trust that God will help us. At the time of her martyrdom she was thirty-two years old and six years in vocation.
Itinerary of the martyrs
On the morning of September 3rd, 1936 Sister Dolores Caro, Sister Andrea Calle and Sister Concepción Pérez left their place of refuge on the Plaza de Olavide in order to travel to Vallecas where Sister Concepción’s uncle lived. When they got off the streetcar they had to inquire about the address and walk about the streets in order to locate the house they were looking for. An unruly crowd of young people and women identified them as “nuns”. Their demeanor and clothing betrayed them. The mob followed them, insulted and mocked them.
When they arrived at the house where they were going, the occupants would not allow them to enter. They denied knowing Sister Concepción and told her and her companions to leave. The people of this area communicated the news of the arrival of the three Sisters to the Committee of Vallecas. Immediately a group of militia was sent to arrest them. They were brought before the popular tribunal of Ateneo Libertario whose offices had been established in the school that had been confiscated from the Franciscan Sisters of the Divine Shepherd. When the Sisters arrived there a crowd had gathered and began to shout and cry out for the death of the Sisters. The Daughters were then forced to endure a harsh and vulgar interrogation. They were accused of participating in horrible acts which the Sisters denied with calmness. After several hours of this moral torture they were taken the headquarters of the Popular Communist Committee in Vallecas.
Once again new accusations were leveled against them and they were addressed with vulgar language. They were pressured to deny their faith in Jesus Christ and also coerced to raise their fists as a sign that they were members of the Communist Party and not Daughters of Charity. The Sisters refused to do any of this. The militia recognized the resistance and the strength of the Sisters and therefore separated the three of them. Sister Dolores and Sisters Andrea were brought to the headquarters of the secret police located at #11 calle Emilio Ortuño in Puente de Vallecas. There they were locked up with a cruel group of the militia that was called la cuadrilla de cinco diablos (the gang of five devils). In separate rooms and now alone with the militia the Sisters were physically and morally tortured. The three struggled courageously to defend their faith and their consecrated virginity.
Their violent death in the name of their faith occurred after this horrible moral torture. In the afternoon, Sister Dolores and Sister Andrea were taken by car to Los Toriles where a large group of children, teenagers and women had gathered together. There they were pushed and shoved about and then stoned. They were then dragged to a bolder that jutted out alongside a farmhouse and were executed. Their martyrdom was terrifying, but the two Sisters, filled with the courage of the Holy Spirit, forgave their enemies and before they were shot, shouted: Long live Christ the King! They had lived their lives with the conviction of faith and now, with the same conviction, they handed over their life and sealed their death with their blood and with their fidelity to Jesus Christ.
Behind the car that transferred Sister Dolores and Sister Andrea to Los Toriles was another car in which Sister Concepción was transported. The militia stopped the car in el Pozo Del Tio Raimundo alongside the train tracks that connected Madrid and Zaragoza. There she was removed from the car and shot on the side of the road under a bridge. Before the shots rang out, Sister forgave her enemies and cried out in a loud voice: Long live Christ the King! Then having already suffered a moral martyrdom, her body was riddled with a machine gun leaving her face completely disfigured.
These three women calmly accepted death in order to remain faithful to their faith. They imitated Jesus Christ during the time of their arrest, in confronting the false accusations, in forgiving their enemies and in the final instance, in accepting the cross and death. Like Jesus they placed their spirit in the Father’s hands (Luke 23:46). Firm in their faith and faithful to their vocation, they died professing their faith in Jesus Christ and asking that his kingdom of peace and truth and life might become present in the midst of our world. As the day became night their bodies were thrown into a ditch. José Castor, a nephew of Sister Dolores and known by the members of the local committee, recovered their bodies. He identified them and had the judge in Vallecas confirm the identification of their bodies. In 1941, their remains were transferred to the crypt in the cemetery of San Isidro and then in 2003, their remains were taken to a small chapel in the Provincial House of Saint Vincent in Madrid where they are venerated by the faithful.
Martyrs of the Eucharist on the Toledo Road: The “religious purification” continues
Sister Modesta Mora and Sister Isabel Sánchez were missioned in 1936 to the maternity center, Santa Cristina, located on calle O’Donnell in Madrid. The community of the Daughters of Charity had been providing services there from the time of its foundation (1924) by Queen María Cristina and a group of women. The fifteen Sisters provided a threefold service: they cared for women who were pregnant, they provided for the recently born children and they organized a school for midwives. The community received the order of expulsion from their residence on July 21st, 1936. They left their house on the following day and were dressed as nurses. They traveled to the Central House on calle Martínez Campos and sought lodging there. This was the seat of the French-Spanish Province which, from the beginning of the war, had been protected by the French Embassy … this protection was provided as a result of the intervention of the Visitatrix, Sister María Emilia Heredia, who had obtained the establishment of a hospital that was administered by the Red Cross (an institution that was also placed under the protection of the French Embassy).
As the months passed, the committee in Chamberí received denunciations that the food sent to the hospital was being consumed by others who were not patients there. On September 11th, 1936 an investigation was begun and the premises were searched … the Committee made the decision to substitute the Sisters with lay women who were also nurses. Sister María Hereida offered to replace the four nurses who were known (these were Sisters from the seminary dressed as laywomen). The head nurse was French and Sister Victoria Nieto was placed at the front door (a Sister from the seminary who was fluent in French) … thus everything was resolved. The delegate from the committee of Chamberí wanted to conduct a search but the director of the hospital prevented this because permission from the French consul had not been obtained. In light of this situation of control and suspicion it became necessary to disperse the Sisters who were living in the basement of the house (this is described by Sister Lourdes Sousa Prego in her memoirs). The committee did not cease their search to locate and detain Sister María Emilia Heredia who, having been warned, was able to travel to the French hospital of San Louis and from there left for Irún.
Under these circumstances seven Sisters from the community of Santa Cristina moved into a boarding house located at #14 calle Prado. Thus Sister Modesta Moro, Sister Pilar-Isabel Sánchez and five other companions were designated to make this move. Sister Modesta Mora was appointed to be the one responsible for the group. The Sisters who lodged together at calle Prado would depend on Sister Pilar de la Puente, superior of the community at the French hospital of San Luis in Madrid. It was difficult for them to leave the community and therefore unable to participate in Mass which was celebrated in a clandestine manner on a daily basis by some priests who had sought lodging in the central house: Don José María Lahiguera, bishop; Don Luis Soria, pastor of Santa Teresa; Father Valentín Sánchez, a Jesuit priest.
Life in the shelter was carried on in a very strict clandestine manner. An employee at the center Santa Cristina accompanied the Sisters, bought their food and provided the Sisters with work that involved sewing clothes for the soldiers serving on the front lines of battle. Prayer, work and mutual help characterized the life of the Sisters who had been dispersed. In this way they were preparing themselves for martyrdom as they recalled the words of Saint Vincent de Paul: I am well aware, dear Sisters, that some among you, by the grace of God, love their vocation so strongly that they would prefer to be crucified, torn apart, and hacked into a thousand pieces rather than tolerate anything contrary to it --- and there are a good number of you, by the mercy of God (CCD:IX:359). Their arrest and death was not the result of a lack of prudence … rather they were the immediate consequence of their desire to receive the Eucharist on the feast of All Saints. They wanted to gather together with the Community to celebrate the Bread of life and found the fullness of life through the gift of martyrdom.
Sister Modesta Moro Briz
She was born on July 11, 1901 in Santibáñez de Béjar (Salamanca). Her parents were Don Jorge Mora, a teacher and Doña Fernanda Briz, mother of a large family. Modesta was baptized on July 15th in the parish of Santiago, the apostle. Together with her six brothers and sisters she was educated in the faith by her parents and grandparents. As a result of those Christian roots three of the children heard God call to the religious life: Don Santos, bishop of Ávila; Don José Máximo, pastor of Ceberos (Ávila); Sister Modesta … José Máximo and Modesta were martyrs for the faith.
Modesta, like her father, was joyful and open. From him she also learned to be firm in her faith and faithful to God’s plans. The years of her adolescence were a time of sadness that was caused by the progressive illness of her mother which took away the warmth and the joy from their home. Don Jorge decided to take Modesta, the youngest child, to the school of the Miraculous Medal in Ávila where she studied. She would live there with her brother, Don Santos, a priest and professor at the diocesan seminary. In Ávila she met Sister María Heredia under whose direction she began to journey to the new school with the same name. One of her companions, Sister Agapita Lastras said of her: she was a normal woman, communicative, happy and helpful and I admired her … her character made her loved by her companions. She studied to become a teacher and joined the Association of the Daughters of Mary where she cultivated a habit of prayer and accompanied the Sisters when they visited the poor. In this context she heard the Lord’s call which she embraced with joy.
She did her postulancy in the hospital Niño Jesús in Madrid and on October 6th, 1922 began her initial formation at the Casa Central located at #18 calle Martínez Campos. She was received into the community by Sister Emilia Heredia, the Visitatrix. During the time of her initial formation she became grounded in her simple piety and understood that obedience and availability were essential in order to serve the poor. After some months she was sent to the seminary in the motherhouse of Paris to finish her formation. At the end of that time she was missioned to the school San José in Santander and a few months later to Sagrado Corazón in Cartagena (Murcia) where she dedicated herself to teaching. In that house she received the name Sister Rosalia which she kept until the time of her death. She took her vows on the feast of the Immaculate Conception 1927, wholly consecrating herself to Jesus Christ in the person of those most in need. She was deeply passionate about teaching, a gift that she inherited from her father. In Santander as well as in Cartagena she was loved by her students who affirmed: She corrected us in a timely manner and did so with great patience … with justice and calmness that characterized her. She never grew tired when she repeated different lessons; she opened our minds to the light of knowledge and truth. She remained there for eight years.
In 1931 she was missioned to the health center, Santa Cristina in Madrid where she became responsible for the pharmacy. In the community she always looked for ways to make others smile. Some Sisters said: Aren’t you embarrassed to bear the brunt of all the jokes? She responded: Embarrassed, why? … I hope to obtain some plenary indulgence with all of this … and it is wonderful to be able to help the Sisters forget their weariness and the difficulties they had to confront during the day. At the same time she knew how to be quiet when obedience demanded this. The thirteen letters that her family preserved reflect her love for others, her joy in serving the poor, her profound piety and her unconditional service on behalf of others. Her nieces and nephews had repeatedly stated: she encouraged us and guided us toward the future.
During the month of October 1936 while at the shelter at #14 calle Prado she had the premonition that something had happened to her brother, Don José Máximo. She had heard on the radio news about the assassination of some priests who resided in the towns surrounding Ávila. She inquired about this and discovered that it was true. Her brother was assassinated on July 24th, 1936. Sister Modesto wept and with Christian resignation stated: I am also willing to die if this is what God desires. On October 31st she left the shelter of the boarding house in order to celebrate the Eucharist on the following day at the Casa Central. She, together with her companion, Sister Pilar-Isabel, was martyred. She was thirty-five years old and fourteen years in vocation.
Sister Pilar-Isabel Sánchez Suárez
Sister Pilar was born on November 5th, 1906 at #4 calle Méndez Álvaro. Her father, Don Peregrín Sánchez López, was a railroad worker at the Atocha station and her mother, Doña María Suarez, cared for and educated her children. Her parents had gone to Madrid in search of work and there they met and married. Pilar-Isabel was the oldest child of a large family. She was baptized in the parish of Nuestra Señora de las Angustias in Madrid and given the name Pilar-Isabel. In community she was always called Sister María. Her parents looked for a school near their home in which their children could be educated: the school of San Alfonso administered by the Daughters of Charity. There Pilar-Isabel learned to read and write and received her primary school education.
During her adolescence she was often found at the sewing and embroidery workshop where she helped her parents in their assiduous work. She was a member of the Association of the Daughters of Mary and she accompanied the Sisters when they visited the poor in their homes. Under their direction and with their accompaniment she responded to the Lord’s call. She experienced God speaking to her as she observed the Sisters caring for the little children and teaching them in school as well as when she was with the Sisters as they visited the sick, treating those infirm individuals with tenderness and kindness. Something in her conscience made her experience a powerful attraction to follow Jesus Christ.
At the age of twenty-one she requested entrance into the Company of the Daughters of Charity. She did her postulancy at the hospital and school Fundación Tavera in Toledo (today this is the school San Juan Bautista). At that time the Sisters cared for the infirm, the small children and taught in the school that was connected to the hospital. They also visited the elderly in their homes and each day provided hot soup to a large number of poor persons. Sister Teresa Enríquez, who guided Pilar-Isabel during the time of her postulancy, was the superior of this community of eight Sisters. On April 29th, 1925, she entered the seminary located at #18 Martínez Campos. She was received by Sister María Heredia, Visitatrix. As a young seminary Sister she was convinced that this time of initial formation provided her with the opportunity to cultivate the habit of concentration, intimacy with God, and the practice of virtue … a time to dedicate herself to the study of Scripture, the teachings of the Founders and the Rule proper to the Company. All of this enabled her to acquire a solid spiritual life that became the foundation for her apostolic activity.
At the conclusion of her initial formation in 1926 she was missioned to the hospital in Málaga. Then in August 1927 she was assigned to the Red Cross Hospital in Melilla. A few month later she was missioned to Albergue de San Antonio in Barcelonia where the Sisters cared for the infirm in their homes, maintained a soup kitchen and administered a sewing workshop. After a year she was sent to the Red Cross Hospital in Alicante and in May, 1928 went to the maternity center, Santa Cristina in Madrid where she ministered as an operating room assistant. She remained there for eight years. Day after day, through her generosity and joy she made every effort to be a witness of God’s goodness to the women who were hospitalized and to the women at the school for midwives. During her time at this hospital she became a close friend of Sister Modesta Moro. When Sister Modesta arrived at the center Sister Pilar-Isabel had been there for two years and knew the doctors, the administrators and the situation at the hospital. From 1930-1936, the two young women helped and encouraged one another to live their vocation with joy.
The data in the archives of the maternity center reveal that during Sister Pilar-Isabel’s time there some three thousand children were born. Sister Pilar accompanied those mothers with humble and simple service. The testimony concerning her describes her as one who possessed a good spirit; she was pious, simple, hard-working, joyful and obedient. She admired her friend, Sister Modesta, with whom she shared martyrdom. When they were removed from the hospital they went to the Casa Central on July 22nd, 1936 and ministered at the Red Cross Hospital located there until the first week of September, 1936 when other women substituted for the Sisters. During this time the Sisters were able to participate in the Eucharist on a daily basis, receiving strength to confront the martyrdom that she suffered with Sister Modesta. She was thirty years old and ten years in vocation.
Itinerary of the martyrs
One of the greatest sacrifices that was endured by the Sisters who had been scattered about was that of being deprived of the possibility of participating in the Eucharist. Sister Modesta and her companions requested permission to participate in the Mass on the feast of All Saints that was celebrated at 5:00 am in the Provincial House, #18 calle Martínez Campos. This request was granted. Sister Modesta wanted to offer the Mass for her brothers, Don Santos Mora, who had recently been consecrated bishop of Avila and Don José Moro, who was assassinated a few months before. All the Sisters experienced a need to be nourished by the Bread of Life on the feast of All Saints. It had been more than two months since they were table to take Communion. Since a large number of Sisters had left the Provincial House for France, it was now possible to provide refuge for others.
During the afternoon of October 30th, 1936, the Sisters prepared to leave in two groups, one group in the morning and the other group in the afternoon. They would travel in groups of two and distance themselves from one another in order to avoid calling attention to themselves. They traveled along a narrow street that ran parallel to the Paseo de la Castellana. Sister Modesta and Sister Isabel decided to be the last ones to leave on the afternoon of October 31st. They paid the owner of the boarding house and left everything clean. But as they left the house they were arrested on the front steps. An armed member of the militia asked them if they were religious. They responded affirmatively and their answer was sufficient motive for their arrest.
An employee at the center Santa Cristina had left with the first two Sisters who departed earlier in the afternoon and they were to be followed soon thereafter by Sister Modesta and Sister Pilar-Isabel. The owner of the boarding house affirmed that Sister Modesta had a premonition about her martyrdom … when the two Sisters left before them, as if speaking to herself, she stated: we will be the last victims. When they went down the front steps, they were surprised by El Campesino, one of the most feared assassins in Madrid. He arrested them and, with his rifle in his hand, he accompanied them to the front of the boarding house where his other compañeros were waiting. Together they led the two Sisters to the headquarters of the secret police which had been established in the school of the Salesians which had been confiscated … a school located on calle Ronda de Valencia. There, during several hours, they endured a cruel interrogation as well as physical and moral torture which they suffered interiorly as they united themselves to the sufferings that Jesus endured on the cross.
At the conclusion of the war more details about their death were made known. El Campesino assaulted the two Sisters on the steps, before they left the front door. He was accompanied by other men who were also armed. They arrested the porter and thus they were free to go up the stairs to the room where Doctor Maestre was staying (a resident in the same building as the Sisters). As they were going up the stairs they encountered Sister Modesta and Sister Pilar and asked them: You, who are you? With complete calmness they responded: we are Daughters of Charity!
This was enough for them to be seized, thus interrupting the raid that had been planned for that afternoon. They remained at the headquarters of the secret police for several hours and that same night they were executed at kilometer six on the road from Toledo. Their bodies were placed in a pickup truck and buried in a common ditch that had been open in the Eastern Cemetery. The various searches to locate their remains were unsuccessful. The details of their capture and assassination were provided by the wife of El Campesino, the first victim of his brutality (she had been forced to witness many of his cruel executions).
The two Sisters were martyred because they publically affirmed their identity. This fact was testified to and is preserved in the General Archives of the Civil War. The same fact was also testified to by the wife of El Campesino, who witnessed their execution. In her statement regarding the execution she stated that the only charge leveled against them was the fact that they were religious, members of the Company of the Daughters of Charity.
Martyrs at the Hospital San Carlos
Sister Josefa Gironés Arteta
Josefa Gironés Arteta was born in Garísoain (Navarra) on March 17th, 1907. Her parents were Manuel and Demetria, workers with deep Christian roots. Josefa was the second of twelve children and was baptized on the day following her birth in the parish church of the town. She received her First Communion on May 21st, 1914. Her mother asked God to bless some of her children with the gift of a religious vocation … God gifted her brother, Carmelo with the priesthood and Josefa became a Daughter of Charity.
On the social-economic level the family earned a living by working the land. During the summer months her mother labored in the fields and helped the men while Josefa cared for her younger brothers and sisters. Her friendliness and her willingness to help everyone left people with fond memories. Her brothers and sisters esteemed her since they themselves had experienced her love and kindness as she watched over them. She attended the village school until she was fourteen and then her aunt, Sister Felisa, a Daughter of Charity, guided her to the Colegio Sangüesa where she completed her secondary education.
She then studied to become a midwife in the school of nursing at the General Hospital of Pamplona. During that period she revealed her clear sightedness, her interest in learning, her responsibility and professionalism, especially in the corresponding sanitary practices. Her family has given us the following portrait: she was a beautiful, tall woman of good character.
In the General Hospital of Pamplona there was a community of the Daughters of Charity composed of twenty-five Sisters. Through her contact with them Josefa experienced God’s call to continue the healing mission of Jesus of Nazareth.
She requested entrance into the Company of the Daughters of Charity and was assigned to the community house in Pamplona (a community that she knew and loved) where she did her postulancy. Previously she had done her studies there and now she would share her life, her prayer and her service with the Sisters, convinced that this was the path God wanted her to follow.
She entered the Company on July 18th, 1931 at the age of twenty-four. She was received by the Visitatrix, Sister Justa Dominguez de Vidaurreta and the Director [of the seminary], Sister Dolores Bohorques. There she learned the Rules and made progress in the practice of prayer, in learning the teachings of the Founders and in discovering the dynamics of her vocation that grounded her in her service of God in the person of those who were poor. At the conclusion of her time in the seminary she was appointed to the Clinical Hospital San Carlos in Madrid where she served until the time of her death. When she arrived at this house in 1932 there were thirty-one Sisters living there. Sister Brígida Echeverría, the sister servant, assigned her to the obstetrics/gynecology ward to specialize as a midwife. As a member of this community she established a friendship with Sister Ángeles Díaz de Cerio, a young woman who was also from Navarra. Sister Ángeles has provided us with these words about Josefa’s life and mission: When Sister Josefa became a part of our community she breathed kindness and love and fervor. She was very serious and exact in fulfilling her duty and no one could distract her from this. In the best sense of the word, she was a woman of character … She showed herself to be very pious, and was faithful in fulfilling the Rule as well as the duties that had been entrusted to her. She was very ordered and had the cribs arranged in a very neat manner so that people came not only to see the little children but also to see the orderly and cleanly manner in which the cribs were maintained.
She was esteemed by the community and by the doctors, especially by the Director who was very satisfied with her work and on several occasions affirmed that her department functioned in a very wonderful manner. The year following her arrival at the hospital she had to confront the pain that arose from the death of her father (April 21st, 1933) and a few months later, her sister, Ramona who was thirteen years old. On both of those occasions she was unable to accompany her family but she accepted those painful experiences with such calmness and peace that her companions were edified by her attitude. In the few years that she lived as a member of the Company she clothed herself in the Vincentian virtues proper to her vocation: a spirit of faith, humility, simplicity, trust and love of God as well as love for the community and for the poor.
Her companions spoke of her in the following manner: A woman who was firm in her convictions and who faithfully fulfilled the Rules. She offered to go to the mission but she was told to wait … she was self-sacrificing and worked very hard … she was willing to undertake any work. We never saw her waste time. She was careful in her preparation to profess her vows which was one of her great expectations. On July 19th, 1936 she professed her vows on the feast of Saint Vincent de Paul. She was aware of the fact that this profession of vows involved a ratification of her surrendering of herself to God during a time of great risk, that is, at a time when bombs were exploding all throughout the city of Madrid. Her companions in community affirmed that on the day of her profession of vows Josefa asked for the grace of martyrdom. She felt intimately related to God and was not afraid to exteriorize her experience of faith.
Sister Ángeles Díaz de Cerio, her compainion and a good friend provides us with the following testimony: Given the environment of persecution in which we lived, we said to one another: “Each day we ought to live better and be faithful to the holy Rules. We have to help one another become holy" … Despite all the trials I never saw Josefa become upset and I want to underline the fact that she desired martyrdom. She ardently desired this grace and she also asked God for this blessing. She did this on the day that she professed her vows … With faith she accepted the will of God and lived joyfully trusting in God’s plan for her … She was an exemplary Sister, especially in her prayer, charity and prudence.
During her service at the hospital, one of the orderlies attempted to lure her away from her vow of chastity. With respectful yet forceful words Josefa asked this individual to desist with his evil plans. Seeing her determination the orderly threatened her and said that he would seek revenge … at that time Sister Josefa was preparing to profess her vows and she spoke about this situation to the sister servant and also to Sister Ángeles Díaz de Cerio, both of whom she asked to pray for her so that she would remain faithful. The day of her profession approached and at the same time there was a climate of ever increasing violence and aggressiveness against anything that was religious. In light of this situation Sister Josefa wrote to her mother and stated: Don’t worry, I am calm and willing to continue here and willing to go anywhere that God might desire. The only thing we must fear is not trusting in God. The day after her profession of vows, July 20th, 1936, she wrote to her aunt, Sister Felisa: I would have rejoiced greatly in your presence here yesterday, but I conform myself to God’s will and to what God desires. Grounded in God, Josefa trusted and hoped … with these attitudes she accepted the grace of martyrdom.
The fact that on the day of her profession of vows Josefa asked God for the gift of martyrdom shows the depth of her spiritual life and the radical nature of her self-surrender. Her arrest and death had nothing to do with a lack of prudence … she had asked God for the special gift of martyrdom and God granted her wish. She was twenty-nine years old and five years in vocation.
Sister Lorenza Diaz Bolaños
A cave, similar to the one in Bethlehem (though quite different in its location), was the birthplace of Lorenza. The cave is located in the midst of mountains of unique beauty: the Azucena Ridge in the Roque Nublo Mountains near the town of Guía, in the province of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. Lorenza was born there on August 10, 1896. She was the oldest of five children born to Juan Díaz Guillén and María del Pino Bolaños Delgado, both of whom were agricultural workers. Five days after her birth Lorenza was baptized in the parish of Santa María in Guía.
The family lived in a mountainous area far removed from the town and with few economic resources to sustain the family. As a result her father and older brother immigrated and worked in Cuba during the time of her infancy and adolescence. A few years later her brother, Manuel, returned but her father remained in Cuba for the rest of his life, thus leaving the family in poverty. Lorenza learned to read and write from her mother and she began to give classes in reading and writing to the neighboring children who were unable to attend school because of the distance from Guía and the poor condition of the roads.
During the time of the wood louse harvest she participated as one more worker of the German contractors of natural dye. A companion from the time of her infancy, almost a hundred years old, recalled the time that she worked with Lorenza in the mountains near her house harvesting wood louse and said that she was a wonderful, happy young girl who never spoke bad about anyone. When she arrived home after a day of hard work, she cleaned herself up and spent the final hours of the afternoon teaching the neighboring children to read and write and also taught them the catechism.
Thus she contributed the earnings of her labor and helped her mother raise the family. When her brother, Manuel, returned from Cuba her family moved out of the cave into a house in the village of San Juan … placeing them closer to Guía. It was at that time that she came to know the Daughters of Charity in the Hospital of San Roque. On Sunday’s, after an hour’s walk on winding roads strewn with volcanic rock, she attended Mass in the parish church. After Mass she went to the hospital where she visited the infirm. She traveled back and forth from church with her brother, José Ignacio. José referred to his sister, Lorenza, as their mother’s right arm because it was she, Lorenza, who taught her brothers and sisters to pray, to read and to write, and also taught them the catechism. She led the family in the daily recitation of the rosary … José also stated: she was always humble and never spoke a cross word or behaved badly toward our mother, toward the rest of the family or the neighbors. She always wanted to do good and to help those in need. She was the one who maintained the religious dimension of the family.
It was in the midst of this situation that Lorenza’s vocation arose and the same could be said about the vocation of her sister, Sister Blasina. When Lorenza spoke to Sister Pilar Rodríguez about her desire to be a Daughter of Charity, she was advised to study first at the school of San Agustín in Las Palmas. There she would be able to study and broaden her cultural experience and prepare herself well for her future life. Her mother supported this decision. Her brothers and sisters were growing and the family eventually relocated in Las Palmas.
After having received a solid formation in the school of San Agustín she entered the Company. The report provided by her teachers refers to her attitudes: she has shown herself to be humble, mortified and obedient; she does, in the best possible way, all that she is asked to do. We are convinced that she will be a good Daughter of Charity. In 1920 she began her postulancy in the Hospital San Martin which at that time was a large charitable center in Las Palmas. There Lorenza came to a better understanding of the works of the Company and was able to serve the poor with dedication and kindness. At the conclusion of her postulancy she traveled by boat to Madrid and there she was admitted into the Company by Sister Josefa Bengoechea on April 12th, 1921 and began her formation under the direction of the servant of God, Sister Justa Dominguez de Vidaurreta.
During the time of her initial formation she internalized the teachings she received and learned to follow Jesus Christ as a true servant of the poor. The following words of Saint Vincent resounded in her heart: The poor need heavenly manna; they need the Spirit of God; and where will you find it in order to share it with them? In Holy Communion, Sisters. Both important persons and the simple need this, Sisters. That’s why you must take special care to prepare well to receive the abundance of the Divine Spirit (CCD:IX:189). The Eucharist was her daily nourishment and the mantel of charity was the center of her life and her mission.
At the conclusion of that stage of formation she was sent to the Instituto de Rehabilitación de Invalidos del Trabajo in Carabanchel Bajo (Madrid) where the Sisters had been caring for the infirm since 1890. With few material possessions and desiring to put into practice what she had learned, Sister Lorenza arrived there at the end of 1921 and wanted to realize her ideal of continuing the mission of Jesus Christ. The sixteen Sisters who formed the community there gave her a warm welcome. Sister Josefa Santonja, her sister servant, told her to study nursing in order to take charge of the operating room. Lorenza was very determined in her studies and obtained her nursing degree, with a specialization in traumatology, from the Medical School in Cádiz.
Her professional studies did not distract her from her preparation for vows which she professed on May 11th, 1926. Through her profession of vows she reaffirmed her act of self-surrender and her love for Jesus Christ. The following year, 1927, her sister, Sister Blasina, was sent to the Asylum for the Blind in Madrid and some months later to Carabanchel Bajo, the same community as her sister. She was placed in charge of the dispensary and the purchasing of food. She shared in the last nine years of her sister’s life, accompanied her in the boarding house and witnessed her capture.
The profile that Sister Lorenza’s companions have left us refer to a humble, simple, joyful and charitable Sister … one who lived in the presence of God and never complained. Some employees at the hospital spoke of her as a mystic … one who was so filled with God that she reflected God’s presence in a most natural manner. Among the human virtues that were highlighted were the following: acceptance of others, friendliness, patience, right judgment, prudence and justice. Some described the situation of suffering which was brought about by one of the care-takers who made sexual advances toward her. She felt obliged to speak to the director of the hospital in defense of her consecrated virginity. The director intervened on her behalf and called attention to the care-taker who on May 1st, 1936 then threatened Sister Lorenza with death. Supported by the community of Sisters and by the doctors she continued to fulfill her mission with calmness, prudence and trust in God … she lived in this manner until the Sisters were expelled from the hospital during the period of “religious purification”.
In June 1936 she wrote her mother explaining to her their situation and highlighting her own trust in God in the midst of trials: How long will this situation of upheaval continue? … only God knows. He will put an end to all of this when it is best for us and when we have purified ourselves and atoned for our offenses. May we know how to take advantage of these trials so that we might completely give ourselves to God … which is what he asks of us as Christians. Her companions affirmed her attitude of trust in God and her desire for martyrdom: When we spoke about martyrdom in community and about the possibility that some of us might be called to martyrdom, Sister Lorenza’s face brightened and she raised her eyes toward heaven and said: “if this is what the Lord desires, I am willing.” Her desire and her request were accepted and her life became another pearl in the crown of martyrs. In this way she prepared to embrace the gift of martyrdom which took place on November 22nd, 1936. She was forty years old and fifteen years in vocation.
Itinerary of the martyrs
In the boarding house on calle Lope de Vega, Sister Josefa and Sister Lorenza lived together. They placed themselves in God’s hands but also utilized all the prudent means available to them in order to save their life. They were discovered, however on November 17th. A patrol, composed of six members of the militia, arrested them. Two of these individuals were sanitation workers who knew the Sisters (one had worked in the Hospital of San Carlos and the other in the Centro de Rehabilitación). Both of these individuals had made indecent proposals to the Sisters and threatened them with death. Because of the persecution of these two individuals the Sisters had moved on several occasions to different boarding houses. When these persons arrested the Sisters, they had with them a notebook in which they had written the addresses of the places where the Sisters had stayed. They had followed the sisters and were more than willing to arrest their victims.
On the day of their arrest the Casa Central was burning. The members of the militia came with their notes and asked for Sister Josefa Gironés Arteta and Sister Lorenza Díaz Bolaños. They were detained and told that nurses were needed and that it was not right for the Sisters to be doing nothing when there was so much work to be done in the hospital … this was a mere pretext. Among the six members of the militia was a notorious individual called, el campesino. Sister Blasina, the sister of Sister Lorenza, has provided us with the details surrounding their arrest: When Sister Lorenza came downstairs the person at the front door asked if she was bringing any clothing with her … a member of the militia responded that she would not need clothing at the place where she was going and that she would return in the evening. Sister Lorenza, guided by “el campesino”, remained in front of the door of house #13 while the other members of the militia went to house #11 where they detained Sister Josefa Gironés. The two Sisters, guarded by the militia who carried rifles, were led away. I was not allowed to accompany them nor were any of their companions who had shared rooms with them at the boarding house.
The Sisters now found themselves defenseless before their persecutors. They were taken to the secret jail of Bellas Artes located at #9 calle Fomento where they were imprisoned and interrogated and morally abused with attempts to sexually violate them. After six days they were led to Las Vistillas Park, in front of the cathedral of La Almudena (which was still being constructed) and there they were killed. The place and the person who killed them is listed on the index card that contains the information regarding their death. The only charge against them was that they were Daughters of Charity. Their bodies were discovered on November 22, six days after they had been arrested. They were identified by a forensic doctor who had worked at the Centro de Rehabilitación in Carabancel and who knew Sister Lorenza. He facilitated the burial of their bodies in the La Almudena Cemetery, where a piece of cardboard served as their tombstone. The bodies of both Sisters had bullet wounds.
The doctor was the first person to denounce the disappearance of the Sisters (he had resided in the same boarding house as the Sisters). It was this fact that enabled him to participate in the identification of their bodies. Thanks to the notes that Dr. Agustín Lozano made, the bodies of the Sisters were located in 1941 and brought to the crypt of the Company in the cemetery of San Isidro. In 2003, after the diocesan process was completed, their remains were transferred to the chapel of the martyrs in the Provincial House of Saint Vincent in Madrid where they are venerated.
Martyr at the Secret Polic Headquarters
In the land of bread and wine in the district of Campos, Gaudencia was born on February 12th, 1878 in Valdemorilla (León). Her parents, Felipe and Ángela were good Christian spouses and parents. They had twelve children, seven of whom survived. Gaudencia was the second oldest and she was baptized on the day after her birth in the parish church of San Martin. Her infancy and adolescence were developed in the midst of a rural environment where the family worked together and prayed together.
She learned to read and write and attended the village primary school. She participated in Sunday Mass at the parish church where she also learned the catechism and prepared the Church for Sunday liturgy. Together with her parents and brothers and sisters she went to pray at the hermitage of Santo Cristo and this was the origin of her devotion to the passion of Christ. Her sister, Delfina, said that Gaudencia was very pious and that everyone loved her because she was good and helpful toward others. She remained at home until she was twenty years old and during that time she helped her parents and siblings in domestic tasks as well as with work in the fields.
In the neighboring town of Mayorga de Campos (Valladolid) there was a community of the Daughters of Charity whose members ministered in a small hospital and the school of the Miraculous Medal (they had ministered there since 1886). It was there that Gaudencia met the Sisters and because she was sensitive to the needs of others, she experienced the Lord’s call.
She decided to respond to this call and requested entrance into the Company of the Daughters of Charity. She was sent to the Provincial Hospital of Valladolid for her postulancy and it was there that she began her life as a Daughter of Charity with hope and uncertainty but nonetheless determined to clothe herself in the spirit of the Sisters.
When she completed her postulancy she entered the Seminary on January 19th, 1899. She was received by Sister Cristina Jovellar … her formators were Sister Cecilia Álvaro (director of the Seminary) and Sister Justa Dominguez (taught history and general culture). Little by little she learned the beauty of the Vincentian charism and cultivated the habit of prayer and silence that was necessary for reflection and the study of the gospels and the Rules of the Company.
Her first assignment was at the Provincial Hospital of Albacete where the Sisters had cared for the infirm since 1864. The community received her and helped her overcome those initial difficulties. She remained there for twelve years and was happy to be able to serve the infirm. She had acquired experience in the hospital of Valladolid and her ministry in Albacete was not very different. There she prepared for vows and reaffirmed the total gift of herself to God on February 2, 1904. She then offered to go to the missions.
Her request was accepted and in 1911 she was sent to Puerto Rico where she ministered in several places. After a few days rest at the Casa de Convalencencia she became integrated into the community at the school of the Immaculate Conception in Santurce. She engaged in her educational ministry with joy and passion. She was very diligent in her work, pious and enjoyed good health during the years of her youth.
In 1914 she was sent to the school of the Miraculous Medal in Mayagüez where students, in addition to attending classes, were also able to obtain lodging. There she taught religion, civics and social skills. In 1916 she was assigned to the Orphanage in Ponce (today, the Colegio de la Sagrada Familia). There she cared for the orphaned and needy girls. Her mission was to teach them the work that was involved in carrying for a home, work that was appropriate for their status as women, so that when they reached the age of eighteen they could be employed in factories or workshops or the homes of other families. She remained there until 1933 when she had to return to Spain for health reasons.
Sister Gaudencia had been diagnosed with a heart problem, intestinal tuberculosis and a throat infection. As a result of this condition she returned to Spain for treatment. Her condition required her to be near the General Hospital in Madrid where she received delicate treatment in an on-going manner. When she returned to Spain she had a short stay at the Charity Center in Valladolid.
Then she spent several months recovering in the house of San Cayetano in Madrid where she was cared for … slowly she became better. As she recovered her health she requested an assignment and at the end of 1934 she was sent to the Asilo de Jesús (an orphanage) on calle Albuquerque in Madrid. Here each day approximately one hundred transient poor persons were given a meal. This was a service that Sister Gaudencis became responsible for and showed herself to be very capable, especially with her attitude of acceptance, listening and understanding. Her companions were in agreement when they spoke about her as a humble woman with a simple faith and great confidence in Divine Providence … one who had developed the art of listening. Her family has preserved as relics some letters that they received from her and some pictures that she had painted on cloth.
When she arrived in Madrid from Puerto Rico she became aware of the anti-religious environment. The school-asylum of the Niño Jesús in Albuquerque was a focus of persecution. The national periodical library has preserved an article, Un atropello mas (One More Abuse), that was published on July 21, 1931 in El Debate which described a violent attack against a group of former students who were meeting to plan a celebration for the end of the scholastic year. Four former students were arrested and the Sisters were threatened. Sister Gaudencia entered the local community there in the midst of this situation. The community received her and helped her until the time when the republican government seized their house and expelled them. She said that she felt that she was going to die as a martyr and that she would like to die singing the Magnificat and praying the rosary.
On the afternoon of July 20, 1936 a group of extremists who had threatened the Sisters placed a red flag on top of their house signaling the fact that the school-asylum belonged to them. The radicals then demanded the immediate departure of the children and the Sisters. Calmly the Sisters began to place the children in other centers that appeared to be safe and then the Sisters took up residence in boarding houses or private residences. The former house of the Sisters became a center of anarchist activity. According to the information in the catalog of the secret police in Madrid (1936) the secret police established their offices (Casa Máximo Gorki) in the crypt of the chapel.
The violent expulsion of the community aggravated the health of Sister Gaudencia. The superior, Sister Florentina Jaén and some other Sisters who were aware of Sister Gaudencia’s condition lived in rooms at the same boarding house that was located at #10 Plaza de Las Cortes. They remained there until September 22, 1936. During those months Sister Florentina died and the condition of Sister Gaudencia became more critical. At that time a relative of one of the Sisters who was very well known to them offered them the possibility of renting a more comfortable house and also offered to help them obtain a pass that would allow them to travel freely back and forth to the General Hospital.
The Sisters trusted this man and gave him the little money they had so that he could rent the rooms for them. When the man came to look for them, instead of accompanying them to their new rooms, he brought them to prison, but only after he had robbed them of everything. They never suspected that this individual was one of the leaders of the Popular Front that had established a committee in Vallecas.
Deceived, and now instead of being offered a safe conduct pass to go to the hospital, the Sisters were led by this individual to the security prison of Puerta del Sol. A few days later they were taken to the prison in Toreno which was located in a building that had been seized from the Capuchins. There the Sisters found themselves in the midst of more than one hundred Sisters from various communities in Madrid and Toledo (their only crime was that of being Daughters of Charity). At the prison the Sisters from the psychiatric hospital in Toledo were responsible for the kitchen and were able to care for Sister Gaudencia (but they had to do this in a clandestine manner). One of her companions gave this testimony: she was almost naked when she arrived at the prison and her tuberculosis had worsened … she had constant diarrhea … we did not even have a shirt that we could use to change her and so we had to cover her with a bag that had once contained grass seeds. This terrible martyrdom she accepted with patience and resignation.
At the beginning of November 1936 the number of prisoners at Toreno had become so numerous that the Sisters were transferred to another prison located on calle Quiñones. The Sisters from the psychiatric hospital in Toledo, however, remained in Toreno because of the good work that they did in the prison kitchen and because of the order that they maintained in the prison dispensary. The prison at Quiñones was the second prison for Sister Guadencia. One of her companions spoke about the conditions there: The new jail was filled with garbage and misery; on the first night we were all kept together with no light and no place to lie down on the floor … we could hardly breathe. The food became worse from day to day … a plate of rice at noon, a bowl of soup in the morning and the evening. On November 7th a bomb fell on what had been the chapel and some shrapnel wounded two of the Sisters … this event produced a terrible panic in the prison.
For Sister Gaudencia this situation was a slow martyrdom. Her heart became weaker and her body was numb from the cold. Her legs were covered with sores and ulcers and caused her great pain. The Sisters cared for her as best they could until January 1937 when they were moved once again to another prison, this one located in the hospital that had been seized from the Brothers of Saint John of God, a hospital that was located in San Rafael. One of the companions described the transfer: All the prisoners who came from the prison in Toreno were locked up. What a day when we arrived at San Rafael. We were given nothing to eat and we were all gathered together on the patio where we were guarded closely by the militia … we had to ask them to turn their backs so that we could have some privacy when relieving ourselves.
During those painful months of imprisonment Father Hilario Orzanco, chaplain at the French Hospital of San Luis, visited the Sisters. He had been issued a pass by the French consul that allowed him to travel freely and safely. This is his testimony: What calmness and strength was shown by the Sisters … nobody would have thought that they were imprisoned. Their smiles seemed to say that they had internalized the words of the Acts of the Apostles: “They left the presence of the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.” In this way Sister Gaudencia was able to forget her own illness and became mindful of and prayed for the Sisters who were imprisoned in various places … It was painful to see Sister in that condition, deprived of basic needs and treated so inconsiderately. Sister Gaudencia slept on the floor, with a brick as her pillow and yet she was able to instill the other Sisters with hope and resignation.
In the midst of these horrors the Sisters were able to rejoice in the consolation of the Eucharist which a prison officer from the Institución Teresiana in Poveda brought to them in a clandestine manner. He said the hosts were “medicinal remedies” for the nurses. The Sisters consumed the hosts and hid the remainder in a closet in one of the rooms. During the night the Sisters waited for the hour when the guards would rest and then they came together in small groups to receive communion. Some of the Sisters took communion at the bedside of Sister Guadencia, thus they offered her comfort and company in the midst of so much pain and suffering.
One of her companions in prison, Sister Josefa Rivera (30 years old) described the final days of Sisters Gaudencia: Her illness and the improvised infirmary were a true martyrdom. The Sisters who were imprisoned there took turns caring for her throughout the day. It was painful to see her bed: a cot that had been made from some old scraps of metal with a board placed on top of the metal and some straw … her jailers were afraid that they she would die in prison … seeing her weakened condition and her body covered with sores they asked Father Hilario Orzanco to take charge of transferring her to the French Hospital where she was admitted as a dying prisoner and not as a Daughter of Charity. She died on February 11, 1937.
Sisters Guadencia’s prison record shows that she left San Rafael prison on January 24th, 1937 by order of a judge from Madrid and was then admitted to the French Hospital of San Luis. The record also notes that she was imprisoned because she was a religious sister … in fact this is the only charge that she was accused of by the head of the national security division.
In the French hospital Gaudencia met Nemesia, a Daughter of Charity who worked there. Nemesia approached Gaudencia and in a low voice said: Take courage, Sister, I am also a Daughter of Charity. On the day that Gaudencia died Father Orzanco was told that she was near death. He administered the Sacrament of the Sick and sacred Viaticum. Before dying Sister Gaudencia told the nurse Nemesia: I forgive and love all those who have made me suffer so much … Pray the rosary for me because I am unable to do so at this time. Following the request of the dying Sister, Nemesia began to pray the glorious mysteries of the rosary. When she came to the third mystery Gaudencia invoked the name of Saint Joseph and handed over her life to God. That day, February 11th, was the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes and was the second Wednesday of the month. Sister did not die as the result of some bullet wound but she did die because of the inhuman treatment that she received in the various prisons where she was detained. Her imprisonment was due to the fact that she was a woman religious, a Daughter of Charity and the slow martyrdom went on for four months as she was moved from prison to prison.
Because of the way in which the Daughters had been scattered, none of them was able to be present at the time of her burial. Her remains were removed from San Luis Hospital and buried in a common grave in the municipal cemetery of Este. The archives of the hospital omitted the place of her burial and therefore the exact place of her burial is unknown. Her memory has been maintained, however, and she is remembered as a true martyr of the faith and a martyr for the cause of charity.
Martyrs on the road from Jaén to Madrid
Scattered by the “religious purification”
The religious persecution in Jaén was harsh and cruel. There were many martyrs for the faith including the bishop, Manuel Basulto Jiménez, who is also about to be declared a martyr for the faith. A recently published documented study by Manuel López Pérez refers to 186 persons who were persecuted and executed for the cause of the faith.
The beneficent and health institutions in Jaén were also affected by the program of “religious purification”. The seventy-two Sisters in the six communities of the capital were all expelled from their residences. In the hospital “El Neveral”, a center for tuberculosis patients, there were five Sisters who had initiated their service there in 1935. The order of expulsion was given in writing to the director of the hospital, D. Luis Sagaz Zubelzu, who ordered immediate compliance and as a result the Sisters departed on July 26th, 1936. The superior, Sister Bienvenida Hermoso de Mendoza, accompanied by Sister Joaquina Ramírez and Sister Carmen Berrueco, immediately went into the city to search for housing. The community of Daughters at this hospital had served there for about one year and therefore they were not aware of some trustworthy boarding house … as a result they went to the Cocina Económica in search of assistance. At that time they were arrested and led before the Tribunal of the Committee that had set up their office in the Episcopal palace. After being interrogated, they were freed but were not allowed to return to the hospital to gather up their possessions … they were obliged to live in the basement of the health clinic, Gota de Leche (Drop of Milk).
Sister Ramona and Sister Juana, who had remained upstairs, came down the following day but were in the custody of police officers who accused them of having removed silverware and some cloth material. All of this was false but the police were looking for an excuse to arrest them and bring them before the Tribunal of the Committee. There the Sisters defended themselves and asked for proof of these accusations. The police searched the Sisters’ suitcases and were then convinced that the accusations were false. As a result the Sisters were set free. They went to the Cocina Económica, but this place had been seized by the members of the military of the Frente Popular, who allowed the Sisters to remain there for just three days. During that time, however, the Sisters were obliged to remain there as Red Cross workers in order to continue to feed the poor and the members of the military who were gathered together in this place that had been converted into a barracks. The Sisters were not allowed to wear their habits or any other religious symbol. During the entire war these Sisters served at the community kitchen that was set off from the rest of the community. During those three years the Sisters had to hide their identity but they made every effort to do good to all people, forgiving their persecutors and doing everything possible to avoid a violent death.
The Sisters testified that they were able to endure this situation thanks to the Eucharist that was celebrated clandestinely on a daily basis by the Canon, D. Francisco Blanco Nájera, who was hidden in a closet and was not discovered by the military. At the end of the war this priest was ordained a bishop and founded the religious order of the Sisters of the Divine Teacher. The military forced these women to work in the kitchen in order to provide food both for them and for the poor. Practically speaking these women were prisoners because they were not allowed to go anywhere.
When the Sisters at the tuberculosis hospital were expelled they found refuge in the house of the Director of the Hospital, D. Luis Sagaz Zubelzu, where they remained for about a week … this situation, however, was dangerous and risky for him. It was necessary to move to another place as soon as possible. Sister Joaquina and Sister María del Carmen traveled to Almeria to stay with family members and Sister Bienvenida Hermoso together with Sister Juana Pérez and Sister Ramona Cao took the train to Alcázar de San Juan with the intention of fleeing. They left Jaén on the night of August 11th and arrived in Alcázar de San Juan in the early morning of August 12th. There the brother and the sister-in-law of Sister Bienvenida was waiting to take her to Barcelona … the other Sisters remained at the station and were at the mercy of Divine Providence. They were fearful and yet hopeful to be able to travel to Madrid and find refuge in the house of a sister of Sister Juana Pérez who lived in the capital. They were dressed as laywomen but their demeanor betrayed them and they were harshly persecuted.
Sister Ramona Cao Fernández
The Galician region of Valdeorras, in the north eastern part of the Province of Orense, was the birthplace of Ramona Cao Fernández. On September 11, 1883 she was born in the district of Fontey de La Rúa. Her parents were Facundo Eloy Cao, a farmer and Teresa Fernández … both of whom had solid Christian roots. She was baptized the day after her birth and in a family environment was educated in the gospel values. Her mother dedicated all her time to the care and the education of her six children … Ramona was the third oldest.
Some facts reveal the religious roots of the family: there was an uncle who was a priest, three aunts were cloistered Sisters and Ramona’s youngest brother entered the seminary at Astorga after Ramona entered the Daughters of Charity. In her parents’ house one can still see the stone niche that her father made to house a statue of the Blessed Virgin … it was there that Ramona and her brothers and sisters learned to pray the rosary. Her descendents have preserved this statue as the best remembrance of their ancestors. One of her nieces described the environment of the home: the family was very religious and when poor people came to the village Ramona’s mother allowed them to sleep in her house. The elders of this place recalled having seen the family make a pilgrimage each year on September 8th to the shrine of Las Ermitas, a shrine some nineteen kilometers from their village and a shrine that was dedicated the Blessed Virgin. Thus Ramona’s infancy and youth were lived out in this healthy environment of love and piety and work.
Love for the poor, which was experienced in the family setting, prepared Ramona’s heart to embrace the seed of her vocation. From the time that she was a little girl she was concerned about those in need and following the example of her mother she invited those who were hungry to eat at her house. The witness of her parents’ faith and charity provided her with the best “book” from which she able to learn the meaning of piety and charity and trust in God. Counseled by the uncle who was a priest, her parents decided to allow her to reside at the school of the Daughters of Charity in Astorga where she acquired a good education. Her letters reveal a great respect and love toward her parents and siblings. In Astorga there was a small hospital that was connected to the school and it was there that Ramona’s was inspired to respond to the vocation to become a Daughter of Charity. At the school she became a member of the Association of the Daughters of Mary and began to visit the sick at the hospital, especially those persons who had no family. We note here that some years later, in 1924, the school at Astorga began to accept aspirants to the Company of the Daughters of Charity.
At the age of eighteen Ramona experienced the call of God to serve God by serving the poor. From the age of thirteen she had known the Daughters. She had the support and the permission of her parents who encouraged her to follow the voice of God. She did her postulancy at the hospital of the Venerable Orden Tercera Franciscana in Madrid, an institution located beside the church of San Francisco el Grande. She entered the Company on January 11th, 1901 and was received by Sister Cayetana de la Sota, the Visitatrix. She made good use of her time of formation in the seminary and with the assistance of her director, Sister Cecilia Álvaro, she acquired the spirituality proper to a Daughter of Charity. She was very young but was willing to proclaim an unconditional “yes” in committing her life to God in the service of those who were poor.
After completing her time in the seminary, Sister Ramona was assigned to the Hospital de Jesús Nazareno in Madrid, located at #10 calle Amaniel. This was the first hospital where the Daughters of Charity ministered and this service was begun in 1816. There were some two hundred forty women who were invalids … some of whom had spent their whole life at the hospital (very sad cases indeed). Each day the Sisters provided these women with a very humble service (like mothers providing for their children). Sister Ramona was well received by the community of Daughters who were eighteen in number at that residence. She became more rooted in her vocation and grew in generosity and love for God, the Church, the Company of the Daughters of Charity and the poor. She treated the women in the hospital with kindness and compassion and she herself was self-sacrificing. She carefully prepared to ratify her commitment to God through the profession of vows which took place on February 2nd, 1906 … thus renewing her baptismal commitment and her love for Jesus Christ.
Soon thereafter her father died and she accepted this sorrow with calmness and trusted in God the Father. When the feast of the Nativity arrived she counseled her siblings: I hope that you are able to celebrate a joyful feast in the company of our dear mother … I suppose that you will all gather together, especially to participate in the Eucharist … I also want you to come together to a make a fervent confession and then receive Holy Communion so that the Divine Child might always look upon you with the eyes of mercy and might grant you, here on earth, a life of peace and tranquility that is the result of a clear conscience. May there be unity in our family because there is nothing more beautiful than to love and be loved … The Lord dwells in the hearts of those who are united in his name and is pleased to see a family united together, free from selfishness and ambition, desiring only the good of one another … this is what constitutes joy and well-being in the family.
There was an urgent need for Sisters/nurses to care for the soldiers who were wounded in the war with Morocco. The disaster at Annual in 1921 took the life of thousands of soldiers and many others were wounded and were in need of medical attention. The local communities of the Daughters of Charity in Andalucía were reduced in number so that more Sisters could go to Melilla and Morocco. The military hospital in Sevilla was filled with wounded soldiers returning from Africa and the staff needed to be reinforced. In 1922 Sister Romano was missioned there … she was a good nurse and had the required credentials. One of those who was wounded has left us this written testimony: In the midst of so many sick persons we received all the maternal comforts and tenderness … the good administration was obvious in the midst of so many comings and goings, so many admissions and discharges … Some of the Sisters kept watch over us day and night and were selfless in the struggle to hold off the forces of death.
Sister Ramona understood that her sacrifice meant she would live at a distance from her family. She consoled her family, however, and told them that Sevilla would be better for her health and she also spoke about the three other Sisters who were missioned with her to Sevilla: they pray before the Blessed Virgin and ask her to bring this war to a conclusion so that we can all gather together once again in our homes. Sister Ramona longed to return to the Hospital in Madrid, longed to serve once again the women who were patients there but obedience prevailed and she accepted her new mission at the military hospital in Sevilla.
Her final mission took place in 1935 when she was assigned to the tuberculosis hospital “El Neveral” in Jaén. That year the Sisters had been required by the health officials of that city to take charge of that hospital. The local community was composed of five Sisters and at the beginning Sister Basilia Arco, from the hospice Santa Teresa in Jaén was also at the hospital in order to assist in the organizational aspect. Sister Ramona, since she was an experienced nurse and was professional in caring for the patients, participated in the hiring of the first nurses.
The brief profile of Sister Ramona as a person, information that is found in the archives of the Company, states: Sister is of medium height, good health, good character, calm, observant, a good worker, obedient, educated. The daily concern of Sister Ramona was to make real the teaching of Saint Vincent: You are destined to represent the goodness of God to those poor people … they are our Lords and Masters (CCD:X:268). She revealed God’s goodness in her smile and in her unconditional dedication to the infirm. For Sister Ramona there was always time to listen to the patients and to care for them yet at the same time she was present to the Sisters during the scheduled times for prayer and community life. She expressed this sentiment in a letter that she wrote to her family: I must conclude this letter because the bell is ringing and I have to hurry! The testimony of her companions speaks about a humble and simple person who wanted to do good and who also during prayer wanted to fill herself with the sentiments of Christ.
Her acceptance of her assignment to the hospital in Jaén revealed her willingness to accept martyrdom. The act of obedience was costly for her and also for her family. Her mother and siblings expressed their concern as they received alarming news. It was public knowledge that in Jaén there were many abuses and much violence. Sister Ramona wrote: I want everyone to be calm … If you have some premonition that something bad is going to happen then immediately in some way we are not united … but meanwhile let us trust … there is no reason for so [much worry]. I cannot write anymore because I have no time for anything. The nurses at the hospital were seen as individuals who could become infected very easily. This was indeed a difficult mission … located in a mountainous region, isolated from the city, only a narrow road allowed for some communication with the outside world. Sister Ramona accepted this mission and encouraged her family: trust in God and the Blessed Virgin. Those whom our Lord loves are given many trials but they are also given many graces and great strength to endure these trials. With this trust Sister Ramona confronted martyrdom on August 12, 1936. She was fifty-six years old and thirty-five in vocation.
Sister Juana Pérez Abascal
On August 20, 1886 the center of Madrid witnessed the birth of Juana. Her parents were José Pérez Sainz and Dolores Abascal Diego. They lived in the capital after moving from Salaya de Carriedo (Santander) … the search for work motivated said move. They rented a house on calle Arco de Santa María (now known as calle Augusto Figueroa). Her father was an iron worker who was employed at a foundry. Her mother worked as a domestic servant and this extra money provided for the Christian education of the children.
She was baptized in the parish church of San Luis on October 25, 1886 a church that was close to their house … the church was destroyed in a fire that occurred in 1936. Their house was located in a neighborhood where many iron workers lived and it was these men who made the balconies of many of the grand mansions. Their house was also near the hospice of Madrid (presently the Municipal Museum) where from 1845 the Daughters of Charity cared for and educated those children who were abandoned. Juana attended the school that was connected to the hospice and from the time of her infancy knew the Daughters of Charity. During her adolescence she was employed by the Daughters and she worked with them even though there were many other convents that were closer to her house. The Spirit of God inspired her to feel a special attraction to these women and their practice of charity toward the poor.
Juana wanted to enter the Company of the Daughters of Charity and requested admission. The Daughters at the hospice guided her through a process of vocational discernment and also facilitated her with the means to accomplish her desire. She did her postulancy at the Hospital de la Princesa in Madrid where the Sisters since 1857 had served the infirm. She was twenty-two years old and decisive in her decision to follow God’s call and to give herself to God in serving the poor.
Juana entered the Company on October 15, 1908. She was received by Sister Cayetana, the Visitatrix. Her formators were Sister Úrsula Tablado, Director of the Seminary and Sister Juana Meoqui and Sister Justa Domínguez. There Sister Juana learned to meditate on the gospel and to center her life on the following of Jesus Christ. She also learned the rules of the Company which were inspired by the gospels. Little by little she acquired the practice of living in the presence of God and discovered the suffering face of Jesus Christ in the poor men and women whom she met. She understood that such a faith perspective was a gift and a grace from the Holy Spirit and she continually asked for this gift in her prayer.
When she had finished her formation in the Seminary she was missioned to Casa Cuna in Córdoba, one of the first foundations in the land of Andalucia (1843). The center there was divided into two independent sections: Casa Socorro which provided assistance to thirty-six elderly women … next door there was a school for girls; Casa de Lactancia provided assistance to nursing mothers who in turn cared for and fed children who had no mother. Sister Juana entered this local community of ten Sisters who helped her integrate into her life the three pillars of the consecrated life: prayer, community and service on behalf of the poor.
This first mission provided Sister Juana with the opportunity to deepen her zeal and her commitment to the cause of the poor. She served at the Casa Lactancia, fulfilling the rule and caring for the new born children with great tenderness. She frequently recalled the teachings of the Founder: See how fortunate you are to render service to these little creatures, who give God perfect praise and in whom the goodness of God takes so much pleasure (CCD:IX:108). On November 13th, 1913 the feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin in the Temple, Sister Juana pronounced her vows for the first time in the Community. The community of the Daughters of Charity and the little children at the house shared in her joy.
From there Sister Juana was sent to the provincial hospital in Valladolid where she completed her studies and obtained a nursing degree in 1919. At the hospital the Sisters cared for the patients and were also responsible for the pharmacy, the sterilization services and preparing the operating rooms. During those years Sister Josefa Benegoechea, the Visitatrix, asked that the younger Sisters be given the time to obtain their degrees in nursing or education. In this way they would be better prepared to serve in the various institutions where the Sisters ministered.
In 1928 the provincial hospital in Valladolid was designated as an infirmary for the women prisoners in Carabanchel, Madrid. For some twenty years the Sisters served in the prison infirmary and the historian, Vargas Sáez, has stated the following: There the Sisters embraced those fallen outcasts of society, cared for them, relieved their suffering and consoled them. Sister Juana developed a mission of caring for the infirm women at the prison: she listened to them, treated them kindly and was often silently compassionate. The Anales of the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity, in its January 1932 edition, described the ministry there: care for the infirm as well as those mothers who were nursing their children; educational and moral assistance for the patients with the objective of promoting their rehabilitation. The Sisters cared for the women in three prisons and in each place there was a Sister/nurse and various Sisters/teachers who were responsible for the instruction and the workshops that were offered to these women who were incarcerated.
The Director of the prisons of the Republican government, Victoria Kent, through the decree of August 24, 1931, eliminated the position of prison chaplain and set in motion the process of religious purification … thus the Sisters were removed from their positions. Sister Juana, faithful to her vow of obedience, was missioned in 1932 to the tuberculosis center, La Malvarrosa in Valencia. There she reinforced the community and cared for the children who were afflicted with tuberculosis. She was there from 1932-1935. She and the other Sisters cared for the children with kindness and compassion.
In 1935 when the Sisters were required to organize the hospital, El Neveral, in Jaén, the Visitatrix asked Sister Juana to go there. She obeyed and traveled there. This was pre-revolutionary days and those in Jaén could clearly see the hostility toward anything and anyone religious. For this reason, Sister Justa Dominguez, the Visitatrix, allowed the Sisters to travel to this new mission dressed as nurses of the Red Cross. Sister Juana was responsible for those patients who were in a stage of their disease in which they could contaminate others. The Director of the hospital, D. Luis Sagaz Zubelzu, had an international reputation. Sister Juana faithfully followed his directions when administering prescriptions. She cared for the patients with respect, dedication and professionalism … she used the preventative and healing methods of that era: pure air, a cold environment, isolation.
Sister Juana, faithful to the spirit of the Company, always conducted herself as a good Daughter of Charity, fulfilling her obligations toward God, the infirm, and her community. Faithful to her obligations she showed herself to be a hard worker and a pious woman. She was very devoted to the Blessed Virgin and, as Saint Vincent instructed the Daughters, she prayed on a daily basis the rosary and the breviary. When she and Sister Ramona had to dress as laywomen they kept the rosary that hung from their waist hidden beneath their dress. The love that Sister Juana had for her vocation enabled her to endure the criticisms and the snide remarks that were directed toward her.
We can understand the significance of the rosary for a Daughter of Charity by recalling here a commentary of Dr. D. Gregorio Marañón, a commentary that was referenced by D. Vicente Pozuelo Escudero: There are three significant objects for a Daughter of Charity who is a nurse: the rosary (a symbol of her Marian piety and devotion), her keys (an expression of the responsibility that she exercises) and her scissors (a sign of her work since she often uses these in caring for the infirm). There is no doubt that we can apply these words to Sister Juana Pérez Abascal. She carried her rosary with her with great respect and devotion and for this she was persecuted and executed. She remained firm in her faith and faithful to her Christian and religious identity.
Openness to martyrdom
Sister Juana and her companion, Sister Ramona, experienced loneliness and persecution in Jaén and especially in Alcázar de San Juan. The members of the military who arrested them in Alcázar and guarded them on the death train to Madrid spoke mockingly to them as the two Sisters grasped their rosary as an anchor of their salvation. The Sisters did this continuously despite the ridicule that was directed at them.
Sisters Juana was still in El Neveral when on July 20th there was a brutal assault on the Mercy Convent. She had heard about the torments and the death that was inflicted on the Sisters there who also clutched their rosaries and prayed the words of Jesus: Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing. A few weeks later this situation would be repeated as she, together with her companion, were martyred. Sisters Juana was fifty years old and twenty-eight years in vocation.
The death train
At daybreak on August 12, 1936, at the Alcázar de San Juan train station, Sister Ramona and Sister Juana were harassed by shouts and threats and insults and also had stones hurled at them by the people who were awaiting the arrival of the death train. When the train arrived there with prisoners from the jail in Jaén, the Sisters saw some government officials escorted off the train and executed in front of the train station. A large group of people had gathered there and they were armed with sticks and scythes and rifles … they were ready to kill priests and nuns and members of the military.
The horror that was inflicted on the passengers is narrated by an eye-witness: At the Espeluy Station the passengers were received with shouts of death … a half-hour later, after having endured more insults and threats the train that was transporting them departed. This same situation occurred at every train station. The passengers were not allowed to eat nor were they given any water. This was a very hot day in August and whenever a passenger asked for water the militia responded by telling people to drink dynamite. These insults reached their climax in Alcázar de San Juan where the train stopped for an extended period of time so that the militia who “guarded” the train could eat.
Another witness states: The militia at the station did not cease with their threats and several times attempted to assault the train. In the midst of this situation the two Sisters were arrested and forced to board the “death train”. Given the situation that was occurring around them Sisters Ramona and Sister Juana boarded the train with much fear.
Arrival of the “death train” in Madrid
One of the survivors tells the following story: We arrived at the Atocha Station in Madrid at about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. The station was deserted but soon was filled with people who were crying out for our immediate execution. All manner of insults were directed at us. Some people wanted to burn the train stating that the train was worthless and the merchandise on the train was equally worthless. Others wanted to open fire on us with machine guns and pistols. There was a fair-skinned, heavy set individual carrying a rifle and running up and down shouting: “I will kill anyone who comes near this train!” The engine driver ordered the people to leave and as he came forward a few meters the mob prevented him from any further advancement. Some nurses were assaulted and treated savagely. Then the train moved forward for about one kilometer and there the militia boarded the train and began to select the prisoners. The Committee of the people in Vallecas had been warned and so they were prepared to execute the passengers. Many people from the Frente Popular were also advised and they gathered at a place known as El Pozo del Tio Raimundo. A group of about one hundred people had gathered there. Many members of the militia (the majority from Puente de Vallecas) were very agitated. Three trucks carrying the civil police arrived at the station and these men were under the command of a lieutenant. They attempted to disperse the crowd but were not successful in doing so. Meanwhile a truck arrived from Puente de Vallecas and the occupants incited the crowd to carry out the execution when the passengers were taken off the train.
When the train arrived the mob surrounded it and after overcoming the weak resistance of the police they were able to detain the train. The lieutenant boarded the train and spoke with the train’s personnel while the crowd clamored for the people to be handed over to them. The police official left the train and was clearly opposed to the action of the mob. He phoned the competent authorities who ordered him and the other police officials to leave the train and allow the mob to take control of the situation. They received a further order to remove themselves from that place. The objective of the crowd would be fulfilled: all the passengers in the train would be executed. Those persons who were able to show affiliation with the Frente Popular were saved. Some others were able to escape through the fields but the rest were killed.
Violent death as a result of hatred toward the faith
When the fifty members of the civil police and the security officers who guarded the train all departed, the executions were prepared. A witness has stated: The execution squad was first prepared and then the prisoners, in groups of ten, were led off the train. In one of these groups was a woman who appeared to be a Sister … when the crowd saw her they cried out for her death. Someone from Vallecas fired a shot at her and she died immediately. When almost all the passengers had been executed another woman was taken from the train. Two militia approached her … they grabbed her by her hair and dragged her and then shot her. With the execution of this woman the killing came to a halt. As all of this was happening the crowd had become larger and these people encouraged the executioners.
This story is filled out by other witnesses from Jaén, especially by the volunteers (Sisters) from the Cocina Economica. Some days after these events occurred, the militia who guarded the first “death train”, returned to Jaén. They themselves spoke about having executed the two Daughters of Charity from Él Neveral because they were Sisters and because they carried with them their rosary beads. Some of the militia boasted about this in front of the volunteers (Sisters) at the Cocina Economica … this was done to create pain and suffering for the Sisters. During the diocesan process, the Sisters testified that they had heard the militia speak about the details of the martyrdom and these details coincide with the written testimony that is preserved in the Archives of the civil war. Agreement with regard to the motives and the details surrounding the violent death of Sister Ramona and Sister Juana highlights the fact that the Sisters died as martyrs for the faith. They were dressed as laywomen but they were recognized and identified by their rosary as Sisters and as a result they were persecuted. The fact that they were consecrated religious was the only cause of their death. It is understandable that their names did not appear on the passenger list of the first “death train” … they had not departed from Jaén but were forced by the militia to board the train at Alcázar de San Juan.
Exhumation of the remains
After their execution the Sisters were buried in one of the common graves that their executioners had prepared for their victims. At the conclusion of the war the place of burial was located and the remains of the victims were exhumed and transferred to Jaén on March 9, 1940 after the celebration of a solemn funeral Mass in the church of San Manuel and San Benito. This was reported in the newspaper ABC in their Sunday edition dated March 10, 1940. At the conclusion of the funeral Mass, a funeral procession was organized and the remains were brought to the Atocha train station. This was an impressive procession composed of countless faithful, among whom were family members and friends of the victims, religious, priests and Daughters of Charity. At the train station the Archbishop of Madrid, D. Leopoldo Eijo y Garay, accompanied by various priests and government officials, offered prayers and his blessing before the departure of the train that carried the remains of the victims.
Then another train transferred the bodies from the station in Atocha to the crypt of the cathedral in Jaén. The identification of some of the remains was easy, such as the case with Manuel Basulto, bishop of Jaén; General Leopoldo Saro y Marín; the Sisters from El Neveral … others were more difficult to identify. The transfer of the remains had the tone of a religious funeral. When the train arrived the Archbishop of Granada, D. Agustín Parrado García, received the remains and was accompanied by many priests and religious from Jaén. Then the remains were buried in the crypt of the cathedral. Sister Ramona and Sister Juana fulfilled their mission and were persecuted in Jaén; they were martyred in Madrid because they were faithful in professing their faith and faithful in affirming their state as women who had consecrated their life to God … thus their remains respose in communion of faith and hope with the martyrs of the church of Jaén.
In the early Church the fervor and charity of the first Christians were admirable; they had but one heart and one will; and with that fervor they worked wonders, converted souls, and encouraged one another to endure all kinds of torments, even martyrdom (CCD:IX:523).
If we saw the spot where a martyr had been, we would approach it only with respect and kiss it with great reverence … (CCD:IX:214)
Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM