Father Leoncio Pérez Nebreda (1895-1936)

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Loving God, grant us the spirit of wisdom and patient love and hope … gifts that animated the life of your servant, Leoncio. May we follow you with simple and humble hearts and may we express our gratitude to you through our faith and our good works. We pray in the name of Jesus, the Lord.

The environment in the home and in the town

Thanks to Father Anastasio Burgos, a Vincentian Missionary and a nephew of Father Leoncio Pérez Nebreda, we have knowledge about the family life, the good dispositions and the hard work of Leoncio’s parents. José Pérez and Engracia Nebrada were pious individuals who fulfilled their Christian obligations and

were faithful to the daily recitation of the rosary. José was a tireless worker and, as a good father, he encouraged his only son in his ecclesiastical studies. Indeed, he was filled with joy on the day of Leoncio’s ordination. Engracia was a devout woman who frequently received Communion and in the midst of her aches and pains (which were many) she never complained but rather called upon the name of God. Therefore, her death, which I witnessed, contained all the signs of one who had been predestined for heaven. She revealed a great serenity during the final hours of her life. It could be said that José and Engracia lived an ideal marriage.

The words that the priest spoke to José at the time of his marriage, namely, love your wife, Engracia, in the same way that Christ loves his Church … those words remained etched in José’s heart. This was especially true during difficult moments, moments such as the time of Engracia’s illness. At that time José was even more mindful of his obligation to express his love to his wife.

How many families that lived at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century could hear similar words spoken about them? We must remember that this was an era of epidemics, disease and widespread poverty and misery. People worked long hours since this was the only means to survive amid countless deprivations. Love and the fear of God characterized the relationship between family members. The death of a neighbor brought people together in the parish church where they heard their pastor speak to them about the brevity of this present life that is followed by the glory of a future eternal life. Sunday Mass and the daily recitation of the rosary as a family were expressions of the people’s Christian faith … to these was added charity toward those who were poor.

Leoncio, the only child of José and Engracia, was born on March 18, 1895 in the town of Villarmentero (Burgos) which, like the nearby town of Tardajos, was the cradle of many missionary vocations. The new born child entered this world with his right leg deformed which later would be revealed in a permanent limp. This deformity, however, never made him feel inferior to anyone: children, other adolescents, or adults. He did not suffer from low self-esteem but this deformity did prevent him from becoming vain during moments of triumph and moments of youthful euphoria … moments that resulted from his superior intellectual ability. Nevertheless, during his life he was known to be very reserved and circumspect in his interactions with others.

The day following his birth, the feast of Saint Leontius, bishop and martyr, he received the life giving waters of baptism. He was not yet two years old when he was confirmed by the Archbishop of Burgos, Gregorio María Aguirre. This sacrament was conferred upon Leoncio in the parish church that was dedicated to Saint Stephen, the first martyr of the Church … throughout his life Leoncio had a great devotion to this saint and died in a similar manner (at the time of his own martyrdom he was beaten with stones). The ministry of Stephen as a deacon in the early church reminded Leoncio of his obligation to serve the Church and the poor.

The home of his family became the first school that provided Leoncio with a solid formation. It was there that he learned from his parents the manner in which he could live a faith-filled life at the same time that he confronted the difficulties that life presented him … in his case this meant confronting his handicap which made it difficult for him to walk. With the other children he attended classes in the local school and was grateful to his teachers for the education that they gave him. His dedication to his studies was recognized by the Provincial Board of Public Education (Burgos) when, on July 2, 1905, he was given an award for the extraordinary grades that he had obtained in the public examinations in the area of Christian doctrine, arithmetic, geography and other disciplines. Leoncio was ten years old and his intellectual abilities were very obvious.

We can suppose that by this age he had received his first communion. Later, at the time of his martyrdom, when he would offer his life as a witness to his faith and his hope in Christ as the way, the truth and the life, many people would come forward to make statements about Leoncio’s humility and simplicity, highlighting the fact that he never boasted about his gifts but rather revealed himself as one like most other people.

Desiring to further his studies and attracted to the vocation to the priesthood, he asked his father permission to enroll in the apostolic school in Tardajos. Despite the fact that Leonicio was the only son this permission was granted with much love. At Tardajos Leoncio studied Latin and the humanities, a custom at that time. He was one of the first young men to study at the school in Tardajos which had been established three years before his enrollment. Previously there was the Casa de Arcos de la Llana (1888-1892) which was near Tardajos. Always mindful of the good habits and customs that he had learned from his family Leoncio moved forward along the path of devotion and knowledge (paths which were begun in the local public school).

Admitted into the Congregation of the Mission

Leoncio’s limp was no impediment and did not prevent his superiors from admitting him into the Internal Seminary. Thus Leoncio decided to follow the advice of the gospel and to move forward without looking back: No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God (Luke 9:62). He did not feel bound to the town of his birth and was able to leave his family and put behind him the fame that he had attained as a child of outstanding intelligence. He was certain about the fact that he felt called to enter the Internal Seminary of the Congregation of the Mission located in the Chamberí neighborhood of Madrid … his date of entrance is recorded as August 29, 1911.

Father Agapito Alcalde Garrido was the Director of the Seminary and he was a Missionary who had much experience and for fifteen years carried out this responsibility as director (1903-1918). As was the custom at that time Leoncio dedicated himself to prayer and to the study of the rules of the Congregation. He also read the life of the founder, Vincent de Paul and the history of the Vincentian community. At the same time he read some of the classical spiritual works such as, The Imitation of Christ (Thomas à Kempis), The Introduction to the Devout Life (Francis de Sales), The Practice of Perfection and Christian Virtues (A. Rodriguez), The Sinners Guide (Father Granada). Leoncio had memorized The Common Rules and could recite these from memory. He would read any book that was available to him and one of his classmates noted that he was able to discuss the content of any book that he read.

Through their reading and study the seminarians affirmed their adherence to the counsel of their director who wanted them to become exposed to the authors of Catholic spirituality and especially, the works of Vincent de Paul. The only apostolate at that time was that which was done within the confines of the Internal Seminary, namely, acquiring the habit of study and obedience and silent submission and work. In the future there would be time for catechetics and preaching popular missions and visiting the sick. During the time of the Internal Seminary it was important to establish roots for the missionary vocation through discipline and obedience: discipline involved gaining insight into one’s personality and obedience involved acts of serve as one lived in accord with the will of God.

At the end of two years Leoncio took final vows on January 1, 1914 (several month later than expected and we do not know the reason for the delay … perhaps some internal vocational struggle). Having professed vows he immersed himself in the study of philosophy at the seminary in Hortaleza, not far from Madrid. He studied there for three years but did not find those studies to be difficult and with his gift of a good mind and understanding he was able to learn the great philosophical principles. This fact is confirmed by his academic record. He was noted for his incredible memory. One of his companions, Father Pedro de la Cerda Cámara, said: he would read some oratorical piece two or three times and then could repeat it word for word. He never boasted about this ability and in fact, he never spoke about it.

At the conclusion of the three years of philosophy he returned to the Casa Central in Madrid to begin the study of Sacred Theology which continued for four years (1918-1921) … at the end of which he was ordained a priest on August 10, 1922 in either Teruel or Madrid. As the day of his ordination drew near, Leoncio, according to his own words rejoiced in his call to be a priest and a messenger of God’s mercy, a messenger of the God who called him and entrusted him with the ministry of proclaiming Good News to the poor.

Two destinations with the same mission

Aware of his gifts and his willingness to become involved in the formation of young men, the Visitor, Father Joaquín Atienza, assigned him to the apostolic school in Teruel where, with great dedication, he formed the young men who were aspirants to the Congregation. He remained in Teruel for fourteen years (1921-1935), sufficient time to fall in love with the ministry of formation and sufficient time to become fascinated by some of the important monuments in that area. In the few letters that he wrote to his superiors and to his family and that have been preserved for us there is no request for a change in his ministry or change in his place of ministry … he was happy and content in Teruel.

The Visitor, Adolfo Tobar, felt that after fourteen years it would be good to give Leoncio a new assignment. Therefore, in the second half of 1935 he was sent to Alcorisa, not far from Teruel. There in Alcorisa he would accompany Father Fortunato Velasco in the ministry of formation at the apostolic school. Father Leoncio accepted this new assignment as something normal in the life of a missionary who must be willing to come and go to whatever place the Visitor might decide.

It seemed as though Father Fortunato and Father Leoncio complemented one another in their dedication and their ministry. They shared the administrative and the disciplinary responsibilities at the school and provided the students with good example in matters of devotion and obedience. Together they engaged in the same ministry and did so until the time came to separate themselves from one another on this earth and then be joined together once again to live forever in heaven wearing the same crown of immortal glory. There was, however, one thing that distinguished those two formators. Father Leoncio was more demanding than Father Fortunato in his dealings with the students, more demanding with regard to both discipline and study. He would not accept excuses from students who tried to explain their inability to fulfill their academic obligations … Father Fortunato was more forgiving in this area.

The community disperses

As soon as Father Dionisio Santamaría, the superior of the community at Alcorisa, gave the order to the confreres to disperse because of the risk of being captured by the communist forces, (save yourselves as you can!), Father Leoncio and Father Emilio Conde fled together during the afternoon of July 28th, 1936. The sought temporary refuge in Masía de las Palomas, located some eleven kilometers outside of town. The following day, believing that their flight had been unnecessary, they returned to Alcorisa and celebrated the feast of Saint Marta, the patron of the Brother Missionaries. They had not concluded the celebration when the bells of the parish church rang out in alarm. According to Father Emilio Conde, fifteen trucks filled with Marxist troops were entering the town … they were shouting, Long live communism! The members of the community were startled and fearful and began to scatter once again.

Father Leoncio, alone and startled, quickly left town and headed in the direction of Zaragoza. That evening, July 29th, he made his first stop in Masía de Ariño (Las Lomas). His journey had begun and he entrusted his travel to God. On July 30th, at about 2:00am he sought a more secure refuge and found it in a hiding place in Masía de los Frailes. Not satisfied with that place, he sought refuge on the following day in a third village, Masía de la Mascarada. There he remained for two days. His limp obliged him to rest. With the passing of every day he became more exhausted and found it extremely difficult to walk. He put on some old clothes with the intention of disguising himself. His only food was some pears and dried fruit.

He walked and walked without knowing where he was headed. On August 2nd, he was on the outskirts of Obón, a village in the Province of Teruel. It was Sunday. He waited until the bells of the church rang and then entered the church as any other layman. His posture and devotion edified all those present at the Eucharistic celebration. At the conclusion of the Mass he went into the sacristy and asked the pastor to hear his confession. He then left the village using the same road that he had traveled along when he entered the village. He arrived at the town of Oliete and sat on a bench beside the bridge in order to rest. He also asked a nearby resident to give him some water to drink and to refresh himself.

Don’t travel along that road, use this one

On the bridge Leoncio was speaking with Paulino Martín Pérez when a man from town, José Santiago Candeal (a suspicious character who later disappeared from Spain) approached them. José suspected that the individual dressed in shabby clothing (Leoncio) was a priest and therefore when he passed him he “accidently” knocked off his hat and saw the tonsure mark on the crown of his head. He needed no other sign to put into action a plan that would claim the life of this priest who, in the view of José Santiago, was an enemy of peace and progress. He was animated by the thought of being able to punt to practice the Marxist slogan, words that referred to the eradication of every religious symbol from the face of the earth.

Santiago pretended to pass by Leoncio in order to gather up some corn. Soon, however, he reappeared and had two horses. Father Leoncio has set out along the road that led away from Oliete and as José approached him and began to talk with him he realized that he was headed for Zaragoza.

About three kilometers outside Oliete, Jose offered assistance and suggested: don’t travel along that road, use this one! He then invited Father to mount one of his horses while he rode on the other one. He now led Father Leoncio along another path and after traveling a short distance they arrived at a slope … José shouted at Leoncio, I am going to dismount and I want you to do the same. He helped Father Leoncio to dismount and then without saying a word began to beat Leoncio over the head and his neck with a rod.

Father Leoncio collapsed and fell to the ground as the first blow was struck. He had no time to speak any words of forgiveness and mercy. Not satisfied with the barbarity that he had committed, José continued to smash Father’s head and chest with rocks until he had accomplished his horrific plan. He then rolled Leoncio’s body into a crevice near the edge of the slope and piled rocks on top of his body. It was August 2nd, 1936, almost 12:00pm. The following day Jose was in the village and laughed as he exclaimed: I have seen a fat bird fall to the ground. This was indeed the height of cruelty and torture.

Father Leoncio, who had always conducted himself with simplicity and honesty, never thought that his life would come to an end at the hands of a traitor and a hypocrite. He died as a result of being beaten and stoned, like Saint Stephen, the patron of his home parish. At the time of his death he might have been able to repeat the words of St. Stephen: Lord Jesus, receive my spirit and do not hold this sin against them! … that is possible. The blessings of God, through the intercession of Father Leoncio, continue to descend upon the students and the people of Teruel and Alcorisa … indeed, Father Leoncio, at the time of his martyrdom, taught the greatest lesson of his life.

We do not know more details about his martyrdom because José Santiago disappeared and there were no witnesses. Father Manuel Herranz, who accompanied Father Fortunato Velasco in his final moments, assures us that the death of Father Leoncio was motivated by the fact that he was a priest and a religious.

Soon thereafter his body was recognized and claimed by some people from Oliete. On August 22, 1939, at the request of Father Dionisio Santamaría who spoke in the name of the major superiors, the remains of Father Leoncio were transferred from the cemetery in Oliete to the cemetery in Alcorisa, where they remain to the present day.

Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM