Father Fortunato Velasco Tobar (1906-1936)
Gracious God, through your Son, Jesus Christ, you gifted Fortunato with a great love for the poor. At the same time he was dedicated to his ministry as a formator. May we serve you in those who are poor and may we also be concerned about forming all those persons who are entrusted to our care. We pray in the name of Jesus, the Lord. Amen
On June 1st, 1906 Fortunato was born in the town of Tardajos (Burgos) and became a member of a family that was deeply religious. His parents, Francisco and Felisa, had seventeen children, some of whom died before they reached the age of three. Their home was referred to as “the large house” because they had to
provide lodging for so many children and other family members who came and went to visit their cousins and aunt and uncle. Family gatherings were a true celebration and those occasions far surpassed similar celebrations of their neighbors.
Two days after his birth he received the sacrament of Christian initiation and was given the name Fortunato. No one in their family had such a name but this was one of the saints whose feast was celebrated on June 1st, and therefore the child was so named. Fortunato, however, did in fact become a “fortune” and a blessing to his parents who lived in “the large house” where the virtues of obedience and work, prayer and devotion, austerity and discipline were lived and taught. Francisco and Felisa formed their children and gave them different responsibilities in caring for the house, the fields and the farm animals.
As an adolescent, Fortunato was involved in planting and harvesting the fields during the summer and winter months. According to his parents and his siblings, he never complained about this work. As a result of his contact with nature he exhibited the simplicity of the country people. He was responsible in doing the work that his parents asked him to do and naturally there was never any monetary compensation for such work.
More gifted in science than in Letters
At the age of thirteen and with the preparation that he had received in the local school, Fortunato asked the permission of his parents to enter the apostolic school which the Vincentian Missionaries had established in Tardajos (1892). His older brothers, Julián, Andrés, Luis and Maximiano were already studying there. The parents had gladly acceded to the requests of their sons. In September 1919 Fortunato entered “the convent”, the name that the people in the town had given to the Casa Misión y Apostólica … he wanted to be a Missionary, a son of Vincent de Paul. At that time Father Manuel Gómez was the superior and the people remembered and admired him for his dedication to the formation and the education of young men. He patiently encouraged the students to cultivate good habits of devotion and study. Only on rare occasions was Fortunato corrected for having violated some school rule.
During the year 1910 King Alfonso XIII, on the mount of Los Angeles, consecrated all of Spain to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. That same year Cardinal Don Juan Benlloch y Vivo became the ordinary in Burgos. Both of those events were celebrated by the community in Tardajos.
Fortunato studied for two years in Tardajos and then continued his studies in Guadalajara where the Missionaries had opened an apostolic school in 1921. There students from the other apostolic schools in Pamplona, Murguia (Álava), Teruel, Los Milagros (Orense), Andujar (Jaen) had been gathered together. Fortunato remained in Guadalajara for two more years before entering the Internal Seminary on September 18, 1923 (the year in which General Primode Rivera imposed his dictatorship on Spain [1923-1930]).
Fortunato was not an extraordinary student, but he was outstanding for acting in a responsible manner: doing those things that he was told to do and avoiding the things that were prohibited according to the rules of the school. The fact, however, that his classmates asked him for help in solving physics and mathematical problems reveals that this was one area of study that he seemed to understand and grasp with relative ease. He found the study of the other subjects to be quite difficult.
I find myself feeling better here
At the conclusion of his studies in Guadalajara, Fortunato traveled with his classmates to the Internal Seminary that was located in Madrid (September 1923). He remained there until February 1925 when the seminary was relocated in Hortaleza (Madrid). There he met Father Carmelo Dominguez Montoya who was director at the seminary. Fortunato admired the human and priestly personality of Father Carmelo who was his spiritual director and with whom he spoke with complete trust.
During that time of discernment, Fortunato experienced moments of dryness and doubt with regard to his vocation. Despite those trials and difficulties he did not become discouraged but used his time to read and reflect on the Word of God which nourished his prayer life. He also used this time to deepen his knowledge about the spirituality of the Founder, Vincent de Paul and about the ministries proper to the Congregation of the Mission. He also read those works that were recommended to him by the seminary director. Little by little he purified and molded his missionary vocation and held in high esteem everything that was related to the Congregation of the Mission, especially the missions (popular missions as well as the mission in India which had been established in 1922). The example of his brothers who were further along in their studies also helped to ground him in his missionary vocation. Fortunato distinguished himself through “his piety, his seriousness and his work” and especially through his desire to develop and live a deep interior life. According to his fellow students, he was loved by everyone because of his simplicity … those same individuals further stated that Fortunato was available for any form of manual labor even though that work involved sacrificing his leisure time.
At the conclusion of his studies in Guadalajara he traveled with his classmates to Villafranca del Bierzo (León) where he studied philosophy during the next three years. His state of mind is reflected in a letter that he wrote to his former director and teacher, Father Carmelo Domínguez, and whose final words of counsel provided him with much guidance: I find myself feeling much better here even though from the first day I have had to carry the weight of all these studies, which you know I find to be difficult. But with the help of God and with myself putting forth my best effort, all these things can be resolved. But here in this place, thank God, we are well and are quite satisfied and we are dedicated to that which is our primary responsibility at this time: virtue and knowledge.
The acquisition of virtue and knowledge was, in reality, of ideal of the young student Fortunato who in September, 1928 traveled to Cuenca, to the seminary of San Pablo where, since 1922, the Vincentian Missionaries and the theologians resided (this house was a former residence of the Redemptorists and at the present time this building has been converted into a state run hotel). The study of theology was combined with trips to points of interest in the surrounding area and all of this brought joy to those years of study.
Fortunato spoke about feeling blessed as the time to receive sacred orders drew near. With a dispensation from the Holy See, Fortunato was ordained on October 11, 1931 by Bishop Cruz Laplana y Laguna (another martyr of the religious persecution). Father Fortunato was filled with joy and happiness as a result of having attained his goal, namely, to be Christ’s priest, to offer sacrifice to the Lord, to forgive sins and to preach the Word of God to the people.
On the day that he was ordained he traveled to the Casa Central in Madrid in order to celebrate, on the following day, the Eucharist in the Basilica of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. He was accompanied by his brothers: Father Esteban, Father Luis, and Father Maximiano and by other family members and friends from Tardajos. His eyes filled with tears of joy as people lined up to kiss his hands and receive his blessing. The call that Fortunato had heard from the Lord had received a positive response that resulted in following Jesus Christ faithfully.
Fortunato’s time as a student had not yet come to an end. He and his classmates traveled to Potters-Bar (London) where they completed their theological studies while obtaining some pastoral experience and a knowledge of the English language (all of Fortunato’s free time was spent studying English). He thought: English will always be useful. With an ability to speak English I can be sent to the United States, the Philippines or India. Even here in Spain, English would be useful in our houses of formation. When he completed his studies in London, Fortunato was willing to go to any place that his superiors might send him. Given the present situation in Spain where there was much hatred of the faith, Fortunato did not reject the idea of being sent to a hostile and/or insecure place in Spain (in 1931, the Second Spanish Republic was promulgated).
Alcorisa, the place of his ministry and the place of his death
His time as a student was concluded in July 1932. As his superiors reflected on his academic record and other qualities, they decided to assign him to the ministry of formation in the apostolic school. Before arriving at the apostolic school in Alcorisa during the second semester of 1935, Fortunato had spent some brief periods of time in two other schools: five months during 1932 at the apostolic school in Murguia and two years at the apostolic school in Teruel (1933-1935). As he dedicated himself to this ministry of formation he made every effort to instill in the young men the same qualities that his formators had encouraged: piety and work. The letters that he wrote to Father Gregorio Sedano highlight his dedication to this ministry. In those letters he asked for advice about teaching methods and about textbooks … he wanted to serve those young aspirants to the Congregation in the best possible manner.
When Fortunato arrived in Alcorisa he became a member of a local community that was composed of seven members: five priests and two brothers. Fortunato was not the youngest member of the community but with his apparent shyness and restraint was the most fearless in confronting difficulties. People in the town were quick to embrace him … his simplicity enabled him to establish relationships with those humble country people. One of those individuals who provided milk to the school stated: He was a good and charitable man who reached out to those who were poor … he distributed food to all those in need and who presented themselves at the school seeking help … he made sure that these individuals were not lacking in anything. Thus Fortunato was able to win over people of every age. The good example that Father Carmelo Dominguez had given could still be felt within the walls of the apostolic school in Alcorisa. Father Fortunato felt this and attempted to make the students aware of this reality as he spoke with them about the need for prayer and work and study … about the need to be enthusiastic with regard to their missionary vocation.
I have offered myself to God so that his will might be accomplished
Very soon the peace and calmness at the school was disturbed. Soon after the beginning of the Civil War in 1936 there were rumors that the communists were approaching the town. This news had been communicated to the people of the town and as a result, after the celebration of the Eucharist that took place on July 29th in the Colegio de la Inmaculada of the Daughters of Charity, one of the Sisters warned Father Fortunato: A column of communists is about to enter the town, but he gave no importance to those words. The pastor there, however, confirmed the words of Sister and later stated: I called Father Velasco and I asked him to hear what I thought would be my last confession. I told the Vincentians, “I have been told that the Communists will soon enter the town … do whatever you think is best”.
The rumor became a reality during the afternoon of July 29th. Fifteen trucks filled with Marxists troops took control of the streets in Alcorisa. The superior at the seminary, Father Dionisio Santamaria gave the order for the community to disperse and to head for Zaragoza. Father Fortunato and Brother Aguirre opted to remain behind in order to guard the house and in case of necessity, hand over the keys to some trusted person. Father Fortunato was the treasurer at the seminary and both he and Brother were asked to provide for the spiritual welfare of the people and the material welfare of the community that had been dispersed.
When the troops arrived at the seminary they began to shoot off their guns, to search the house, to interrogate and arrest people and to pass sentence on them. Those events remind us of the persecution that was endured by the members of the primitive Christian community. While in prison Fortunato wrote a letter to Manuel Harranz, who later became a Vincentian Missionary: I write to you from prison in order to communicate some things to you … I have spent the night in prison and this morning I gave my statement. We are blamed for everything and therefore I expect that they will execute me at any moment … Pray for me … I will die as a martyr in defense of the faith. I have offered myself to God so that his will might be accomplished.
During his imprisonment Father fortunate ministered to those in the prison: he heard confessions and comforted people who could be executed at any moment. One of the witnesses who saw Fortunato when he was freed from prison stated: His appearance was that of a saint and he seemed to rise above everyone else.
I am very calm and am willing to do whatever God desires
Fortunato was given provisional freedom but was still constantly watched. It was a time of great tension. When he was freed from prison he stated with some disgust: I have not received martyrdom because I was not found worthy of this grace. Certainly at that time the words of Saint Vincent must have resonated in his interior: God grant, my dear confreres, that all those who present themselves to join the Company will come with the thought of martyrdom, desiring to suffer martyrdom in it and to devote themselves entirely to the service of God, whether in far off lands or here, wherever it may please God to make use of the poor Little Company! Yes, with the thought of martyrdom. How often we should ask Our Lord for that grace and the disposition to be ready to risk our lives for his glory and the salvation of the neighbor (CCD:XI:334-335).
On August 23 Fortunato was arrested anew and imprisoned. A few hours before his execution, one of his students, Manuel Herranz, saw him for the last time: The guard allowed Margarita, who brought some food, and myself to pass. Father invited me to eat with him. I had a couple of mouthfuls of food, not many, and then I began to cry. While he was eating I could do nothing but cry. Then Father Velasco told me: “Don’t be in a hurry, but your time will also come!” I am sure he said this to me in order to comfort me … We then said farewell to one another and stated that we would see one another the following day. He was very calm and willing to do whatever God desired. It was about nine or ten o’clock at night. At around eleven or eleven thirty the communists removed Father from prison and drove him to the cemetery where he was executed. Fortunato’s words were fulfilled for he had said: I will be executed but you Manuel, will become a Missionary in the Congregation of the Mission!
Before he was executed at the front gate of the cemetery, Father Fortunato prayed to God for his executioners; he forgave them and then cried out: Long live Christ the King! He fell to the ground with his head bleeding from the gunshots that had shattered his skull. All of this occurred in the early hours of the morning of August 24, 1936 … Father Fortunato was thirty years old. Thus this valiant defender of the faith died giving witness to the God’s invincible love and hope. He had fulfilled his mission in the service of God and his neighbor. The news of his execution spread throughout the town and people stated: The holy missionary, Father Fortunato Velasco, one who loved the poor, has been assassinated by the communists because he was a Vincentian Missionary. Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM