On the night of 21-22 July 1936, the Passionist retreat of Daimiel, Ciudad Real (Spain), was enveloped in a deep calm. The darkness was like a protective blanket that covered the house and the church of Santo Cristo de la Luz. It seemed as if nothing could disturb this silence and peace.
It was 11:30 PM. The metallic sound of the door bell suddenly broke the cloistered silence of night. It was an agitated and nervous sound that made the soundly sleeping Brother porter of the community jump in his bed. Who could it be at this hour of the night? What’s going on? What did they want from them?
Good Brother Pablo María was noted for his serenity and peacefulness. Nevertheless, when he heard this loud and insistent sound of the bell at this strange hour, he could not help but be frightened and disconcerted, not knowing what to expect. Should he go to the door? Should he wait a while longer to see what else would happen? If he went, should he go alone, or should he awaken one of the other religious to go with him?
He quickly recovered his calm and with great bravery and serenity, he decided to go to the door alone. It is hard to imagine his surprise…and fear when opening the door he was confronted by a group of strongly armed men, half hidden in the darkness. With strong threats and with great insistence they demanded that the Brother immediately evacuate the retreat.
“Gethsemane – this is our Gethsemane…”
Silent footsteps, shadows and silhouettes move along the corridor in the twilight. Every night, somewhat later, they would rise to sing the praises of the Lord in the choir. Now, these men of God would crown the song of praise of their lives with the festive “Amen” of their fidelity to Christ.
They entered the church. In front of the altar the provincial, Fr. Niceforo, was already waiting for them, his gentle and kindly face looked on each of these religious, of whom most were very young.
Already in the sanctuary and on his knees before the altar, the priest said some words to them that did not seem to be his own; rather they seemed to be inspired by the Spirit of God. The few survivors, despite the tragedy of the war, still remember them precisely. Thus they were engraved in their memory and in their heart: “Gethsemane”, he said to them with great emotion, “this is our Gethsemane. Our spirit is deeply distressed as it contemplates the daunting perspective of Calvary, as was that of Jesus, and so too our human nature, in its weakness, trembles, becomes cowardly… But Jesus is with us. I am going to give you He who is the strength of the weak.. Jesus was comforted by an angel; it is Jesus himself who comforts and sustains us… Within a few moments we will be with Christ… Citizens of Calvary, take heart! Let us die with Christ! It is my duty to encourage you and I myself am encouraged by your example”.
Then Fr. Niceforo gave all of them general absolution which he himself received from Fr. Germán, the superior of the community. Then he put on a surplice and stole and gave Holy Communion to each religious. Years later one of the survivors would refer to this Communion as: “What a fervent Communion that was!”
After several moments of thanksgiving, Fr. Provincial encouraged all his religious to accept martyrdom, reminding them that now they would prove with their lives that they were followers of Christ Crucified, that they were Passionists!
With mystery and solemnity, the priest moved from the altar to the doors of the church, accompanied by his religious. Slowly he opened the doors. Outside, shrouded in the darkness of the night, two hundred armed militia were guarding the entrance. Suddenly one of the soldiers shouted out and with a revolver in his hand, moved toward the religious and ordered them with threatening tones, to abandon the monastery and the church.
Fr. Niceforo responded simply: “If you want to kill us, do it here in the church.” The soldier had not expected this serene and courageous response. Seemingly confused, he addressed Fr. Niceforo saying: “Who said that we wanted to kill you? We only want you to leave here.”
Led away as if they were criminals, the Passionist religious left the church and they entered the darkness and anonymity. No one thought about running from death. All remained faithful to the Lord. After praying and receiving the Eucharist, the Passionist of Daimiel, like Jesus and the first martyrs of the Church, felt that they were strengthened and prepared to confront their passion and to completely drink the chalice that the heavenly Father had prepared for them.
But where was the road now leading, in the darkness, the night far spent, and surrounded by the enemy?
The Road to the Cemetary
First they were given orders to proceed to the station. Some thought that they would be told to board a train and to leave the area. Wishful thinking! Shortly the group changed direction, heading toward the nearby cemetery. All of them were convinced that there they would be shot dead.
Two by two, guarded by armed men, they walked under the cover of night. Silence! However the great the silence, their inner thoughts were all the more vivid. In those moments and in the darkness, the night could not have been more sinister. After the war, one of the five survivors described the feelings of those present during those final tragic moments: “Our imagination ran wild as we saw the already dug graves. Would they bury us alive…or dead? The thought of death frightened us, but the idea of being buried alive was even more terrifying”.
However, arriving at the cemetery, the men of the “popular front” let them go free with the order to keep moving ahead and never again were they to return to Daimiel or its environs. Doing it this way, their lives were even in greater danger.
After having looked at death in the face, the religious breathed deeply a great sigh of relief. As they arrived at the fork in road of Ciudad Real and Bolaños, they stopped to plan their next move. Since it would be impossible for 31 men to move unseen through the front lines, they decided to separate into groups. The superior divided the small amount of money that they had and the groups headed out in different directions. If all went well, they would meet again in Madrid; if not, then in heaven.
With words and gestures filled with emotion and encouragement they began their long journey, very probably to eternity, which was the fate of all except five of these religious.
Although they were set free, the religious were observed by the “popular front”, that was sending information concerning their movement toward the capital of Spain. At times phrases such as these were used: “The Passionists of Daimiel are going to going to pass through here. Fresh meat! Don’t let them get away…”
The following day, 23 July 1936, the first martyrs would be shot in the area surrounding the town of Manzanares. Five, among them Fr. Niceforo, died there; another seven would again survive, but three months later and after much suffering due to the wounds inflicted during this shooting, they would also die by a firing squad. All of the others, in various areas and on different dates, would also be shot in Carabanchel Bajo (Madrid), in Carrión de Calatrava (Ciudad Real) and in Urda (Toledo).
All died while pardoning their murders, as did Jesus on the cross. “If anyone takes us to be killed”, Fr. Juan Pedro would say, “we ask that no one hate or despise them because of the evil that they are doing to us.” Eye witnesses also told that Fr. Niceforo, after having been shot and being near death, raised his eyes to heaven, turned his face toward his murderers and smiled at them, which disturbed them to the point that one of them, now more infuriated than ever, shouted: “What, are you still smiling?” And with that he shot him at point blank range, thus ending his life here on earth.
The 26 Passionist religious of the monastery of Santo Cristo de la Luz, Daimiel, who gave their lives in fidelity to Christ and to the Church are: Nicéforo Díez Tejerina, provincial superior, who had previously suffered persecution and exile en México; Germán Pérez Jiménez, superior of the community; Juan Pedro Bengoa Aranguren, who had also suffered persecution for the faith in Mexico; Felipe Valcobado Granado; Ildefonso García Nozal; Pedro Largo Redondo and Justiniano Cuesta Redondo, priests; Pablo María Leoz Portillo, Benito Solana Ruiz, Anacario Benito Lozal y Felipe Ruiz Fraile, Brothers; Eufrasio de Celis Santos, Maurilio Macho Rodríguez, Tomás Cuartero Gascón and his brother José María, José Estalayo García, José Osés Sáinz, Julio Mediavilla Concejero, Félix Ugalde Ururzun, José María Ruiz Martínez, Fulgencio Calvo Sánchez, Honorino Carracedo Ramos, Laurino Proaño Cuesta, Epifanio Sierra Conde, Abilio Ramos Ramos y Zacarías Fernández Crespo, students of Philosophy who, after novitiate, were preparing for priestly ordination.
But the vanquished had become the conquerors. As the murderers later confessed, Fr. Juan Pedro and Brother Pablo María died with the crucifix in their hands and shouting: “Christ the King!”
Another interesting note is that the majority of these were young religious. Sixteen of this Passionist Martyrs of Daimiel were between the ages of 18 and 21. In our day, may their example awaken the consciences and enthusiasm of many of the young who are still undecided and move them to direct their lives toward high and noble ideals, perhaps even to considering consecrating themselves to God, like the martyrs, in religious life or in the priesthood.
These 26 Passionist Martyrs of Daimiel were beatified by Pope John Paul II on 1 October 1989. Their relics are preserved and venerated in the crypt of the monastery of Daimiel, which has been converted into a retreat house and spirituality center. The liturgical feast is celebrated on 24 July.
(events written and recorded by: Fr. Pablo García, C.P.)