About as many people were killed for their Catholic faith in Spain during the 1930s as the Christian martyrs who were slain by the Caesars of the Early Roman Empire. Today the Church honors all of these including some who died in 1934 (technically , the Spanish Civil War only began in 1936). Many, however, are commemorated in feast day liturgies of their own dioceses or of their proper Religious Orders and Congregations. The numbers are uncertain. The Spanish author, Jose Maria Gironella entitled his monumental novel about the period One Million Dead. It is estimated that up to 8,000 clergy were executed. 6,832 of these were priests. The rest were religious women and prominent members of the Catholic laity. 1,268 of these have been beatified, while 2,000 more are awaiting beatification.
The causes of the Spanish Civil War are complex. Personally it has taken me years, through on again, off again study, to trace the components of the buildup to this historic bloodbath. If anything can be identified as the provenance of this tragic decade in Spain’s history, it would have to be the loss of the last colonies of the Spanish Empire in 1898.
For more than a century, in fact for two centuries Spain, which relied on the stability of its overseas conquests, dabbled in questions of self-identity. Connected to the Bourbon family of France, kings and bishops alike dabbled in a regalism that even challenged the Church. King Philip V went so far as to split with the Holy See in 1709. Coupled with the pomp of the Spanish throne, philosophers dabbled with Enlightenment thought. The Crown, with the help of liberal thinkers, sought to level much of the piety of the faithful and the government even took an active role in the expulsion and suppression of the Jesuits. Religious Orders in Spain, now moved by the influence of a newer type of conventual life, referred to as Clerics Regular, began to engage in an active and zealous service to education and social work.
The Court paid no heed and scoffed at them. Despite tensions, the people remained faithful to both Cathedral and Crown. Throughout the Eighteenth Century, the economy was stabilized by continued dedication to overseas business and an active civil service in order to supervise colonial governments and foreign investments. A mighty ax struck Spain in 1808 by the attack of the French Revolution when Napoleon led his troops onto Spanish soil. The French soldiers carried with them the liberal ideas of the French Revolution which implanted themselves in the Spanish mentality and worked for an entire century to attempt to secularize Spain. By the 1890s, Spain was a specter of its former imperialistic image. By 1900, it was in a death struggle and sought to form a new identity.
Artists, intellectuals and writers publicly discussed the consequences of the last of the colonies of “All Spain.” For a further thirty years, the Iberian Peninsula grappled with an overwhelming social angst while the literati of the nation became known as “Generation ’98.” As radio developed in the 1920s and flames were fanned by the publication of new and radical journals and newspapers, the country divided into conservatives and liberals. The monarchist candidates to Parliament were overwhelmingly defeated in both national and municipal elections in 1931. The King, Alfonso XII abdicated immediately and a new Republic came into being.
Tensions mounted, especially in the northwest corner of Spain in the region of Asturias. The issue was over education. In general and in comparison to the rest of Europe, Spain was definitely wanting in popular educational facilities. A movement known as the CEDA (Confederacion Espanola de Derechas Autonomas – Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Rights) established itself as a means of promoting the social teachings of the Church, Catholic education and the imparting of academic education and manual skills at the same time to students in grammar and high schools. The Socialists took great umbrage at this configuration and stirred up the urban and rural poor in an anti-clerical movement, especially to prevent the teaching of home economics and “shop work” e.g. cabinet making, auto mechanics, plumbing, etc. in a Catholic atmosphere. They claimed that classical education was irrelevant and that practical education challenged the meager income of those who had not gone to school at all. In 1934 legislation was passed by Parliament banning all Catholic education. Most Religious ignored the directive and civic officials were loath to enforce it.
However, in Asturias, the Revolution fanned its own flames. The small town of Turon saw the eight De la Salle Christian Brothers remove their habits and continue to pioneer this new type of practical education as endorsed by the CEDA. With the declaration of still a new government on October 4, 1934, an angry rebellion rose up to focus on the teaching community in order to execute them. On the 4th of October, 1934, the same day as the new government, terrorists arrested the Brothers and their Passionist Priest chaplain at midnight. The Passionist, whose secular name was Emmanuel Canoura. He was known in religion as Father Innocent of Mary Immaculate.
This young priest joined the Passionists at the age of 15, with the idea of following the Rule of Saint Paul of the Cross, keeping the Passionist Observance and preaching missions and retreats, the traditional Passionist ministry. Despite much attempt at accent reduction, it was found that he had an incurable lisp. Therefore, he rarely preached in public, instead teaching Philosophy, Spanish Literature and Mathematics to Passionist seminarians. Not knowing of the danger to clerics and religious in the region, the rector sent him out to hear First Friday confessions at the School of Our Lady of Covadogma, situated in a poor mining area. When he arrived, he learned that two of his own students had been gunned down outside his own Monastery by the Socialist brigands and that it was not safe for him to return home that night. He heard the confessions of all the students and the Brothers. The last penitent brought the news. “Revolution had broken out!” The local superior of the Brothers, Cyril Bertrand Tejedor, F.S.C. insisted that he stay. All of these were the first to perish five days later as they were cut down by gunfire. The uprising was put down over a week’s time. Fully 1,000 innocent persons died and around that municipality through haphazard gunfire. These were the first of the 6,832 Clerics and Religious who were to be slaughtered throughout the rest of the decade.
The second part of the Spanish Civil War began in 1936. The nine victims of Turon are thus considered to be the first Martyrs of the Spanish Civil War. The Passionist Congregation is proud that Father Innocent of Mary Immaculate and his companions were canonized in November, 1999. He is the fourth Passionist to be canonized a saint. He is the proto-priest martyr of the Spanish persecution of the Church and as many as 8,000 were to follow him. This humble man who could not speak well thought of himself as a failure and not worthy to be a full Apostolic Religious. But he lived the full impact of the history he taught the students, with all its complexity and blithely followed Jesus totally to the Cross.
- Father Jerome Vereb, C.P.