26 Passionists of Daimiel

26 Passionists of Daimiel

Mexico in the early 20th century was the scene of much anti-Church legislation and sometimes of active persecution. In the midst of this threatening situation, a group of Passionist seminarians was sent for safety to Chicago and were ordained there. Among them was a Spaniard, Niceforo Diez. After ordination, the group returned to Mexico. Niceforo served ten years there, then some years in Cuba, before being transferred back to Spain, where he was elected Provincial.

In 1936, as Provincial, Niceforo visited Mexico in disguise. He returned to Spain via a ship sailing from Hoboken, New Jersey. It was natural to make a stop in Union City, then known as West Hoboken. While he was there, the editor of The Sign magazine asked him to write a piece about the visit to Mexico.

The resulting article began with the words, “At last after much traveling, I am back at our beautiful monastery, here in Zaragoza.”. Niceforo went on to describe the sufferings of the Mexican Church, including a touching description of a secret Eucharist to which he was directed by a woman selling fruits and vegetables outside a closed church.

“Following the directions she gave me, I arrived at a certain house in the city. After a long and careful investigation, they were convinced of my identity, and permitted me to enter. They led me to a certain room in the house. What a sight met my eyes as I entered that little room. A feeling of the deepest awe came over me. I shall never forget that moment. It was a quarter of eight in the evening – yet here were men, women and children receiving Our Lord in Holy Communion. Their attitude of deepest reverence gave me some idea of what that Communion meant to them.

On the very day on which this took place, the police had seized sixty people and imprisoned them. The charge against them was that they had prayed and sung hymns at the grave of their priest, who had a short time before, been mercilessly shot down as he taught catechism to the children in the parish church. What a ‘crime’ I had witnessed.”

The article appeared in the August issue of The Sign. By that time the Spanish Civil War had broken out and the author was already dead.

On July 21, 1936 in the monastery of Daimiel were 31 men, mostly students preparing for ordination and expecting to be sent to Mexico or Cuba. Most were aged 18-21. The oldest member of the community was 54. Niceforo was 43. At 11:30 pm came a knock at the door. Armed men were there with the order, “Leave in an hour.”

The community gathered in the chapel. Niceforo addressed them, gave general absolution and distributed Communion. The group then processed to the doors. The soldiers were waiting outside. The demand to abandon the monastery and the church was repeated..

Niceforo responded: “If you want to kill us, do it here in the church.”

The soldier replied, “Who said we wanted to kill you? We only want you to leave here.”

The prisoners were led first toward the train station, but then redirected to the cemetery, where they saw some graves already dug. One of the five survivors later described his feelings:

“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, at the cemetery the captives were let go free, with orders to keep moving and never return to the area. At the same time, the soldiers sent out messages that the religious were to be shot on sight.

The Passionists divided into smaller groups in the hope of making their way to Madrid and reuniting there. Five did survive. Between the next day, July 22, and October 24, all but five would be hunted down and shot.

The martyrs were beatified by Pope John Paul II on October 1, 1989. He said of them: “None of the   religious of the community of Daimiel was involved in political matters. Nevertheless, within the climate of the historical period in which they lived, they were arrested because of the tempest of religious persecution, generously shedding their blood, faithful to their religious way of life, and emulating, in the 20th century, the heroism of the Church’s first martyrs.”

The survivors preserved the memory of Fr. Niceforo’s exhortation in the chapel on the night of July 21:

“Gethsemane. 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 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.”

All died while pardoning their murderers, as did Jesus on the cross. Fr. Juan Pedro is quoted as saying   “If anyone takes us to be killed, we ask that no one hate or despise them because of the evil they are doing to us.”

Eyewitnesses told that Fr. Niceforo, after being shot and being near death, raised his eyes to heaven, turned towards his murderers and smiled at them, which disturbed them to the point that one of them shouted, “What, are you smiling?” And with that he shot him at point blank range.

– Sister Mary O’Brien, C.P.