Spanish martyr’s story hits close to B.C. home
VANCOUVER – Nina Pickburn remembers basking in the sun on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea as a child in Almeria, Spain.
Decades later, her seaside hometown would become known as the birthplace of 115 martyrs. For Pickburn, a parishioner at Vancouver’s Holy Name of Jesus, there is an even more personal connection — her grandparents knew one of the martyrs.
About 80 years ago, when Pickburn’s mother was a young child, the Spanish Civil War began, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Catholics. The Church recently recognized 115 of them as martyrs for their faith and beatified them in Almeria on March 25.
“It’s heartbreaking to read all of this,” said Pickburn, going through newspapers mailed to her from family in Spain.
The blesseds, killed between 1936 and 1939 during a period known as the Red Terror, included 95 priests and 20 laypeople.
“These priests, religious and laypeople were heroic witnesses to Christ and His Gospel of peace and fraternal reconciliation,” Pope Francis said in Rome a day after the martyrs were beatified in Spain.
“May their example and their intercession sustain the Church’s involvement in building the civilization of love.”
For Pickburn, the stories are “lovely and heartbreaking,” but they are also an important part of her family history.
Fr. Gines Cespedes Gerez was only 22 years old when he was named parish priest of Fernan Perez, a small village 50 kilometres from the city of Almeria, in 1924. He moved from nearby Garrucha, his hometown, and found friends in the couple across the street.
Pickburn’s grandparents, Diego Mellado Hernandez and Teodora Viruega Ruiz, were wealthy and owned several countryside homes. They immediately welcomed the young, new priest to their home.
The pair served him daily meals and Pickburn’s grandfather, who had spent a year in a seminary before marrying her grandmother, offered to help Fr. Gerez buy any items he needed for the church.
After the war began, many young neighbourhood priests were rounded up.
“It was horrendous what happened,” said Pickburn. “They took them to a field and they shot them, but many of them did not die when they were shot. They were just injured. They threw them in this area where there were dry wells. They were deep.”
Fr. Gerez was one of those victims, Pickburn said. Biographical documents obtained from the Diocese of Almeria say Fr. Gerez, who had become a well-known speaker and writer for the Catholic newspaper La Independencia, was not at home when authorities burst inside looking for him.
They threatened to harm his family if he didn’t come forward so, against the wishes of his family, Fr. Gerez turned himself in and was arrested Aug. 26, 1936.
The young priest was taken to Astoy Mendi, a floating prison where many other priests were held.
According to the diocese, his persecutors promised him freedom if he would participate in anti-religious propaganda. His reply apparently was: “If I was born 20 times, I would always become a priest. The world does not end in Spain!”
Fr. Gerez was shot Sept. 25 and thrown down a well in Cantavieja, Spain. His remains are buried in Valle de los Caidos, or Valley of the Fallen, a Catholic basilica and memorial of the Spanish Civil War near Madrid.
Pickburn makes regular trips to Spain to visit family in the province of Almeria, including the city where her grandparents fled for a few years before returning to check on their home near Fr. Gerez’s old parish.
“My grandparents always had Fr. Gerez’s photo in their home. I know exactly what he looked like,” she said. “I’m so glad that the short years he was the parish priest there, before he got killed, he had a lovely life and support from the whole community.”
(The B.C. Catholic, with files from Marita Rodriquez, Loly Sanchez, and the Diocese of Almeria, Spain.)