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Parishioner’s family harboured Spanish martyr

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‘My grandparents always had Father Gines’ photo in their home’
By Agnieszka Krawczynski

Photo: Nina Pickburn displays a photo of her grandparents, Teodora Viruega Ruiz and Diego Mellado Hernandez. The pair befriended Father Gines Cespedes Gerez, who was killed in 1936 and recently recognized as a martyr. (Agnieszka Krawczynski / The B.C. Catholic)
Nina Pickburn remembers basking in the sun on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea as a child in Almeria, Spain. She didn’t know that seaside city decades later would become known as the birthplace of 115 martyrs.

“It’s heartbreaking to read all of this,” said Pickburn, a Holy Name of Jesus parishioner, as she read newspapers mailed to her from family in Spain.

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 Pickburn’s hometown of Almeria March 25.

The blesseds, killed between 1936 and 1939, included 95 priests and 20 laypeople.

“These priests, religious, and lay people 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; her grandparents knew one of the martyrs.

Father 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 in 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 much land and 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 Father Gines 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,” she said. “They threw them in this area where there were dry wells. They were deep.”

Father Gines was one of those victims, Pickburn said. Biographical documents obtained from the Diocese of Almeria say Father Gines, 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, Father Gines turned himself in and was arrested Aug. 26, 1936. The young priest was taken to Astoy Mendi, a floating prison where many other priests and future martyrs were detained.

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!”

Father Gines 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. The remains of many other martyrs are also there. In all, 62 priests from his diocese were killed and beatified together.

Pickburn makes regular trips back 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 Father Gines’ old parish.

“My grandparents always had Father Gines’ 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.”

Also among the martyrs was Emilia Fernandez Rodriguez, the first gypsy woman to be beatified by the Church.

Rodriguez, an illiterate basketmaker, was 24 years old and pregnant when she was thrown in jail for trying to keep her husband from being recruited by the military. She learned to pray the Rosary in prison but was forced into solitary confinement after she refused to give up the names of the people who taught her to pray.

Fellow prisoners secretly baptized her daughter before the baby was taken away from her and she was left to die, severely bleeding after childbirth, in Almeria’s Gachas Coloras prison.

Local newspapers say her daughter, who was dropped off at an orphanage, would be 79 this year.

Pickburn was pleased to hear that Rodriguez was beatified at the same time as Father Gines and so many other martyrs. “She’s absolutely up there with the priests.”

With files from Marita Rodriquez, Loly Sanchez, and the Diocese of Almeria, Spain.

Last Updated on Friday, 09 June 2017 13:09  

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