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Borderlands: Cristeros Became Mexican Martyrs 21 (2002-2003)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Cristeros Became Mexican Martyrs 1926-1929

Article first published in Vol. 21 (2002-2003)

By Kazstelia Vásquez

In the U.S., betrothed couples can choose to have a religious or a civil wedding ceremony. If they choose the religious one, the state recognizes it. In Mexico, however, couples desiring to have a religious ceremony must also be married in a civil ceremony.

This separation of church and state dates back to the 1857 constitution and the government's later enforcement of several articles which gave the state administrative power over the clerical profession and took away authority from the Catholic Church.

""Image caption: Padre Pedro de Jesus Maldonado was ordained at St. Patrick's cathedral in El Paso and later became a Mexican Martyr. Photo by Gretchen Dickey. Courtesy of Reverend Arturo Bañuelos, St. Pius Church.

In 1926, a small army of Catholic peasants who took on the name "Cristeros" (followers of Christ) fought to regain religious freedom. Before they were through, as many as 50,000 men from every socioeconomic background took up arms against the government.

The "war" produced many religious refugees, some of whom came to El Paso. The city welcomed the persecuted, and from this support stemmed the founding of new seminaries and monasteries, which still exist today.

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In 1917, President Plutarco Elías Calles and the former president, General Álvaro Obregón, weakened the Catholic Church in Mexico by enforcing the Articles of the 1857 constitution included in the 1917 version. Article 3 called for secular education in the schools, thus outlawing parochial education. Article 5 closed all seminaries and convents. Article 24 forbade worship outside the physical borders of the church.

Article 27 prohibited religious groups from owning real estate, thus nationalizing all Church property. Article 130 prohibited priests and nuns from wearing religious vestments, but more importantly, it took away from the clergy the rights of voting and speech, prohibiting the criticism of government officials and comment on public affairs in religious publications.

The closing of seminaries began during the Mexican Revolution, leaving nuns and priests with no place to live or work. The government also ruled that only Mexican born clergy would be allowed to remain and participate in religious activities in Mexico. By 1917, hundreds of religious had been expelled from Mexico or had fled the country.

The Catholic Church did not want to retaliate violently against the government, so from 1919 to 1926, they obeyed the laws. However, in 1926, President Calles introduced legislation which fined priests $250 for wearing religious vestments and imprisoned them for five years for criticizing the government.

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Archbishop of Mexico, José María Mora y del Río, declared that the Catholic Church could not accept the government's restraints. On July 31, 1926, the archbishop suspended all public worship by ordering Mexican clergy to refrain from administering any of the Church's sacraments.

The Cristeros felt the only way to fight the government was to take up arms: they were willing to become martyrs for their freedom of religion. Jean Meyers, a French expert on this revolution, tells us about Cristeros attending field masses, dressed in sandals and white garments and armed with machetes. They knew that soldiers could attack them with machine guns at any time.

Many priests were martyred while celebrating mass, either by being shot or beheaded. In a last affirmation of their faith, the Cristeros would shout, "Viva Cristo Rey!" (Long Live Christ the King!) just before dying.

Padre Miguel Agustin Pro was one of the best known of the martyred priests. Pro used elaborate disguises so that soldiers would not recognize him as a priest. Known for his indefatigable sense of humor, he visited the faithful often dressed as a beggar. He administered the sacraments, provided jokes and laughter, and helped financially those in need. Rich families often received the sacraments from Padre Pro in his disguise of businessman. Pro and his brother, Humberto, were arrested for being erroneously linked to a car bombing which injured ex-president Obregón. The car used in the bombing was traced back to Humberto Pro, the previous owner.

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Calles took advantage of the opportunity to execute a priest publicly in an attempt to discourage other priests from participating in politics. He ordered Pro be shot at the police station and invited reporters to the execution. Padre Pro carried a small crucifix and his rosary and held his arms out forming a cross as he was shot. Pope John Paul II beatified him on September 25, 1988.

Another martyr, San Pedro de Jesus Maldonado Lucero, served the people's spiritual needs in Chihuahua, Mexico. Maldonado attended seminary in Mexico in 1914, but the political conflict forced him to leave. He came to El Paso and received his ordination on January 25, 1918, from Bishop Anthony J. Schuler at St. Patrick's Cathedral. Then he returned to Chihuahua to serve the faithful.

After Calles' anti-Catholic laws were implemented in 1926, Maldonado became a government target for performing religious ceremonies in private homes. He succeeded in celebrating night masses on one ranch or another, performing marriages and baptisms and administering other sacraments. In 1937 during Holy Week, the mayor and soldiers in Santa Isabel, Chihuahua, arrested him and beat him to death for defying government bans on hidden religious celebrations. Maldonado's murderers used riffle butts to bash in his head and dislodge an eye from its socket.

Like Maldonado, many other priests and nuns along with ordinary Catholics, Mormons and Episcopalians left the country and found refuge in border cities in the United States, among them, El Paso. Patrick Cross writes that by 1929, some 25,000 priests in approximately 12,000 parishes no longer could minister to the spiritual needs of Mexican Catholics, over 10 million strong.

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In a personal interview, Dr. Jesus Cuellar, this writer's grandfather, recalled that at the age of 13, in 1927, he was helping Father Gregorio Paredes with a secret mass in a house in Guanajuato. After it concluded, soldiers came looking for a place to feed and water their horses.

In order to save the priest's life and to keep the Eucharist from desecration, Cuellar took the Chalice containing the Eucharist and ran out to hide it in a neighboring house. He and Father Paredes hid in a basement for three days, waiting for the soldiers to leave.

Persecuted Mexican Catholics received worldwide sympathy. Boston banned the new religious regulations calling them "the most brutal tyranny." New York parishioners crowded Catholic and Protestant churches to offer prayers for a peaceful solution in Mexico.

El Paso Bishop Reverend Anthony J. Schuler welcomed Juárez Catholics and even granted priests permission to perform marriages and baptisms without requiring residency for the Mexican citizens. Between 1926 and 1929, the number of people attending services at El Paso Catholic churches doubled. A dramatic increase in baptisms and marriages of people with Hispanic surnames at Catholic churches suggested that downtown churches were serving great numbers of Catholics from Mexico.

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Since priests and nuns in Mexico could no longer teach there, many of them came to El Paso. Three nuns from the order of Perpetual Adoration and two from the Servants of the Sacred Heart arrived in El Paso on August 2, 1926. Sacred Heart Church received the nuns from the Sacred Heart Order with open arms.

Because there was no Perpetual Adoration order in El Paso, Bishop Schuler provided the funds for the foundation of such a monastery to train nuns. Other exiled nuns from Mexico City and Guadalajara soon joined the first nuns.

Reverend Mother María Concepción del Espíritu Santo was in charge of the nuns who came from Guadalajara. She found a suitable location for the monastery in a house at 1401 Magoffin. Along with money from the diocese, the Catholic community raised funds and helped pay $7,550 for the property in monthly installments.

Once El Paso became a diocese in 1926, it was allowed to establish seminaries and became the home to Franciscans at St. Anthony's Seminary at Hastings and Crescent in 1935. Before this, the persecuted Franciscan order of Michoacan, which had not had a seminary since 1910, had lived in Santa Barbara, Calif., after their departure from Mexico.

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The monasteries and seminaries established at this time succeeded so well that an additional Perpetual Adoration Monastery in the Lower Valley and the Roger Bacon Seminary soon followed to house homeless priests and nuns.

During the religious persecution, some Mexican nationals who sought and found asylum in El Paso decided to stay here. However, many returned to Mexico but continued to enroll their children in the parochial schools here. Perhaps the trend of bringing children to school across the border began when El Paso met those needs so many years ago.

Even though Catholicism is no longer openly persecuted in Mexico, the religious persecution of the 1920s is still felt. The government prohibits priests from owning property, criticizing government officials or commenting on public affairs. The state still does not recognize weddings performed by priests.

In 2000, the Pope canonized 25 priests of the Cristero era, including San Maldonado. The blood of the thousands of Cristeros and martyrs that flooded the land nourished the spirits of those left behind; their courageous cry can still be heard in the hearts of the faithful, "Viva Cristo Rey!"

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Cristeros Sources

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