Catholic San Francisco Online
Living memories of Mexico’s anti-Catholic war
November 10th, 2010
By Dana Perrigan
It was a time when priests – many of whom were tortured and executed – risked their lives to celebrate Mass in secluded grottoes, when nuns disguised themselves as lay women to escape arrest, and when Catholics took up arms and – with cries of “Viva Cristo Rey!” and “Viva La Virgin de Guadalupe!” – rose up in rebellion.
“People were not permitted to attend Mass,” says Rosa Dallardo, “It was dangerous – especially for the priests. Soldiers were everywhere.”
A parishioner at St. Peter Church in San Francisco, Dallardo remembers the stories her parents and grandparents, who lived in Jalisco, told her of the persecution and war that took place when President Plutarco Elias Calles sought to eradicate Catholicism from Mexico during the 1920s.
The bloody anti-Catholic era Dallardo’s grandparents lived through is portrayed in “Cristiada,” a movie about the Cristeros War which was recently shot on location in Mexico. Scheduled to be released next year, the film follows the lives of the military and political leaders involved in the war, which took place from 1926 to 1929.
“Mother Purisima used to tell us some stories,” says Sister Mary de la Eucaristia, a nun with the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in San Francisco. “She used to say that they lived in constant fear of being arrested. Sometimes soldiers would surround the monastery and come in and search it. They had to hide.”
The monastery of the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration was then located in Guadalajara, Jalisco. At the beginning of the persecution, an archbishop suggested the nuns protect themselves by opening a lay school at the monastery. But later, when the danger became too great, Mother Gertrude dismissed the novices and sent them home. The remaining nuns made wigs for themselves and, disguised as lay women, fled the monastery in small groups.
One nun, said Sister Mary, wrapped a wooden statuette of baby Jesus in blankets and left the monastery cradling it in her arms. The soldiers allowed her to pass without inspecting her “baby.”
“We call him ‘Manuelito,’” says Sister Mary who, with another nun, proudly displays the statuette carried from Mexico to San Francisco during the 1920s, when, with the help of a Jesuit priest at the University of San Francisco, Father Dionisio Kavanaugh, SJ, established the monastery on Haight Street. A second group of sisters reformed in El Paso, Texas.
The Carmelite Monastery on Fulton Street was also established by a group of nuns fleeing persecution in Mexico.
Sister Mary opens an old book with yellowing pages from the monastery library titled “Los Martires Mexicanos.” Written by Jesuit Father Joaquin Cardoso, the book describes, in intimate detail, the victims of religious persecution during the Cristero War.
“Some of us were reading it last night,” says Sister Mary. “But we had to stop – it was too horrible and cruel.”
A parishioner at St. Matthew’s in San Mateo, who asked not to be identified, said that his grandparents lived through the persecution. They told him that government soldiers used to hang Cristeros – rebel Catholic soldiers – from trees alongside roads to discourage others from joining or aiding the rebel army.
“Their entire village was persecuted,” he said. “A nun performing clandestine baptisms was dragged from her home and bayoneted by soldiers.”
While there were several anti-clerical provisions in the Mexican Constitution of 1917, there had been what one historian called an “uneasy truce” between the Mexican government and the Catholic Church. That truce ended in 1924 with the election of Plutarco Elias Calles as president. A zealous atheist, Calles brutally enforced the anti-clerical provisions and instituted more repressive ones of his own. He seized Church property, expelled foreign priests and closed all monasteries, convents and religious schools. Religious services were banned.
In the movie “Cristiada,” directed by Dean Wright, Calles is portrayed by actor Ruben Blades. Andy Garcia plays Gen. Enrique Gorostieta Velarde, the charismatic leader who organizes the rebel army. Eva Longoria plays his wife, Elena. The cast of the $8 million production also includes Peter O’Toole, Catalina Sandino and Bruce Greenwood.
Following several peaceful protests – including an economic boycott that collapsed when wealthy Catholics stopped supporting it – many Catholic villagers took up arms and organized themselves into small fighting units. Initially, the rebels fared poorly. Greatly outnumbered, their leaders – including two priests, Father Aristeo Pedroza and Father Jose Reyes Vega – decided to adopt guerilla tactics.
Eventually, the rebel army numbered about 50,000 soldiers. A female brigade, which started with 17 women, grew to the thousands by the end of the war. The Cristeros won several major victories and actually held the upper hand when an official peace was finally brokered by U.S. Ambassador Dwight Whitney Morrow.
According to official estimates, approximately 30,000 Cristeros and nearly 60,000 government troops – along with many civilians – died in the war. Forty priests were killed between 1926 and 1934. At the beginning of the war, there had been 4,500 priests in Mexico. At war’s end, only 334 remained. The majority had been expelled from the country.
Unofficially, and in opposition to the terms of the truce, the government in several parts of the country continued to hunt down and kill hundreds of Cristero leaders and Cristeros – many of whom were reportedly shot in their homes in front of their families. Peace was not reached until the election of Catholic President Manuel Avila Comacho in 1940.
In May of 2001, Pope John Paul II canonized 25 saints and martyrs arising from the Cristero War. While several lay Catholics were among them, the majority were priests who had been executed. None had taken up arms during the war.
“After 1917, Mexico was led by anti-Catholic Freemasons who tried to evoke the anti-clerical spirit of popular indigenous President Benito Juarez of the 1880s,” Mexican President Vicente Fox said recently. “But the military dictators of the 1920s were a lot more savage than Juarez.”
A bishop reflects on the “generous blood” of Mexico’s enduring Christian witness
Bishop José de Jesus Manriquez y Zarate, bishop of Huejutla (Hidalgo State) from 1922 to 1939, was the most intransigent opponent of the anti-religious policy of President Calles. In May 1926, a few months before the outbreak of the Cristeros civil war, he was arrested and placed under house-arrest because of his criticism of the anti-clerical Constitution which came into effect in 1917. Later he was forced into exile with all the other Mexican bishops. The government imposed this exile as a condition for the pacification of the country, which was arrived at in June 1929. The Bishop returned to the country, but was exiled again in 1932. He died in 1951. On Oct. 30, 1927, in Laredo, Texas, on the Feast of Christ the King, he had this to say:
“The Great Sacrifice is no longer offered on the altars, the churches are deserted, consecrated women in tears and priests silently weep or endure the bitterness of exile; many of Mexico’s children have been barbarously sacrificed, others are in prison and a huge multitude has gone to foreign lands in search of refuge and bread.
And how has Mexico responded to all these wrongs? By proclaiming before the world the kingship of Christ; by praising and blessing Christ and kneeling before the Holy One of the Lord, to ask mercy and forgiveness. Mexico has had the very high honor of proclaiming Christ the King on the battlefields in the heart of the twentieth century, and, before the admiring gaze of other nations, she has vigorously defended her faith, not only with prayers, not only with reparation, but by pouring out her generous blood in torrents.”
From Pope John Paul II’s “Ecumenical Commemoration of Witnesses to the Faith in the Twentieth Century,” May 7, 2000
From November 12, 2010 issue of Catholic San Francisco.