CLARETIAN MARTYRS OF TARRAGONA
The seven Claretian martyrs of Tarragona came from two communities very close to each other: Tarragona and La Selva del Camp. Their martyrdoms took place separately, at different times and places.
FR. JOSEP ARMINGOL, CMF (Prefect of Formation and Spirituality of Catalunya) on the Martyrs of Tarragona
BRO. ANTONI CAPDEVILA BALCELLS
The first victim of the group was brother Antoni Capdevila, who, at the height of his powers in his 40s, died with astonishing calmness.
He was the son of l’Espluga Calba (Lleida), where he was born on February 27th, 1894. His parents were Antoni and Filomena. Brother Antoni was a real treasure in the life of our communities, especially for his work as a tailor. He also worked as a teacher of the first year students, distinguishing himself by his reliability and efficiency. He fully deserved the sense of trust everyone had in him, and he was considered a model because of his saintly spirit.
When the revolution of July 1936 broke out, our Brother belonged to the community of La Selva del Camp. His first concern was to take the elderly and sick Brother Ramon Garces to the Sanatorium run by the Sisters in Reus. From there, on July 24th, he travelled by train to Borges Blanques, walking the final 14 kilometres to Mollerosa, near Lleida, where his family lived. The train stopped longer than necessary in Vimbodí to change engines, and Antoni got out of the carriage to walk along the platform ... someone of malicious intent suspected something strange and he was arrested there and then. They marched him along the streets to the Police station, they stole the money he had and, at about noon, they took him along the road to the place they call the Puntarró, about 500 metres from the village. In front of the firing squad, Antoni quietly asked his murderers:
“Will you give me a few moments to prepare myself?”
His request granted, he calmly uncovered his head, began to pray quietly and, when he had finished his fervent prayer, invited the murderers to do what they wanted. Before dying, drawing strength from the bottom of his missionary soul, he shouted:
“Long live Christ the King!”
A burst of gunfire cut him down to the ground. The ordinary people of the village considered him a holy man from the start, and were desperate to have pebbles dipped into the blood of the martyr ... and there began the glorification of God. His remains are buried in the church of San Agustin de Tarragona, along with those of Fr Frederic Vila.
FR. JAIME MIR VIME
Fr Jaume Mir Vime was a son of Ciutadilla, in the province of Lleida and region of Urgell. Born on December 22nd, 1889. His parents, Jaume and Filomena, were exemplary Christians. They had two sons and four daughters. The youngest became a religious with the Carmelite Sisters of Charity.
A few days after the death of Brother Antoni Capdevila, specifically on July 29th, Fr Jaume Mir was to suffer the same fate. Tall, slim, with drawn features, serious, always with his nose in a book of Philosophy, he was the embodiment of the Metaphysics that he taught with singular competence. His great intellectual gifts and his penchant for study had bestowed on him a maturity of learning such that he was regarded as an authority on the most intricate philosophical questions. From 1932, in the Pontifical University of Tarragona, he occupied the chair of difficult issues or PhD theses.
In his life as an ascetic, he was always silent and thoughtful, the perfect blend of "prayer, study and teaching", a trilogy that defined him perfectly.
The revolution caught up with him when he was directing Spiritual Exercises with the Carmelite Sisters of Charity in Francolí Esplugues. Without knowing why, the fact is that on several occasions he touched on the topic of the martyrs with unusual eagerness, those who filled the church with glory. With the dissolution of the Religious Community on July 21st, he took refuge with them in the Chaplain's house, where they continued their Spiritual Exercises.
The martyrdom of Fr Jaume seems to bear the stamp of a vile betrayal. Wanting to move to Tarragona, he went to the Police station for the appropriate pass. He got it, but the people who gave it to him asked for it back the next day. He requested another, and was told there was no need for one, because they themselves were going with him to Montblanc Police station. His farewell to the religious sisters was cordial and serene: - Goodbye! There is nothing else we can do. If we do not see each other in this life, we’ll see each other in Heaven!
- Father, give us a blessing! So we have the consolation of having received the blessing of a martyr.
The militiamen drove him to Montblanc to put him on the train. The truth is that, the same day, on the 29th in the afternoon, his body was laid to rest in cemetery of Tarragona
BRO. SEBASTIAN BALCELLS TONIJUAN
Brother Sebastiá was born on December 3rd, 1885, in La Fuliola, province of Lleida, region of Urgell. He inherited from his good parents, Baltasar and Buenaventura, many natural qualities, but, especially, a Christian education which, from early childhood, helped him grow in his faith. Of the six children of the marriage, one became a nun and two followed a Claretian vocation.
The pious life of Br Sebastiá manifested itself in his service to the brothers of the Community, in his spiritual joy that permeated his good sense of humour and his fervent practices of devotion to Jesus Christ and the Mother of God, such as the Eucharist, Stations of the Cross and the Rosary every day.
He had remarkable qualities as a teacher of little children, to which he devoted himself in schools such as Cervera, La Selva del Camp and Játiva. In 1932 the School of Játiva was attacked, and in March 1936 the community was forced to abandon the city for good. The revolution in July caught Brother Sebastian in La Selva del Camp.
He decided to take refuge in his birthplace in the village of La Fuliola. There he found his sister Silveria, also a religious, taking refuge as well, who inquisitively asked him one day:
- How many times have you prayed the rosary today to the Virgin?
“Nineteen, so far” replied the servant of God. And it was only noon ... Indeed, it has to be said, the rosary and the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin never left the hands of this humble, innocent, fervent Brother.
On August 15th, the feast of the Assumption, the two religious siblings, Sebastiá and Silveria, were a picture of miraculous presence, as if taken from recollections of Benedict and Scolastica. It was evening, and after dinner these two soul mates occupied themselves talking about God, heaven, about the happiness of dying as martyrs for Jesus Christ. They talked and talked, and so they passed the time ...
Three hours after all this heavenly talk, they heard eight menacing shouts at the door, calling for Sebastiá, who was thrust into a car which took him to the Police station of Tárrega; can you believe it, at that hour of the night! The car continued along the road. In the midst of silence, our Brother started a brief conversation:
“You’re taking me to be killed, aren’t you?”
With a clear understanding on both parts, the prisoner calmly pulled out his rosary, and began to whisper again and again, Pray for us ... at the hour of our death.
The car stopped, the militiamen tied our Brother to a tree trunk and fired eight shots. From nearby, a forest ranger looked on. The fingers of the corpse were still clutching the holy rosary beads until, shortly afterwards, a fire fed with armfuls of dry grass, turned the remains of the martyr into ashes.
Brothers Andreu Felíu and Pau Castellá, sons of La Selva del Camp
Brothers Andreu Felíu and Pau Castellá are a fine example of human, religious, missionary and self-sacrificing brotherhood. These two venerable elders of the community were a real treasure. Both were born in the same town, both shared the same religious life in the Claretian Congregation, both spent their best years working on the tough Mission of Equatorial Guinea; together they peacefully passed their old age in the same community with everyone’s care and attention, and God’s Providence, which had wonderfully joined their lives together, would not separate them even in death, and together they would go to meet the Lord who rewarded them with palm and crown ...
Sons of La Selva del Camp, when the revolutionaries dissolved their Community, both went to their own families, staying there for three months until the Police authorities of Reus decided to upset the quiet routines of their neighbouring town and made up the list of those who should be shot. One of the more reasonable members, and a resident of La Selva del Camp, intervened to help change the decision:
“Why not content ourselves with just the Religious?”
And the only two Religious on the list were the Brothers Castellá and Felíu. Arrested without further ado on October 26th, they were taken to La Riera de la Cuadra, on the municipal boundary of Reus, to be shot. As Brother Pau Castellá had difficulty moving his legs, he took a while to get out of the car, so they dragged him out and he fell flat on the ground.
“Let’s do it right here!”
So, as he lay on the ground, they shot him several times in the back.
These two most exemplary Missionaries died for the same cause: for being Religious!
BRO. ANDREW FELIX BARTHOLOMEW
Brother Andreu Felíu was born on September 15th, 1870. His parents were Josep and Francesca.
From being very young, he had contact with the Claretian Missionaries, who had houses in La Selva del Camp since 1968. He served as an altar boy, helped the Brother sacristan and with his beautiful voice he sang in the choir of the church of St. Augustine, which was entrusted to the Missionaries. At seventeen he applied to become a Claretian Missionary as an Assistant Brother. What he most wanted was to be a missionary and to be out working in mission countries.
He completed his Novitiate in Cervera, where he had his first appointment, in charge of tailoring. He always stood out for his industry and kind treatment of people, and was much loved for his devout and pious life. In 1903, when he was in Zafra, his dream was fulfilled when he was sent to the missions of Fernando Poo.
Brother Andreu Felíu, a master of several trades, served as a tailor, sacristan, as a very caring nurse to the sick, as an excellent farm labourer on the estates, and overseer of domestic cleaning and administration. He was an unselfish servant to all in need. In 1934 he had to return to the mainland for health reasons.
BRO. PAU CASTELLÀ BARBERÀ
Pau Castellá Barberá was born On May 3rd, 1862, in La Selva del Camp (Tarragona). From his parents, Pau and Francesca, he had inherited a great store of human qualities and Christian virtues, including a beautiful voice. And along with his voice, a great interest in music.
Pau did his Novitiate in Barbastro and in that same community he began to work as a cobbler. From Barbastro he went to Lleida, and later, at his request, in 1892, his Superiors gave him a new field of work, which turned out to be much more challenging: the Fernando Poo missions. As a missionary he served in places and roles that were very demanding: Corisco, Santa Isabel, San Carlos and finally Maria Cristina. At all his destinations, he demonstrated his extraordinary qualities of dealing with people who were not accustomed to obedience. Without a doubt, he was endowed with so many qualities that any domestic duty came easily to him. In every Community he was very well received, but was also much loved by farm estate workers, even though they had never met him. Brother Pau was a model tactician for preventing difficulties.
When his health failed, he was forced to return to the mainland because of persistent fevers ... And he was caught up in the religious persecution of 1936 and was martyred.
The Boat Prison
Br Antoni Vilamassana and Fr Frederic Vila
Throughout Catalonia, the floating prison set up on the cargo boat Cabo Cullera was infamous, but it was soon moved to another more spacious ship, the Rio Segre, also a cargo boat weighing in at 5,000 tons.
It doesn’t take much imagination to guess what life was like there. Total isolation from relatives and friends, sometimes unbearable heat in summer, intolerable monotony ... But on the other hand, there were diversions which in other prisons would have been an unexpected luxury. Amongst the prisoners there were many priests and religious, and the lay people were distinguished Catholics who passed the time in their own way on deck despite close monitoring from the red militiamen, who couldn’t stand seeing rosary beads, even though they were made from knotted string!, nor did they tolerate seeing lips that moved in prayer ... The way of life was strict: “No lips or fingers, or knots!” ...
Prisoners sometimes got together in small groups to relax with a little singing, and the most serious members, like our Fr Frederic Vila, used the time for discussions on Moral Theology or other church topics.
Some ten Claretians passed through this dreadful prison, but only two of them would leave to meet their deaths: Br Antoni Vilamassana and Fr Frederic Vila.
BRO. ANTONIO VILAMASSANA
Antoni Vilamassana was born in Massoteres, province of Lleida, region of Segarra, on January 29th, 1860. His parents were Antoni and Josepa. At 23 years of age he entered the Congregation of the Missionary Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and four years later was sent to the difficult missions in Fernando Poo.
Br Antoni was distinguished by his formality, his love of work and his religious spirit. For two years he was in charge of the Banapá farm estate (1915-1916). This two year stint ended owing to his ill health: tropical living, under a harsh sun, rain and fatigue, did much to punish his body and forced him to return to the mainland. He was then sent to the community of Tarragona. There he continued working as a young man, doing all he could to attend to the needs of the community, made up primarily of Claretian teachers at the Pontifical University of Tarragona. When religious persecution scattered the community, with great generosity of spirit he offered, during those difficult days, to accompany Fr Frederic Vila, and both were arrested and taken to the floating steamship prison "Rio Segre", anchored in the port of Tarragona.
Br Antoni was the epitome of a missionary. His seventy-six years had not managed to impair his vigorous constitution nor his energy for the job. In the prison boat he continued to be as dedicated to helping others as ever. When on August 25th he was 'called', he made his confession, picked up some personal items and toiletries, in case he was to be moved to the boat named Uruguay in Barcelona, he said goodbye affectionately and went off quietly with the expedition, which was not to Uruguay but to the cemetery of Valls.
There were 24 victims on the truck. When they reached Valls, they broke into song along the road that crosses the Crec en un Deu, singing the beautiful Catalan Credo, and other religious hymns, and they managed to draw the following comments from an old lady, which serves perfectly as a eulogy: What beautiful songs they sang! They weren’t like those party songs, but really nice ones, and it was a pleasure to listen to them.
FR. FREDERIC VILA
Fr Frederic was born in the municipality of El Brull, province of Barcelona, in the Osona region, on March 3rd, 1884. His parents, Antonio and Dolors, educated their children in the Christian faith. The result of that education was the Claretian vocation of both Frederic and his brother Modest, and that of three sisters who chose to take the habit of the Dominicans of Fr Coll.
Frederic spent his childhood in Tona before entering the Vic Seminary Later he applied to be admitted into the Congregation of Claretian Missionaries. He was ordained in 1907. Endowed with a strong will and a good memory, he shone academically because of his fulsome knowledge of all kinds, for his work as a religious and researcher, and for all the great cultural activities that he managed to develop. He was a lecturer in the Claretian seminaries of Solsona and Cervera, and in the Pontifical University of Tarragona. It was here that he was caught out by the religious persecution in 1936.
Taking refuge in the apartment of the good sisters, Muntés, on July 24th the premises were searched, but without any major consequences. Only when the militiamen had left, Fr Vila, who could easily have passed as the owner of the house, forgot about the normal expression “Salud!”, as the circumstances demanded, and proffered the normal “Adios” ... This detail was a telling moment. They arrested him, they took him to the police station, and from there, convicted of being a priest and religious, they locked him up in Cabo Cullera, and two days later they took him to the Rio Segre. In his personal writings, Fr Vila described both the pain and anguish that overcame him at times, as well as the peace of soul and the comfort that the brothers of the Congregation instilled into him.
On the advice of the Commander, he made a request for release, and got it, thanks to Duran, the Archivist of Catalonia. Except that on November 11th, when they brought him the much anticipated release order, it was too late ... The F.A.I. had caught up with them during the night. Kicking and shouting, they got all the prisoners out of their beds and made up the list of the next expedition: 24 in total. On the ship’s bridge, they began together to pray a psalm, according to a witness, and apparently it was the Miserere.
They were taken by truck to the town of Torredembarra, and in a line against the cemetery wall, all breathed their last breath with a triumphant Long live Christ the King! ...
Fr. Frederic Vila was a leading figure among the Claretians of Catalonia. An outstanding teacher and writer, patient researcher and compiler of Claretian and congregational memories ... But above all, he was a soul of exquisite sensitivity and disarming goodness. On June 21st, 1959 his remains were transferred to a chapel in the church of San Agustín in Tarragona.