In the Footsteps of a Martyr Knight
6/1/2014Father ’Rick LaBrecque
Wednesday, June 26, 2013, dawned dark and dreary in Tecolotlán, a small, five-century-old city in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. I joined a group of locals aboard a tired-looking bus, and we began to crawl our way uphill and out of town, through the woods. As we ascended the steep slope of Quila Mountain, protected from the elements in our cozy little bus, I recalled what took place this same day 86 years earlier.
Early in the morning of June 26, 1927, a far different cavalcade made the same ascent in the cold and rain. No one then traveled by bus or car; most were mounted on horses and carried guns. In their midst, 39-year-old Father José María Robles Hurtado, the parish priest of Tecolotlán, marched along on foot. The previous day, he had been taken prisoner by the agraristas, peasants armed by the anticlerical revolutionary Mexican government. Father Robles had been condemned for treason for allegedly supporting the Cristero rebellion.
During my missionary experience in Tecolotlán June 21-July 9, I was invited to serve as a temporary chaplain for the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a religious order founded by Father Robles, at their home for the aged. I likewise assisted Father José María Hernandez Alvarado, Father Robles’ present-day successor, with ministry to the local parish church and chapels. The residents, whose parents and grandparents were parishioners of the future saint and martyr, had many stories to recount.
RELIGIOUS FREEDOM AT RISK
The 1920s and 30s was a complicated era in Mexican history, as the federal government worked to marginalize the Church and curb freedom of religion and worship. A new constitution implemented in 1917 forbade the Church from owning property and operating schools, and stripped priests of civil and political rights. In the name of Christ, Our Lady of Guadalupe and religious freedom, there emerged both nonviolent resistance and an armed rebellion called the Cristiada, its name taken from the rallying cry: “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” (“Long live Christ the King!”).
The resistance was concentrated in the west central area of the country and the Bajio, where Guadalajara is the principal city. José María Robles was ordained a priest there in 1913 at the age of 25, and he soon joined Knights of Columbus Council 1979.
When the Cristero rebellion began more than a decade later, the young priest was serving as pastor of the historic parish of St. Augustine in Tecolotlán. His was a dynamic, multi-faceted ministry, responding to the diverse challenges of his pastoral assignment. Just two years after his ordination, he founded a congregation of religious called the Victims of the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus, known today as the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. A prolific writer, he also published devotional and catechetical works, as well as religious poetry.
Father Robles’ enthusiasm and devotion were contagious; religious education and lay groups began to thrive at his parish. He continued to author religious pamphlets and newsletters to spread the Gospel and address controversial issues as they arose. He also traveled a great deal on horseback to outlying chapels in order to serve the communities on the parish’s peripheries; this included the small farming community in Quila, a nearby mountaintop village. At the turnoff from the Pacific Highway to Tecolotlán, Father Robles constructed a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, which served travelers as well as the surrounding residents.
On Jan. 11, 1923, the Mexican hierarchy and faithful proclaimed Jesus Christ as “Rey de la Nación” “King of the Nation” and dedicated an enormous statue of Jesus atop Cubilete Mountain in the geographic center of the country. That same day, Father Robles assembled the faithful from his and neighboring parishes at the highest point of Tecolotlán. There, around a huge cross he had erected, all swore fidelity to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Meanwhile, the situation continued to deteriorate for the Church in Mexico. For several years, Father Robles was not affected, as the civil officials of Tecolotlán were his friends and practicing Catholics. However, on March 18, 1926, the Jalisco state government published a decree requiring all priests serving in churches to be registered and authorized by civil authorities. Archbishop Francisco Orozco y Jiménez urged priests to stay in their parishes, but not to register. Father Robles complied and preached openly against this movement of secularism.
Three months later, Mexican President Plutarco Elías Calles issued stringent penalties and restrictions against the Church to take effect July 31. Among other anti-clerical provisions, “La Ley Calles” the Calles Law required that all churches and priests register with the state and drastically reduced the number of priests licensed to serve the Mexican people.
The bishops responded with passive resistance and suspended all public worship beginning the same day. Father Robles distributed holy Communion at midnight on July 30 to a large congregation, which filled the church to overflowing; he then carried the Blessed Sacrament to his private residence. By order of the local government, Father Robles moved out of his rectory the next day. Finding refuge in the home of parishioners, he continued shepherding his large flock by leading popular devotions and religious meetings, privately administering the sacraments, and caring for the sick and dying.
On the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Dec. 12, 1926, the mayor sent word to Father Robles that an order had been issued for his arrest and that he ought to go into hiding. He did for a while, but he emerged briefly after the new year to lead a rededication of the hilltop cross in Tecolotlán on the monument’s one-year anniversary. Several men who were present at the ceremony would go on to join the Cristero rebellion. Father Robles blessed them, gave them a banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe and encouraged them to be willing to give their lives for Christ in defense of the faith.
Six days later, a neighboring priest was taken by agraristas to the cross and hanged from a tree. The blood of martyrs had begun to flow. Upon hearing this, Father Robles exclaimed, “I will be next!” From that moment on, he moved from one house to another and celebrated Mass in secret. Many people knew where he was, but the authorities never found him.
Realizing that Father Robles continued to minister to and inspire the people, the authorities finally ordered a house-to-house search. On June 25, the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Father Robles was preparing to celebrate a private Mass when he heard a knock on his door. He opened it immediately, identified himself and submitted to arrest. Marched through the streets to the agraristas’ barracks, he smiled and greeted people along the way. He was given food, writing materials and left alone. He wrote a final prayer of dedication to the Sacred Heart and a letter to his mother, lovingly bidding her farewell and embracing God’s plan.
Around midnight, seven agraristas led Father Robles from the prison and began the cold, treacherous march up the mountain. Reaching the summit some four hours later, the men led the priest to the foot of an oak “roble” in Spanish, a word also used to describe someone as a “pillar of strength.”
An eyewitness to the execution reported that Father Robles fell to his knees, prayed quietly for a few moments, pronounced a blessing on his parish and pardoned his captors. After kissing the ground, he then stood up. One of the agraristas approached him with the rope that had been tied to the tree. Recognizing the man, Father Robles took the rope from his hands and said, “Compadre, don’t soil your hands,” and placed the noose around his own neck. Then they hanged him. Once he had died, they cut down the martyr’s body and left it under the tree. People from the village later retrieved Father Robles’ body for burial.
And so, 86 years later to the day, our weary bus chugged to a stop near the site where Father Robles had laid down his life for the faith in 1927. A few years ago, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus built a beautiful shrine there. Furnishings in the sanctuary were made from the oak tree from which Father Robles was hanged. Pilgrims come continuously to honor the saint and martyr, whom Pope John Paul II canonized May 21, 2000, together with 24 other Mexican martyrs. Including St. José María Robles, six of them were Knights of Columbus.
The day of our visit, perhaps appropriately, continued to be damp, but the fervor and enthusiasm of us pilgrims was not. A beautiful Mass, picnic, and cultural presentation of music and dance united us in thanking God for this valiant Knight, pastor, martyr and saint.
FATHER ’RICK LABRECQUE is a retired priest of the Diocese of Charleston, S.C., where he has worked to spread the Order among Hispanic parishioners. A native of Waterbury, Conn., the birthplace of Venerable Michael McGivney, he is a member of Father William G. Kinney Jr. Council 14892 in Loris, S.C., and St. James the Younger Assembly 3166 in Conway.