The Last Martyr of Mexico
4/1/2018by Juan Guajardo
The heroic witness of St. Pedro Maldonado, a member of the Knights, inspired the restoration of religious freedom to his state
The Cristero War had ended in 1929, but the persecution of the Church in Mexico wasn’t over.
Of the country’s 4,500 priests before the war, only 334 remained. Father Pedro Maldonado was one of only two priests in the Chihuahua state who stayed with his flock. On Ash Wednesday 1937, he finished hearing confessions in Santa Isabel Parish at around 3 p.m. and began his walk home. He had barely arrived when the silence was broken by rough knocks on the door. His attackers were waiting.
The priest changed out of his cassock, threw on his sombrero and asked a parishioner for two pyxes to protect the consecrated hosts. Outside, his parishioners valiantly tried to create a diversion to allow him time to escape, but to no avail. More than 25 raucous, armed men on horseback had arrived to apprehend him on false charges from anti-Catholic municipal officials.
Hours later, the beloved pastor was brutally beaten to death. Of the 25 Mexican martyrs that Pope John Paul II canonized May 21, 2000, Father Maldonado was one of six Knights of Columbus priests and the last of the martyrs to be killed. He became a saint of two cities — Chihuahua, where he ministered, and El Paso, Texas, where he was ordained 100 years ago and later exiled — and his witness continues to inspire Catholics on both sides of the border.
“The fact that he was ordained in El Paso is a blessing from God,” said Father Fernando Zapata, St. Maldonado’s great grandnephew and a priest of the Archdiocese of Chihuahua, at a recent celebration of the ordination anniversary (see sidebar). “That he was given the means here to spread the message in Chihuahua connects both dioceses and unites both cultures through a common faith and duty to serve Jesus Christ.”
A PASTOR AND OUTLAW
Pedro de Jesús Maldonado Lucero was born June 15, 1892 to Apolinar Maldonado and Micaela Lucero in Chihuahua, Mexico. The youngest of eight siblings, he excelled in his studies and showed an interest in the priesthood from childhood.
He followed God’s call and entered the seminary in 1909. His peers looked up to him for his devotion. In a biography titled El Mártir de Chihuahua (1992), Javier H. Contreras Orozco noted that after one session of spiritual exercises, the rector asked Pedro what went through his mind. The pious youth replied, “I have thought to have my heart always in heaven and in the tabernacle.”
As the bishop of Chihuahua recovered from an illness, Father Maldonado traveled to El Paso to be ordained on Jan. 25, 1918.
He returned to his native Chihuahua a few weeks later to celebrate his first Mass and begin his priestly duties. Despite being described as thin and frail by the townspeople, he energetically carried out his ministry with particular care for the spiritual well-being of families, as well as for the poor, the sick, and the native farm laborers known as campesinos.
Father Maldonado promptly started a “nocturnal adoration” ministry that blossomed to include at least nine area churches. In 1922, he formed one of the first Knights of Columbus councils in Chihuahua — Fray Alonso Briones Council 2419 — with the intention of drawing men closer to Christ. Two years later, he was assigned to Santa Isabel Parish.
Laity close to Father Maldonado knew his strong stance against Masonic sects, socialist education, anti-worship laws and agraristas— peasants armed to steal private property and turn it into common land.
His outspokenness didn’t sit well with authorities, and when President Plutarco Elías Calles’ regime broke open the dam of religious persecution in 1926, life became tougher for the priest and his faithful in Santa Isabel. Under Calles, Mexico’s anti-Catholic worship laws began to be zealously enforced throughout the state, resulting in a bloody civil war and the shuttering of churches, schools and seminaries.
In late 1926, the state issued a warrant for Father Maldonado’s arrest, accusing him of violating the country’s strict worship laws. The authorities relentlessly hunted the priest throughout the northeast region of the Chihuahua.
Forced into hiding to evade capture, Father Maldonado “went from ranch to ranch, living day by day, but he no longer celebrated the liturgy in homes to avoid endangering the residents,” wrote Orozco. “Instead, to throw his pursuers off his trail, he celebrated Mass outdoors, in caves and under trees.”
The authorities remained in pursuit in 1927, but Father Maldonado traveled through the cerros (hills) and slept in caves to avoid being seen. He celebrated Mass in silence, under the cover of darkness, and continued to hear confessions, baptize, preside at weddings and minister to the sick and dying.
A new wave of persecution broke out in 1931, and three years later, Father Maldonado was incarcerated, beaten and psychologically tortured by authorities before being exiled to El Paso, where he was aided by the Knights of Columbus.
‘¡VIVA CRISTO REY!’
Desiring to be near his flock, Father Maldonado returned to Chihuahua and remained there until his death.
On that fateful Ash Wednesday, Feb. 10, 1937, Santa Isabel’s municipal officials used false charges to call for his arrest. Some of the men who apprehended him still wore ashes on their foreheads.
They forced him to walk barefoot approximately 3 kilometers from his La Boquilla neighborhood to the city hall. Along the way, he and the parishioners accompanying him prayed the rosary.
When the group arrived at the building, one official grabbed Father Maldonado by the hair and punched him. Two others hit the defenseless priest over the head with the butts of their rifles. Bleeding heavily, Father Maldonado was dragged to the second floor, where the vicious attack continued. Several of his parishioners tried to defend him, but they were overpowered and thrown out of the building.
“That’s when one of the assailants mockingly fed him the Eucharist, which he was carrying with him and protecting,” recounted Father Zapata. The hosts had fallen, which prompted the assailant to say, “Here, eat your superstition.”
“But they didn’t know that was his last wish — not to die without receiving the Body of Christ,” explained Father Zapata. “That was how he entered martyrdom.
Father Maldonado’s attackers left him lying in a pool of his own blood, semiconscious. He was beaten so badly that his left eye was nearly dislodged from its socket, his skull was cracked, and his teeth were shattered. By the time a group of women parishioners were able to rescue him and get him to the hospital late that night, he was in a coma. He died the next day, on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, from severe brain trauma.
The priest’s death, ruled a murder, shocked the people of Chihuahua, and Catholics turned out en masse for his funeral procession, shouting, “Long live Christ the King! Long live the Virgin of Guadalupe! Long live Father Maldonado!” — just as Father Maldonado had vividly dreamed shortly before his martyrdom.
Although the newspapers gave the murder little publicity, it prompted local Catholics to establish religious freedom groups and begin lobbying the state government to respect the rights of the faithful. Two months later, on April 26, 1937, the governor of Chihuahua authorized the resumption of public worship. By May 1, church bells rang across Chihuahua once more.
Father Maldonado’s legacy remains an inspiration and an example of “peace, union and fraternity,” said Father Zapata, who recently became a member of St. Patrick Cathedral Council 16778 in El Paso. “Through his sacrifice, he shows us that, even when we’re surrounded by conflict, peace and love of Christ is stronger than any kind of violence.”
JUAN GUAJARDO is editor of North Texas Catholic, the publication of the Diocese of Fort Worth, and a member of Davis Lambright Council 4101 in White Settlement, Texas.
100 Years of Priestly Witness
El Paso faithful celebrate centenary of St. Pedro Maldonado’s ordination
ONE SAINT. Two cities. One hundred years.
The significance of those numbers did not go unnoticed by Catholics in the Diocese of El Paso, Texas. From Jan. 21-26, hundreds of faithful — including numerous Knights of Columbus and their families — came together to commemorate the 100th anniversary of St. Pedro Maldonado’s ordination, which took place in El Paso’s St. Patrick Cathedral Jan. 25, 1918.
Events included a talk on persecution, a musical about St. Pedro’s life, a Holy Hour, a panel discussion by friends and family of the saint, and a centennial Mass. One of the great blessings that came during the weeklong celebration was the gift of a relic — a piece of bone from St. Pedro’s hand — by the Archdiocese of Chihuahua to the Diocese of El Paso.
“We received that relic at the border crossing close to here, and we had a procession led by the Knights of Columbus,” explained Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso.
A shrine of St. Pedro was erected in the cathedral in 2005. The only shrine in the United States dedicated to a Knight of Columbus saint, it will now permanently house the relic.
“He began his commitment to Christ in a public way right here in our cathedral,” Bishop Seitz said. “How many dioceses can claim a saint? How many can say that one was ordained in their cathedral? We’re very proud that he is ours.”
Texas Knights of Columbus played a prominent role in the celebration. Following the centennial Mass, State Deputy Douglas Oldmixon observed that St. Pedro “provides to modern Knights an incredible example of charity — it’s the ultimate charity to lay down your life for your friends.”
Father Fabian Marquez, a priest of the Diocese of El Paso and a member of St. Thomas Aquinas Council 11926, also noted the special connection between the Knights and St. Pedro.
“Now,” he said, “they also have a responsibility to share and promote the life of one of our Knights — a Knight who is a martyr and a saint for the Church of Chihuahua, the Church of El Paso and the Church worldwide.” — Reported by Juan Guajardo