Funeral procession with two coffins – one white and one black. The Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca stamps on the reverse of these postcards suggest that this may be the funeral procession for Rafael and Vicente Acevedo, who were executed on Aug. 6, 1926. (“Cristero Rebellion Martyrs photo album and postcard collection.” 2023, November 13. https://sites.nd.edu/rbsc/cristero-rebellion-martyrs-photo-album-and-postcard-collection)
By Vero Gutiérrez
In 1926, many Catholics in Mexico took up arms against the Mexican army and began what became known as the “Cristero War.”
Although most bishops and even Pope Pius XI agreed that violence was not the way to resolve the conflict, the brutal war was to continue for three bloody years. On November 18, 1926, Pope Pius XI issued the encyclical Iniquis afflictisque (“On the Persecution of the Church in Mexico”) to denounce the violent anticlerical persecution.
In 1924, Plutarco Elias Calles, known for openly promoting an anticlerical government, was elected president. Two years later, in 1926, Calles used Article 130 of the 1917 Mexican Constitution to justify the promulgation of the “Calles Law.” This interpretation of Article 130 limited the number of priests, required a license and registration with the authorities to practice as a priest, prohibited foreign priests from exercising their ministry and forbade any public manifestation of the faith, such as processions and the celebration of Mass.
Shortly thereafter, in an effort to protest the “Calles Law,” an economic boycott was organized through the newly formed National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty, founded in 1925 by several groups, including the Knights of Columbus. The League urged people not to pay taxes, buy products marketed by the government, or buy lottery tickets.
In addition, numerous protests were carried out, and all legal means to repeal the “Calles Law” were tried. However, these protests provoked even more radical measures of restriction, including the persecution of Religious, priests and laity. The lower and western states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Colima, Jalisco, Aguascalientes and part of Zacatecas felt the conflict intensely.
The bishops of Mexico decided that public worship should be suspended for the safety of the faithful. However, they gave priests the freedom to continue their ministry at their own risk.
Despite the non-violent efforts to restore justice, many priests were shot without trial, often testifying to their faith before their executions and offering forgiveness to their executioners. Twenty-five of these martyred priests were later declared Saints by the Catholic Church. Members of the Mexican Army also shot Blessed Father Miguel Agustin Pro. His cause for canonization is currently in process (see Saints, page 16).
There were also lay martyrs who were declared Saints, such as Jose Sanchez del Rio, a 14-year-old boy who had the soles of his feet cut off and was forced to walk to a grave where he was shot.
Hostilities intensified in 1927 and continued through 1929, resulting in the deaths of 90,000 Catholics. Those who resisted the army were mostly composed of peasants and veterans of the Mexican Revolution. The resistors became known as the “Cristeros” because their battle cry was “Viva Cristo Rey!” (“Long Live Christ the King!”).
The rebellion ended by diplomatic means brokered by the American Ambassador Dwight W. Morrow, with financial relief and logistical assistance provided by the Knights of Columbus. After President Plutarco Elias Calles left the government, and the new president, Emilio Portes Gil was installed, a peace pact was signed on June 21, 1929, finally putting an end to the Cristero persecution. The new government agreed to return Church property if the Catholic Church in Mexico agreed to cease its participation in the nation’s political life.
Testimonies of lay people who participated in the Cristero War
Geronimo Solis (Great-Grandfather of Francisco Uribe, Parishioner of the Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist in Boise)
Francisco Uribe, a parishioner at the Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist in Boise, said that his maternal great-grandfather, Gerónimo Solís, who was born in Teocuitatlán, Jalisco, was a member of the group of Guadalupanos.
When the Cristero War broke out, he had already moved to the city of Concepción, Buenos Aires, Jalisco, where he was married and the father of nine children.
Members of the army arrested Solis while he was working in the fields because he was a member of a religious group. Federal forces put a noose around his neck and began his execution. Providentially, a group of friends realized he had been captured and managed to sever the rope with their shotguns, saving him from certain death.
Undaunted, Solis and his family later sheltered a priest who was being hunted by the army.
The family hid the priest in a room where firewood was kept. According to Uribe, the Army officer said, “We know you have a priest hidden here.” Without hesitation, Uribe’s great-grandfather is remembered to have replied, “There is no priest here, and you can go in and look.”
The Army searched the whole house but could not find the priest. The soldiers even thrust their swords into the woodpile, but the priest was safefly hidden deep within the huge mountain of wood.
Later, the priest was moved to the forest and the family brought him food for a week until he was out of danger. They even supplied him with a horse so he could leave town.
When the situation in the country was safer, Uribe’s great-grandfather and his family received a visit from the priest, who came to thank them for risking their lives to save him from his persecutors.
Inés Villa (Great-Grandmother of Father Camilo García, Pastor of St. Nicholas in Rupert)
“When I was a seminarian, I always liked to visit my great-grandmother during my vacations because she was a very good conversationalist, and I liked to listen to her stories, like this one about the times of the Cristero War in Mexico,” said Father Camilo Garcia.
Inés Villa was baptized in the Cathedral of Tacámbaro, Michoacán, and lived most of her life in Tecario, a very small town 30 minutes from Tacámbaro.
Tecario, a small village surrounded by mountains, was the ideal place to hide from the soldiers who hunted Catholics. The parents of Father Camilo’s grandmother had to be vigilant and hide their daughters in the bushes to protect them from the soldiers who came to loot the houses and abuse the women.
During the persecution of the Church, the priests went into hiding, but they continued to visit families to encourage them to pray and they celebrated the sacraments in secret when they could.
Father Camillo’s grandmother, Inés Villa, who was a teenager during the Cristero War, survived thanks to the care of her father and mother. She died in 2010 at the age of 104.
Father Garcia related that the first rector of the Seminary of Tacámbaro, Father José Ramírez, was one of the priests who died as a martyr during the Cristero War. Like the boy St. José Sanchez del Río, Father Ramírez was martyred by having the soles of his feet cut off and then being dragged by horses to the cemetery where the soldiers shot him.
Ramiro Terriquez (The father of Father Enrique Terriquez, retired priest)
Ramiro Terriquez was born to a Catholic family. His father, a hard-working man who knew many trades, worked as a farmer as well as a barber.
When Ramiro was only 15 years old, soldiers captured him because he was a messenger for the Cristeros. The army was taking him to be hanged when the villagers intervened to free him. They told the soldiers that this boy, Ramiro, was the son of Mr. Terriquez, who, days before, had been working as a barber for the soldiers. They released him in recognition of the service his father had given them.
Ramiro Terriquez and Soledad Santana, father and mother of Father Enrique Terriquez. (Courtesy photo/Father Enrique Terriquez).
Many years later, when Father Enrique decided to become a priest, he was sent from Mexico to study in a seminary in the United States. Church authorities in the United States had opened the seminary years before, during the Cristero War, to help the Mexican Church by housing its seminarians. This institution, originally for seminarians in exile, was in an old hotel in Montezuma, New Mexico. The 7,000-square-foot facility in the middle of the mountains was called the Pontifical National Seminary of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
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