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Saturday, 21 April 2012

Fr Pro Juarez S.J. and companion Mexican martyrs

This post is a follow-up to the post on 'Whitesmokeahoy' - 'Viva Cristo Rey! Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!    

On 13th November, 1927, at Chapultepec Park, Mexico City, two bombs were thrown at a car in which   General  Obregon was travelling.  The bombs were thrown from a passing vehicle, and the damage caused was slight.  The  General,  although suffering minor cuts, was able to continue on his way to his intended destination, the bull-ring at Plaza de Toros, where he was due to meet President Calles.

                                         General Obregon

Immediately after the attack, General Otero and Colonel Martinez, who were following Obregon in a second car, pursued  the assailants, who when fired upon, abandoned their vehicle and tried to escape. Two succeeded, but two others Nahum Ruiz and Francisco Olivero, fell gravely wounded. A third man  was arrested at the scene, but  denied any involvement.

Of the wounded men Olivero died  soon after his capture, but Ruiz although in a coma, survived for two  days, long enough for  the police to claim that he had incriminated others in the plot. Although critically wounded, police claimed that he said, “Tell Father Miguel Pro Juarez, Senor Humberto Pro Juarez, and Senor Luis Segura Vilchis to hide” In fact there is no independent evidence that Ruiz spoke an intelligible word from the time he was wounded to the time of his death.

On the strength of this ‘statement’,  the three ‘named suspects’ were arrested immediately after the death of Ruiz. It was surely no coincidence that those arrested were three of the most prominent Catholics in the Federal Capital. The authorities knew them to be ardent Catholics, very influential in the Catholic community, and on that account alone, high on their wanted list.

                                      Fr Miguel Pro S.J.

The most important  prisoner was the Jesuit priest Fr Miguel Augustin Pro Juarez, generally known as Fr Pro. When arrested with his brother Humberto, they were sleeping at their father’s house, there being no suggestion or indication that they were attempting to hide, or were in hiding. Fr Pro was 37 years of age, but looked considerably younger often being taken for a student. He was of medium height, slim, and with easy, cultured manners. He had a long face, brown eyes, and abundant black hair brushed back from his forehead. He was born on 18th January 1891 in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico, into a well - respected family of comfortable means. He entered the Company of Jesus in August 1911, but with the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1914, he was forced to flee in disguise with fellow seminarians, to  Los Gatos, California, and Granada, Spain; after which he spent several  years teaching at the Jesuit College in Grenada, Nicaragua. In 1922 he went again to Europe to study theology, first at Barcelona and then at Enghien in Belgium, where he was ordained in the summer of 1925. In July 1926 he returned to Mexico City where he devoted himself wholeheartedly to his priestly mission.

Fr Pro outside Chapultepec Palace, residence of President Calles

In Mexico the wearing of clerical garb was forbidden, and to avoid detection by the State police, Fr Pro had many changes of clothing. He often heard Confessions from 5.30 a.m. to 11 a.m. and as he did not enjoy the best of health, was obliged on at least two occasions to leave the confessional prematurely, in an imminent state of collapse. He also suffered from stomach ulcers, which periodically obliged him to rest for a while.

He was meticulous in writing reports of everything he did, and he proved himself a most competent administrator, arranging secret meeting-places where confessions could be heard, and  establishing ‘Eucharistic Stations’ in houses where Holy Communion would be distributed on certain arranged days. Owing to the pertinacity of the Secret Police of whom there were 10,000 in Mexico City alone,  who were actuated mostly by a desire for money, these venues had to be frequently changed. He distributed Holy Communion to about 300 people daily, and on the first Friday of three months, the numbers ran to 900, 1300, and 1500.  In addition , he went around every morning on his brother’s bicycle, distributing Holy Communion to many people in their own home; and despite the vigilance of the Secret Police, he was able to perform all his priestly functions., including baptisms and weddings. He celebrated Mass frequently in private houses, in defiance of the law, which carried heavy penalties.  This entailed considerable personal risk, and on  three occasions the house where he was to celebrate Mass was surrounded by police, and he was only able to avoid capture by a combination of coolness, ingenuity, and youthful appearance.

Reports of his activities were known to the authorities, and they were eager to catch him. In the early days  they did not  know him by sight and did not suspect him when they saw him, for his youthful appearance, his light-hearted manner, his fashionable dress, and his moustache or lack of it, threw them completely off the scent.

He  preached Retreats to all classes of people, with varied meeting places, admission by ticket only, and constant surveillance. Private houses and offices were the usual venues, and on one occasion dressed in the blue overalls of a mechanic, Fr Pro lectured in the backyard of a private house to fifty taxi-drivers, who had asked him to give them a Retreat. He was fearless, for at a time when he was one of the most ‘wanted’ men in Mexico City, he visited the prisons daily, bringing gifts to the Catholic prisoners, but also hearing confessions and distributing Holy Communion whenever the opportunity arose; and on such occasions he disarmed suspicion by chatting amicably with the warders and gendarmes.

His activities bring to mind the Elizabethan novels of Monsignor Hugh Benson, who describes another Jesuit, Father Edmund Campion strolling gaily, in civilian clothes, into the Tower of London, and light-heartedly questioning Topcliffe, the notorious torturer who was soon afterwards to stretch him on the rack.

After their arrest, all four prisoners were kept for six days in one of the permanently damp underground cells of the Prefecture, the police headquarters, and were never permitted to see their relatives or legal advisers.  In spite of the fact that they all strongly denied any knowledge of, or involvement in, the attempted assassination, official police statements were released to the effect that Fr Pro had admitted and boasted of his involvement with both this and other plots. This was totally untrue, and in fact all the newspapers of Mexico City publicly asserted their belief in the priest’s innocence, braving the wrath of the violently anti-Catholic President Calles.  

Nevertheless all the leading newspapers in the United States published the official statement, issued by the government-controlled Mexican Press Bureau, that Fr Pro and his companions had admitted their guilt, and none of them troubled to correct this when it later became clear that this was not true.

Calles had the support of the powerful political and commercial interests  in the USA, indeed it was only through the support of these  anti-Catholic organisations who had their own vested interests, that Calles was able to initially seize and maintain power in Mexico. Generally speaking the average American was not really interested in events in Mexico, thus  the truth  could be watered down or even sacrificed if political or commercial  interests were judged by those in power to warrant it.

                             President Plutarco Elias Calles

The ‘patio’ or interior garden of the Police Prefecture was once a beautiful garden, as many old Spanish gardens in Mexico are, but it is now a horror, terrible to look at, a place of executions, of corpses and of blood; it is a Garden of Death, symbolic of the condition to which Calles and his kind have reduced beautiful Mexico. Executions are always by shooting at a  range of 20 to 30 feet.

On 23rd November, 1927, there was unusual activity outside the Prefecture, with two companies of mounted gendarmerie drawn up in front of the building, machine guns mounted on the roof, and many 'Generals' in attendance.  The rumour spread that the prisoners detained in connection with the attack on General Obregon were going to be executed, and a great crowd assembled but was not allowed near the Prefecture. At 10a.m. the grotesque performance began.


By a refinement of cruelty the prisoners had never been told that they were to die. None of them were aware of this until they entered the garden of death and saw the firing party. Fr Pro was the first to be brought from the underground prison, and it was clear from his words that he suspected the worst. Turning to his fellow prisoners, he said, “Adios, hermano mio! Adios, hijos mios!” (“Adieu, my brother!  Adieu, my sons!”). He then turned to the gendarme accompanying him, and the latter  asked his pardon, “Not only do I pardon you,” said the priest, “but I am extremely grateful to you”, and he embraced him. The priest then left the cell, walked up the stone steps of the cellar, and emerged into the garden.

The sight greeting Fr Pro Juarez confirmed his worst suspicions. The  belted ‘Generals’; the journalists with their notebooks; the photographers with  cameras, tripods, and black curtains; the soldiers lining the sides of the garden with, at one end, the ‘paredon’ and grotesque target figures; the Red Cross ambulance destined to convey the corpses to the hospital, presumably considered necessary in this case in view of the international interest in the case; and finally the firing party.

Fr Pro was accompanied by an army officer to the ‘paredon’, where he asked that he be allowed to pray. His request was granted, and after declining the offer of a blindfold, Fr Pro  knelt on the ground taking from his pocket a plain brass crucifix which he kissed. This crucifix had been given to him when he took his vows. The young priest knelt bolt upright, his eyes closed, his arms folded on his breast, a picture of saintly dignity and recollection in that place of squalor and death. After about two minutes he rose to his feet, his countenance aglow as if from some mighty inspiration, and facing the throng,  he raised his right hand in the  gesture of a prophet, and  made the sign of the cross over them; “Dios tenga compassion de vosotros!” he said, “Que Dios los bendiga! Senor, Tu sabes que soy inocente. Perdono de todo Corazon a mis enemigos.” (“God have mercy on you! May God bless you.  Lord! Thou knowest that I am innocent.  With all my heart, I pardon my enemies.”)

Fr Pro Juarez S.J. at the 'paredon' - seconds before his  martyrdom

There was no sense of loneliness and abandonment in his final moments;  on the contrary a strange exultation shone in his face as if he already felt himself shaded by the mighty wings of his patron, San Miguel, the Archangel of Death;  as if he saw in the sky towards which his eyes were raised, the figure of Christ the King, crowned, enthroned,  triumphant, omnipotent. On seeing the firing squad take aim, the priest opened his arms in the form of a cross, at the same time cried out in a loud voice “Viva Cristo Rey!” (“Hail, Christ the King!”). There was a  simultaneous report from five rifles, and Fr Pro was dead. A final coup de grace was effected when the sergeant in charge of the firing party placed the muzzle of his rifle some six inches from the dead man’s right temple, and fired a final round.


The second victim was the engineer, Luis Segura Vilchis, who  before being led to the ‘paredon’, amazed his guards by saying, “Estoy seguro que dentro de unos instantes estare en el Cielo” (“I am sure that within a few seconds I shall be in Heaven”). There was an extraordinary serenity in his face and in his movements, and he glanced gently but fearlessly and even pityingly at the photographers and reporters, and the soldiers with their rifles, and the officers with their swords.

            Luis Segura Vilchis on his way to the 'paredon', accompanied by Police Chief Mazcorro

The Christian spectator suddenly realised that swords, rifles and revolvers were the playthings of children, and dangerous playthings, and that Segura Vilchis alone had done the work of a man and was now going to receive his reward. On being summoned Segura walked unfalteringly to the end of the garden, more like a young athlete  going to receive his prize, or a young king who goes to mount his throne, than a condemned man  going to his death. Glancing reverently at the dead body of Fr Pro, he turned with gentle gravity and  perfect self-possession, to face the firing party. His hands were behind him, his chest was thrown out, his head was well back; not by the twinkle of an eyelid or the twitch of a muscle or the slightest change of colour did he show that he was afraid; incredible as it seemed, it was obvious that he was not afraid. Addressing the firing party, he said in a quiet conversational tone: “Estoy dispuesto, senores” (“I am ready gentlemen”) A loud report and Vilchis was dead, with  the formality of a final bullet to the head.

      Luis Segura Vilchis at the' paredon' - the body of Fr Pro is on the ground

The third victim was Humberto Pro, the younger brother of the priest. He also was superbly cool and self-possessed, and while passing in front of the spectators,  took from the right-hand pocket of his coat a little leather purse, and from it drew a religious medal. He then stood perfectly upright, head thrown back, legs close together, like a soldier at attention who awaits the coming of his commanding officer.. He first joined his hands in front of his body, holding the medal, then he drew his coat further open as if to allow the bullets to pass more freely. He politely declined the offer of a blindfold,  glanced  gently  at the gendarmes, and turned his eyes heavenward. Another loud report and  Humberto  was dead, with again the formality of a final bullet to the head.

          Humberto Pro at the 'paredon' - the bodies of Fr Pro and Luis Vilchis are on the ground


The last victim was the young Mexican workman Juan Tirado Arias, just 20 years old. Suffering from severe pulmonary congestion contracted in the damp underground dungeon, he was barely able to walk. Trembling with fear and horrified at the sight of the three corpses, he asked twice to see his mother, both  requests  being ignored.  Told where to stand, he too was shot, again with the formality of a final bullet to the head.


The four bodies were then taken by Police ambulance to the Juarez hospital. En route the word ‘martyr’  spread among the bystanders, with men raising their hats, and finally all the people kneeling. At the hospital, Don Miguel Pro, the 76 year old father of the two martyrs, went first to the body of the priest and reverently kissed the forehead, then as  he approached the body of Humberto, he heard and saw  his daughter sobbing.  “Nada de llora, hija.” (“Daughter, there is nothing to weep for.”) he said.

The bodies of Fr Pro and his brother were carried to their father’s house. During the day the people came in thousands to show reverence to them. The sight of the aged father kneeling beside the bodies of his two sons brought tears to the eyes of many, but he needed no words of consolation; “The priest was an apostle,” he said, "and my boy Humberto lived like an angel all his life. They died for God and are already happy in heaven.”

Their funeral took place on the same day, and as soon as the cortege gathered in the street, silence fell on  the crowd and all knelt. Then as if inspired by one thought, all rose together and the air rang with the cry,  ”Hail, Christ the King”,  “ Hail! Hail! Our martyrs!”  All traffic had to be suspended, with an  estimated  10,000 people, praying aloud, singing hymns, and proclaiming and honouring ‘Christ the King’. At the cemetery some 20,000 people were present, sobs were heard as the aged father of the two victims cast the first shovelful of earth on the coffin, but when the grave was filled, the old man stood up and asked the priests to intone the ‘Te Deum’. He united his voice to theirs, and the whole multitude joined with him in reciting this prayer of thanksgiving to God .

Similar scenes were enacted at the funeral of Luis Vilchis in another part of the city, and on the following day the funeral of the fourth victim John Antony Tirado, took place at the same cemetery as the Pro brothers. He had been a labouring man, living in extreme poverty with his parents, who were so poor that they could not afford to convey his body from the hospital to his home;  in addition his father was blind. Catholic friends helped to bring the body to his home, and the next day this poor and unknown man was followed to the grave by a multitude as large as that which had followed the Pro brothers. The people, by their presence, showed their contempt of the government charge that Tirado was an assassin and traitor, and instead professed openly their belief that he suffered simply because of his Faith.

Roberto Pro, the brother of Fr Pro, whose life was saved by the intercession of the Argentine Ambassador, was ordered to leave Mexico, and told that if he returned he would be shot.  All his property, as well as that of his father and sister, has  been confiscated. Their friends testify to the Christian courage and even joy with which they bear their cross, which they honour as the cross of Christ.

The execution of these four men was murder. There had been no trial; the defendants had not been allowed access to family or legal representation; the 'justification' for their arrest was based  on an alleged and unproven remark by a critically injured prisoner who had since died, and a suggestion that the car used in the attempted assassination, had at some time been associated with a member of the Pro family. The refusal to try the defendants merely confirms the total lack of any credible evidence against them. The government  had neither the legal power nor the constitutional right to order or enforce the executions;  the list of illegalities, procedural irregularities, and blatant injustices in this case, is virtually endless. The reality is that they were executed on account of their Catholic faith, and as  a direct result of the pathological and demonic hatred of President Plutarco Elias Calles, for all things Catholic.

Ack. 'Red Mexico' by Capt F. McCullagh
          Published by Brentano's Ltd. London. (1928)
   'Dedicated  by the author to Our Lady of Guadalupe' 

  • Movie about Miguel Pro, S.J. -- A clip from the new Mexican-made film on Fr Pro, from Loyola Productions   (don't be put off if you don't understand Spanish - the action speaks louder than words!)
On September 25th, 1988, Fr Pro Juarez S.J.  was beatified  by Pope John Paul II.

Blessed Miguel Pro Juarez and all those brave and holy Mexican martyrs, pray for us all.

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