On the Feast of Stephen

In the midnight Mass in Ibiza cathedral, bishop Vicente Juan Segura reminded the small faithful remnant – about fifty Ibicenco Catholics attending – of the need to evangelize and proclaim the mystery that the Creator of the universe became a Child among men, so that we might participate fully in His life and his plan for creation.  I don’t think I would have been struck so powerfully by these words had I not spent much of the previous twenty-four hours researching the witness of the priest martyrs of the Diocese of Ibiza.

Ibiza cathedral Christmas Day 2014

Ibiza cathedral Christmas Day 2014

Virgin Mary and Child, Ibiza cathedral Christmas Day 2014

Virgin Mary and Child, Ibiza cathedral Christmas Day 2014

As you may gather, if you read my earlier post about Ibiza, I was not terribly impressed by the Hotel Montesol, but see how the history of this dark building is further developed in this account related here.  Nor was I impressed with the present state of Ibiza town, for it is a run-down tourist spot that has now reached a low point in the cycle of resorts, but once it was a place with a vibrant local community and culture which I was privileged to witness in its last dying days in the early 1960s.  As a schoolboy at that time – first at the Graduada and then at the Instituto Santa Maria de Enseñanza Media, I remember the parades in the street during Catholic festivals and the impact they made upon me.

The statues of the saints were paraded through the streets, men and women dressed in traditional costume, bands played, and the troops strutted grimly behind the Catholic crosses and banners, their olive-green steel helmets and bayonets glinting in the Mediterranean sun. In our history lessons in school, Capitan Nuñez – who led the blue-shirted boys of the national movement firing ancient Martini rifles on Saturday mornings on Es Codolar beach – hinted darkly that we needed to defend the faith against the anarchism that represented murder and savagery.  Capitan Nuñez’s anarchist bogeyman was to me a vague but potent idea – for no other adults ever talked about it – and in the following fifty years I still had not learnt the details.

This Christmas I learned what happened in Ibiza, and the priest martyrs of 1936 have made today a special feast of St Stephen for me. Christian martyrdom is more than a distant concept, for in these past twenty-four hours I have been astonished by the history of Ibiza in 1936.  I thought I knew Ibiza well enough, but didn’t know it at all. The story began when I went to the cathedral, simply to find out the times of Christmas Masses.  I picked up the December diocesan newsletter, and on the back page was the story of the twenty-one priest martyrs of 1936.

"Església d'Eivissa i Formentera," diocesan newsletter, December 2014

“Església d’Eivissa i Formentera,” diocesan newsletter, December 2014

Under the present Bishop of Ibiza Vicente Juan Segura the diocese has spent the past two years publishing the biographies of twenty-one of its priests who were murdered in August and September 1936.  Their cause has been taken up and they will hopefully be canonised one day as martyrs and saints. Their violent deaths happened during a short-lived Republican and anarchist take-over of the islands of Ibiza and Formentera in August 1936, before they were in turn re-taken by Nationalist forces in September 1936. Thereafter – with a failed invasion by Republicans in Mallorca – the conflict was finished in the Balearic islands, but the devastation of the diocese of Ibiza remains a lasting witness to the unimaginable horror of anti-Christian violence visited upon an island people of traditional Catholic faith; people who had little real political interest on either side of the civil war.  (Some further account of these matters can be read here and here.)

Alberto Bayo, a Cuban-born Republican naval air captain based in Barcelona led an invasion of Formentera and Ibiza in several warships in early August 1936 with anarchist forces from Valencia in support.  The undisciplined anarchists created a reign of terror on Ibiza which the regular troops under Bayo could not control.  In fact Bayo was more interested in using Ibiza to invade the more strategically important island of Mallorca, and when he left – on a failed attempt to achieve that objective – the anarchists in Ibiza were left to run riot.  All the priests of the island, together with about eighty right-wing sympathisers, were held by the anarchists in the castle on the hill in Ibiza.

The fortress at the top of Ibiza town where the 21 priests of the diocese were held.

The fortress at the top of Ibiza town where the 21 priests of the diocese were held.

The tunnels leading to the fortified d'Alt Vila, Ibiza

The tunnels leading to the fortified d’Alt Vila, Ibiza

As news of the invasion of the island by Nationalists came to the anarchists in Ibiza town on 13th September 1936, they set up machine guns in the cathedral square at the top of the town and machine-gunned all their prisoners, including all of Ibiza’s priests who were imprisoned there.

Yesterday, Christmas day, I walked from Ibiza to Sant Jordi de ses Salines and visited the church where three of these priests were baptised, raised in the Catholic faith, confirmed and received their vocations.  I prayed there for priests Antoni Ramon Orvay (born 14 February 1896), Josep Tur Ferrer (born 21 November 1909), and Josep Serra Ribas (born 7th July 1911); all machine-gunned in Ibiza town by anarchists on 13th September 1936, simply for being Catholic priests.  These three were from San Jordi, and I mention them only because I went to visit their home church to pray for them.  (The names of the other eighteen can be seen here.)

Sant Jordi church

Sant Jordi church, Christmas Day 2014

Sant Jordi se Salines - a rare example of a fortified church

Sant Jordi ses Salines – a rare example of a fortified church

As senior figures in the Catholic Church today seem prepared to throw away the faith (for example the Bishops of England and Wales, in their letter to clergy just a few days before Christmas), it is good to remember priests who died as witnesses to the faith.  It is also important to remember that Christian martyrdom has sometimes taken place in the very pretty, sunny Mediterranean resorts that many people happily associate with carefree days in the sun, and never think twice about the recent past.

As I finished my research into these matters yesterday, talking to an old resident of Ibiza, I discovered that the very hotel I was staying in, the Montesol built in 1931, was originally called the “Grand Hotel”.  After the Nationalist army gained control of the island this hotel was used for the military tribunals that sent Republicans to the firing squad in the very same fortress where the priests were machine-gunned.  It put the final impression on my last night’s stay in the shabby hotel I had already decided to leave early, and I checked out of the place in some haste this morning.

“I hope your room was satisfactory,” said the grim man at the desk, when I told him I was leaving early.

“The wash basin needs a plug,” I said.  I couldn’t be bothered with the rest of the list. And I left.

The Hotel Montesol Ibiza: a place where people were once sent to the firing squad. Now, not fatal, but just a very bad hotel.

The Hotel Montesol Ibiza: a place where people were once sent to the firing squad. Now, not fatal, but just a very bad hotel.


About Gareth Thomas

After a mixed career as an aircraft technician, London fringe theatre playwright, Franciscan friar, and secondary school teacher, I find myself looking after the needs of four donkeys in a remote location in the mountains in the Costa Blanca. I like to listen to BBC Radio 4 and the wind in the pine trees. I am writing a comedy about a school in Benidorm. My favourite film of all time is "Jean de Florette". If I had my time again I would not have spent the early 1970s working for Special Branch.
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