In a quiet residential neighborhood in Madrid, far from the tourist-crowded Plaza del Sol and the Gran Via, lies a tiny side street called Blanca de Navarra. Many of the buildings on this beautiful street were built in the early twentieth century, with ornate facades and balconies filled with flowers lining each window. Most of these are apartment buildings with stores or restaurants taking up the ground floors. There is a charming flower shop, two modern art galleries, a high-end dress store, and a men’s casual clothing boutique. At the very end of this street lies a building that takes up the entire corner of the block, and the only clues that it is a convent are the pointed arches that line the chapel windows and the sisters dressed in grey who occasionally come in and out of the convent doors.
When you enter the main door you walk through a foyer where flyers are pinned to bulletin boards and religious books for sale are displayed in glass cases. If you push open the heavy wooden door to your left you will find yourself standing in the back of a small chapel, filled with a palpable sense of peace and calm, a quiet refuge in the midst of the bustling streets outside. As you stand in the back of this chapel, something immediately catches your attention—it is located on the left wall near the back of the chapel, and it is a large painting of a young woman in full habit, with dark hair and eyes, and a radiant smile on her face. Below the painting in black calligraphy is written: “Beata Maria de los Angeles, April 3, 1894 – August 26, 1936.
Blessed Maria of the Angels worked, prayed, and lived in this convent when the Spanish Civil War and its anti-clerical violence broke out in Madrid in the summer of 1936. Her body is buried in the vault directly behind the painting of her radiant face. I have sat in that chapel many times, gazing at her portrait, wondering at her courage, and admiring her joyfulness, which lives on in the sisters of her Order, the Zealous Sisters of Eucharistic Adoration, who give their lives in prayer and service in that convent, just as she did eighty years ago. Since it is the anniversary of Blessed Maria’s death, what better way to celebrate her memory than by sharing the example she has left us in the story of her life and her death?
Blessed Maria of the Angels was born Angela Ginard Martí in the town of Lluchmayor, on the island of Mallorca. The second of nine children, little Angela was remembered as a joyful and affectionate girl, who was devoted to her family. She had a happy childhood and she enjoyed spending time with her family, but as she got older it became evident that she had different interests than other girls her age. When her sisters began to go out with friends to the movies, or attend other social events, Angela preferred to stay home with her younger siblings, teaching them their prayers and catechism, and reading to them the stories of the Early Christian Martyrs, which were her favorite. Her younger sister once related a conversation she had with Angela:
“She was reading to me about the martyrdom of the early Christians in the Roman Circus, and she said: ‘how wonderful to die that way, what joy! I would like to do the same…and you?’ And I answered her, ‘how horrible! Not me!’”
When her family moved to the city of Palma, Angela learned to embroider so that she could help her family, whose financial means were not sufficient to support a family of 11. She was a hard worker and soon her embroidery was in demand among the wealthy women of Palma. Besides this work, she helped her mother run the household and she was especially attentive to the education and care of her younger siblings, who later recalled that Angela treated them as if she was their own mother. During this time she attended daily mass, made frequent visits to the church to pray before the Blessed Sacrament, and prayed the rosary with her family.
When Angela’s family circumstances improved and her parents agreed, she entered as a postulant in the Congregation of the Zealous Sisters of Eucharistic Adoration. After some time in Palma, then in the Order’s houses in Madrid and Barcelona, she made her final vows and took the name Sr. Maria of the Angels. She was sent back to the house in Madrid and appointed the administrator of the convent, a role she fulfilled faithfully.
Sr. Maria was well-liked by the other sisters and they later remembered her devotion to any task she was given—whether it was embroidering the cloths used for the altar, preparing the bread that would be made into hosts, or the long hours she spent in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament praying for the Church and the conversion of sinners, she did everything with the utmost care and attention.
Of course, she had not forgotten her longing for martyrdom that had first been inspired by the lives of the Christian Martyrs in Rome. One day, as the civil unrest in Spain increased, and news of churches being burned and priests and nuns being threatened had reached the convent, Sr. Maria was praying during Adoration and told God that she wanted to give her life if it was His will.
Tensions were building in Spain between those who supported the new government, which was democratic yet extremely anti-Catholic, and those who protested the government’s anti-clerical measures. Madrid was a hotbed of conflict, and violence and political assassinations were commonplace. This was the climate the sisters lived in, as they continued their daily work and intensified their prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. The nuns, like so many other religious in Spain at the time, were well aware that their lives were in danger, but they prayed for the conversion of those who were persecuting priests and religious, and they went about their normal daily lives. When a sister would become overwhelmed with fear Sr. Maria would encourage her, saying, “What can happen to us? All they can do is kill us, nothing more.”
By the time the Spanish Civil War officially broke out on July 20, 1936 the priest who used to say mass for the sisters had removed the Eucharist from the tabernacle and had given the chalices to Julian Martinez for safekeeping. Martinez was the doorman for one of the buildings near the convent and he was a good friend to the sisters. A few days after the war began, he was the one who came to warn the sisters that the Reds were coming for them, and that they had to leave immediately. The nuns, dressed in regular clothes, split up, going to stay at the homes of friends who lived in the area. It was decided that Sr. Maria would go right across the street and pretend to be a servant working for José Brusa and Araceli Gonzalez de Quevedo.
Unfortunately, because of her proximity, she could see everything that took place when the Reds finally did come and take over the convent building. They danced in the chapel, destroyed statues, and brought sacred images out into the street to be broken or burned. Sr. Maria wept when she saw such precious objects destroyed before her very eyes, and she could do nothing to save them. She told one of the other sisters hiding in the same building that she did not fear for her life, but to see the chapel and sacred objects profaned caused her much suffering.
Finally, on August 25, 1936, militiamen from one of the anarchist groups in Spain came to the apartment to take Sr. Maria away. At first, they confused a relative of the owner of the house for Sr. Maria, but she quickly stepped forward and very calmly said, “This woman is not a nun, let her go, I am the only nun here.”
Witnesses said that Sr. Maria went with her captors without a complaint. They led her to a car outside, and drove her to an area of Madrid known as the Checa de Bellas Artes. The next day, some men brought her to a park outside of the city, and shot her. They abandoned her body there.
The sisters of her order searched for any trace of what might have happened to Sr. Maria for the next four years. Finally, on the 27th of August, 1940, when they were looking through files in the Ministry of Government they found some pictures of a woman who had been executed in Dehesa de la Villa on August 26, 1936. The nuns identified the woman as Sr. Maria of the Angels, they determined where her body had been buried once it was found, and they had it moved to a cemetery that belonged to their Congregation. Years later, in 1984, her remains were moved to a vault in the chapel in the convent where she had lived, and they remain there to this day.
Blessed Maria of the Angels’ story is much like the stories of the 7,000 Spanish priests and religious, including 13 bishops, who were martyred during the Spanish Civil War. Stanley Payne, an American historian who has written about Spain since the 1960s, once said that the Spanish Civil War saw the “most extensive and violent persecution of Catholicism in Western History, in some ways even more intense than that of the French Revolution.”
And yet, in spite of this unparalleled anti-Catholic violence, the priests and nuns who were hated so vehemently returned this hatred with love and forgiveness, even praying for their executioners. Like Blessed Maria of the Angels, they faced death by a firing squad with great peace and resignation, bravely giving their lives for God who they loved, many of them shouting out with the strength only a true hero can muster in the face of death, “Viva Cristo Rey!” And may we, in remembering their heroism, echo with our lives the answer that Spaniards give to that thunderous statement of faith and subjection the the King of Kings, “QUE VIVA!”