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Although pregnant, imprisoned and severely abused, she refused to deny her faith

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Blessed Emilia Fernandez Rodriguez is first Roma woman to be beatified.

In 1936, Civil War erupted in Spain after the Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco, overthrew the government run by the left-leaning leaders of the Second Spanish Republic. What followed was a period in Spanish history that is known as the Red Terror.

During the three-year period of 1936 through 1939, tens of thousands of people were murdered by those on the secularized Left as this faction enacted an anti-clerical reign of terror against religion and all things Catholic, especially the clergy, whom they hated more than can be imagined.

The violence was also directed at churches and monasteries and many were burned and pillaged, simply out of hatred.

What follows is the story, not about a priest or a nun but, rather, about a Roma girl whose name was Emilia Fernandez Rodriguez.

On March 25 of this year, Emilia joined the ranks of those honored as martyrs of the Spanish Civil War. In addition, she will become the first Roma woman ever beatified by the Catholic Church.

Juan Jose Fernandez and his wife, Pilar Rodriguez, were Roma people who lived in  a grotto (cave) in Tijola, Spain.

On April 13, 1914, Pilar gave birth to a girl and she was named Emilia. Emilia, the second of three children, was baptized on the same day of her birth in the Church of Santa Maria.

As Emilia began to grow she was taught how to make wicker baskets. This was how the family earned their living.

Juan and his wife were survivors. They had no political ideology and worked hard at their meager wicker basket business, trying to live their lives as quietly as possible. So did most of the other Roma people. When the Civil War of 1936 erupted there was no reason for the Roma to feel in any way endangered. They just kept living their lives doing the best they could with what they had.

But circumstances sometimes reach out and grab hold of the unsuspecting and pull them into a world they could never have imagined.

In 1938 Emilia entered into a marriage contract with Juan Cortes, who was her distant cousin and a year younger than Emilia. Emilia’s new husband was apolitical and, like Emilia, did not care one bit about either side involved in the Civil War. But those on the Left thought differently. They demanded that Juan Cortes join their ranks.

Juan had Emilia help him concoct a potion to rub in his eyes causing a temporary case of blindness. His ruse worked and he was deemed unfit for service. But his “blindness” began to clear up. When the soldiers came back and discovered that Juan could see again they were outraged. They knew Juan had tricked them.

He and Emilia were immediately arrested and both sent off to prison to await trial. The date was June 21, 1938. A few weeks later, on July 9, 1938, Emilia was tried and sentenced to six years in prison. She was absolutely terrified. She was pregnant and feared for her baby’s life.

Emilia felt completely alone in the dank, smelly confines of the prison. She tried to avoid the other inmates but her youth and vulnerability drew the sympathy of some of them. One girl, whose name was Lola and who was about the same age as Emilia, was able to befriend her. Lola was a devout Catholic and began teaching Emilia about the faith she knew so little of.

Lola made sure that Emilia made the Sign of the Cross properly and taught her the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Glory Be. Emilia was soon participating in praying the Rosary with some of the others.

Soon, the commander of the prison, Pilar Salmeron Martinez, found out that Emilia, the uneducated, ignorant Gypsy girl, could pray the Rosary. He was determined to find out who had the audacity to teach her.

Martinez called her into his office and demanded she tell him who taught her how to pray. He even told Emilia that he would not only get her released from prison but would also get Juan out as well. He told her to think of her “poor baby” and how living in a prison cell was no place for a child. Martinez considered Emilia weak and was sure she would agree. He was wrong.

Emilia’s faith was beginning to sprout strong and true. She was only 24 years old, was afraid and pregnant yet she would not reveal the name of Lola. Furious at this “Gypsy girl,” Martinez ordered her into solitary confinement. He ordered Lola to be thrown into solitary also. He knew she was the “troublemaker” who was teaching prayers to the inmates. The conditions in solitary were horrendous.

Winter came and the evil Martinez, still trying to break Emilia, cut her already meager food rations. The young woman was getting weaker and sicker by the day and her baby was soon to be full term. At 2:00 in the morning of January 13, Emilia gave birth to a girl on the floor of her filthy cell. That same afternoon Lola baptized the baby. Emilia and her baby were taken to the hospital. Four days later they were returned to the prison.

Emilia became so ill that they had to return her to the hospital. She died on January 25, never having turned on the one who had taught her to pray the Rosary. They dumped her body into a common, unmarked grave. No one ever knew what happened to the child. It is assumed she was put up for adoption.

Blessed Emilia Fernandez Rodriguez, please pray for us.

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