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3 Red Cross nurses beatified as martyrs

Red Cross nurse

Happy Max | Shutterstock

Larry Peterson - published on 06/03/21

Pope praises these courageous laywomen who chose to take risks in order to be Good Samaritans.

It was 1936 and the Civil War in Spain was raging. Catholic clergy and other active Catholics were a prime target for the militia. Three young Red Cross nurses were mistaken for nuns and taken prisoner by the rebel soldiers. Their names were Maria Pilar Gullon Yturriaga, age 25; Octavia Iglesias Blanco, age 42; and Olga Perez-Monteserin Nunez, age 23.  

The women, who were in fact Catholic, had come to help and treat the sick and dying, no matter what side they were on. Inspired by their love for Jesus and mankind, they were simply following His way, demonstrating love and kindness the way Jesus taught. Even though they were not nuns, they loved their faith deeply and were not about to denounce it.

On the morning of October 27, 1936, their health center was attacked. The nurses had the opportunity to flee, but wouldn’t leave their patients. Nevertheless, the attackers shot the patients, and captured the health care personnel.

The three nurses were beaten, raped, tortured, and treated in the most degrading and heinous ways imaginable. This cruel treatment continued all through the night, as the militia were trying to obtain that the nurses would renounce their faith. They wouldn’t.

Inflicting their degrading and painful acts upon the women, the torturers demanded that they renounce their Catholic faith. They exhibited unbelievable courage and said over and over “Viva Cristo Rey” (“Long live Christ the King”).

At midday on October 28, they were marched naked to a prairie, and were shot to death by female militia members (who distributed their clothes among them). Their bodies were dragged to a mass grave as the people around made fun of them. The Church recognizes that they died due to hatred of the faith.

  • Maria Pilar Gullon was born on May 29, 1911, in Madrid, Spain. Her mom and dad were devout Catholics, and Maria became a member of Catholic Action and the Daughters of Mary in Astorga, Spain. She taught catechism and worked with the poor and the sick. But her calling was to nursing, and she became a Red Cross Nurse and wound up at the front during the Spanish Civil War. She was captured by the militia and died a martyr’s death on October 28, 1936.
  • Octavia Iglesias Blanco was born on November 30, 1894, in Astorga, Spain. At age 42, she was the oldest of the three women and tried her best to be the “big sister” as they were beaten and violated. They apparently all stuck together as best they could because they all died the same way, “in odium fidei,” never giving in to the evil being showered upon them.
  • Olga Perez-Monteserin Nunez was born on March 16, 1913, in Paris, France. At the age of seven, she moved to  Astorga, Spain with her parents. At the age of 23, she was the “baby” of the group but just as determined and dedicated to helping the sick, wounded, and dying as her older nursing sisters. When she reported for duty at the Red Cross headquarters she was assigned to the front, the same as Maria and Octavia. 

Prior to their Beatification Ceremony on May 29, 2021, Bishop Jesus Fernandez Gonzalez of Astorga said, “These martyrs were not linked to either side—the Red Cross went wherever it was summoned, regardless of who was in control. Nor did they carry weapons or even use words to attack anyone. They were simply moved by human compassion and Christian charity, knowing the risks and dangers when signing up as volunteers.”

Bishop Fernando Gonzalez also said that the three women had clung to their crosses and forgiven their executioners, offering a “model of the Christian lay vocation.”

The Bishop continued by saying, “Although they were given the opportunity to apostatize, they did not do so. They were people with their whole lives ahead—only a great hope could have enabled them to renounce it, and only a great love could have sustained such hope. The testimony of martyrs offers a lifeline, keeping us afloat in the truth that liberates,”

The beatification ceremony took place on Saturday, May 29, 2021, at Santa Maria  Cathedral in Astorga.  The celebrant representing Pope Francis was Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Saint’s Causes. The newly Beatified women were originally buried in a mass grave at their execution site. They were re-interred at the Cathedral in Astorga in 1948.

On May 30, 2021, the Pope spoke of them after the midday Angelus:

These three courageous lay women, in imitation of the Good Samaritan, were dedicated to taking care of those wounded in war, without abandoning them at the moment of danger; they took risks, and they were killed in hatred of their faith. Let us praise the Lord for their Gospel witness. A round of applause for the new Blesseds.

Almost 2,000 Catholics from the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War have been beatified or canonized as martyrs. During the war, 12% of the nation’s clergy were killed.

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