When the mob came for the priest

It was the cat that awoke me. I started from my wicker seat, the one that my parents had bought me when I left the seminary. I was startled awake from my siesta, and my prayer book fell from my lap, and my glasses with it.

I blinked at the broken spectacles. I scrabbled at the frames in fury, and only managed to cut my hand on the thick, broken glass. The welling blood on my palm shook me awake, made me realise what had happened.

Some time later my house keeper found me scrabbling in my study. As usual, she told me off. And then went stomping off to find my spare glasses. Which were of no use. I needed new ones.

The start of the Civil War was to open wounds that would not heal. Almost a hundred years later, the descendants of the warriors are still arguing about the divisions that fail to heal. The priest of Turre, D. Florencio Lopez Ejea, a 53-year-old scholar, was destined at birth to leave no impact upon history. It was his death, rather than his life, mere weeks after the outbreak of the war, which would open the floodgates towards a genocide of local religious authorities as left wing radicals, fearing for their lives and their democracy, accused them of spying for the Nationalist attacking armies.

I decided to kill two birds with one stone. I would travel to Alicante to attend to some personal business, pick up a new pair of spectacles and whilst passing see some old friends. And find out more about the terrible news coming up from the southern colonies, about the Armies being raised against the Government.

The trip to the station was slow, and the train was slower. It was hot and stuffy. My black robes assured me a seat, and the ticket master upgraded me, as was my right. But the carriage was dusty, with a broken window that would not open properly, somehow allowing in the dust without allowing out the smell and the heat.

I fell out of the train at my destination. I still could not see properly, and blinked desperately trying to get my bearings. A porter rushed up with my valise and I thanked him.

A man touched me on my elbow and I spun around. He was a dapper Englishman who politely raised his hat and saluted me with a friendly ¡Hola! ¡Hola!. Parlez vouz français? He enquired.

Of course I spoke French, I replied testily.

Je suiz journaliste pour The Times” he smiled. Tell me Father, how is the situation in the south.

I stared at him. “Très chaud” I snapped back.

He wanted to know about the war. But I knew nothing of the war, it was further south. Cádiz and Seville had fallen to the rebels but Almería was sleepy under the summer sun, with its farmers resting in the shade of the olive groves after having gathered in the early crops.

I shook him away and left. I had errands to run, and a flock to tend to as soon as I returned.

The coup d`etat of July 1936 by Francisco Franco was designed to overthrow the Spanish government in one fell swoop. Instead, it failed and would plunge the country into a bitter civil war. Although most of the Army units declared for the rebels, including the elite Army of Africa, rapid distribution of arms to local militias by the government of the Second Republic ensured that Madrid’s control of many provinces continued. Málaga, Jaén and Almería joined the Republican cause, while the rest of Andalusia fell into the hands of General Queipo de Llano, commander of the southern Army. In less than a week, Spain divided into two camps, which commenced a fight to the death.

I lay back in my seat at the train rattled southwards once again. My friends had urged me to stay, not to return to a province that was fervently Republican, not to return into a melee that had nothing to do with me.

But I had my flock to tend to. I had my village to care for. And just as importantly, I had loans I had lent the families of emigrees, money I had lent workers so they could pay for the journey across the sea to the colonies to find work in the north African colonies of Spain. Money I needed to have returned.

And now I had my new glasses. Smart and round in the new style, I half fancied they gave me an intellectual style.

I nestled back in my seat as the train rolled along, and listened to the gossip about the War all around me.

The War started with a bang. In Barcelona, General Goded and his rebel forces surrendered after failing to subvert the Catalan forces and being surrounded by local milita. He was summarily executed by the mob. Instead of acting as a deterrent to the Rebels, his death convinced them that there could be no retreat and no surrender.

Turre was quiet when I returned, but there were strangers in the bars who eyed me as I walked up the main street towards the little house next to the Church where I lived.

Strangers who talked together in urgent tones, and gestured at me. I walked faster and closed my front door behind me with a sense of relief.

I was tired after my long journey and sank with a feeling of relief into my seat. The chair that my parents had bought me after I had left the seminary. It was not long before I fell to nodding in the late afternoon heat.

I was rudely awoken by a banging on my front door. Groggily I went towards it and opened the door.

It was a local shepherd, one whose son I had recently baptised. He stared widely around before barging in and slamming the door behind him.

“Father you must leave” he said abruptly.

I was taken aback and said so.

“Father” he muttered, looking desperate, “they are drinking and they are talking about you. You are not safe. They know you went north to report to your superiors on who is on whose side here in the village.”

I looked at him, and smiling, explained that he was mistaken, that I had only gone to buy new glasses.

“You, you, you must leave, Father” he stammered and fled.

Troubled, I ate the cheese and meat and bread that Maria, my housekeeper, had left out for me, and went to bed.

The next day at Mass, the church was half empty. Outside, there were a group of toughs watching everyone coming in and out. Some I recognised, others I did not.

I smiled at them, and offered them my blessing. One of them, a large Catalan, looked back at me. When I had finished, he spat on the ground and left without saying a further word. I was troubled. The village had changed in the week I had been away.

The afternoon Maria did not come to my house. I was forced to make my own dinner.

The next morning I decided to wander down to the local bar for breakfast, as Maria still had not turned up. Maybe she was ill, but I was worried that she had not sent her daughter to do for me.

As I sat in the bar in the central square, eating my breakfast, the Mayor turned up.

“Father, I shall not be here for much longer” he said abruptly.

I choked on my breakfast, and the Mayor had to bang me on my back.

“Whatever do you mean?” I asked.

“A Revolutionary Committee is to take over” he said quietly. “I will have no part of it, I will retire, I am too old for this. I cannot organise the defence of the village, I cannot organise the youth to march to war.”

We sat there in the early morning sun, two men suddenly made old by circumstance and luck. Bad, evil luck.

“I suggest you leave, Father” he said suddenly. “The world is not for you, Turre and the province is preparing for war, and you will not be safe”.

I smiled at him sadly. “I cannot leave my flock, my son” I said sadly.

The civil administration in many villages was to be taken over by Revolutionary Committees. Spain had been split into two. Hitler had sent vast numbers of aircraft to airlift the elite Spanish Army of Africa into the Peninsula, practising tactics that would later enable him to march across Europe. The Nationalists ordered a purge of freemasons and all left-wing politicians. But the worst were the mobs. In a grotesque imitation of the French Revolution, peasants were armed and released from a quasi-feudal bondage by both sides. Incited to violence by the very classes who used to control and direct them, they rampaged out of control. Agents from both sides were dropped into villages across Spain to direct the local mobs.

I was hiding in my sister’s cortijo, up above the village of Turre, in the Barranco del Negro. Below, the mob ruled. I had been forced out of my little house. Maria had not returned to my house since my return from Alicante; this, more than anything, told me of the seriousness of the situation.

The new head of the Revolutionary Committee had told me to flee. He was furious with me when I went no further than my sister’s house. He made my brother-in-law promise that they would open the door to none but him, and did what he could to keep me safe.

I should have left. But I didn’t. Pig headedness, a belief in duty, and sheer disbelief in what was happening kept me there. Possibly with a dash of needing to call in those loans I had made. Until it was too late.

And then Authority vanished overnight, and the Mob ruled.

I do not blame my brother-in-law. When the mob came for me that night, what could he do? He had his family to think of. They were many, and he was but one.

They dragged me out of the house, a mob of 15. The leering Catalan was there. The others were of the village. I knew them, but had no way of telling anyone who they were.

The last thing my brother-in-law heard was when they stamped on my new glasses, out in the field, and I cried out in protest.

“You won’t need those where you are going”, he would later tell the investigating committee, was the last thing he heard them say as they dragged me away.

My body was found the next morning in a field called La Higuera del Conejo.

Some say I was shot in the back I as fled, and was quickly finished off as I lay on bleeding on the ground.

The official Church record says that my genitals were cut off, that I was found almost bloodless in a cactus, that I had been beaten without mercy and finally riddled with bullets.

Other, in the modern era, suggest that it was a quick death by my debtors, who saw a quick way of getting out of their debts.

I was quickly buried in my own cemetery, without ceremony, without the dues a village should have given me. The Revolutionary Committee was anxious not to cause alarm.

But my death was a catalyst, and it unleashed a terrifying wave of violence.

In August 1936 alone, a further 33 priests were murdered across the province, as suspicious mobs were convinced that they were spying for the Nationalist cause. By the end of the Civil War, 116 people connected to the Catholic Church, including a bishop and two women, were murdered in the province.

The priest of Bédar was thrown off a bridge. Jose and Antonio Fuentes Ballesteros, the brothers of the mother of Jacinto Alarcon, who would grow up to be a famous Mayor of Mojácar, were shot one night in a field just outside Los Gallardos.

No-one would ever be bought to justice for the murder of D. Florencio. Three people, including the mysterious Catalan, fled and were never officially heard of again. One 16-year-old boy was shot by a Guardia Civil firing squad after he confessed to the murder and wrote an apology to the priest’s sister.

The Church was to have its own revenge. A priest sent to the village in the heady days after Franco’s total victory was allegedly a paedophile who preyed upon the children of the left-wingers who had been sent to jail for no other crime than having belonged to the losing side.

People of the village still remember D. Florencio. His is not a name that is uttered lightly. His murderers are still known of the village, and their descendants still tarred with the same brush.

It is but one story of the Civil War. But it is a reason why one family still crosses the street when they see members of another, here in the high street of Turre. Almost one hundred years later, the events of that dark night still resonate amongst the oldest inhabitants of the village, and they in turn pass on the secret knowledge to their children.

And so the Civil War continues to divide.

And, at the end of Turre, on the buff under the electric pylons, there is a small memorial to D. Florencio.

It reads:

“Aqui dio su vida por DIOS y por ESPANA, el martir D. Florencio Lopez Ejea, Parroco de Turre en la madrugada del 16 a 17 de Agosto de 1936, PRESENTE”.

4 Replies to “When the mob came for the priest”

  1. Wow David – that was so sound and profound. So interesting to those if us who never learned the history of rural Spain. Difficult to imagine that going on when we eat lunch in Turre or go to the market!

  2. Very interesting
    I’m doing some research on the Civil War in Mojacar and environs
    I would like to meet up with you if you have the time
    Thank you

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