By Barb Arland-Fye
OTTUMWA — Adults and children pressed holy cards bearing images of six martyred Mexican priests to the cross containing the martyrs’ relics at the Knights of Columbus Hall and St. Mary of the Visitation Church. Veneration of the relics (bone fragments) occurred Nov. 25, as part of an Iowa Knights of Columbus pilgrimage to honor the priests who gave their lives for the faith in the 1920s-30s. In 2000 Pope John Paul II canonized the six, all Knights of Columbus, along with 19 other martyrs.
Sandy Welsh of St. Peter Parish in Lovilia held up her 2-year-old granddaughter, Scarlett McIntyre, so that the little girl could press a rosary to the relics to receive a blessing at the KC Hall. “I’ve traveled all over the world to see saints’ relics,” Welsh explained. “To have them here in my own backyard is pretty awesome.”
Catholics of all ages —from moms carrying babies and holding the hands of toddlers, to senior citizens — participated in the celebration that included a candlelit procession to the church and Mass. Bishop Martin Amos and other clergy anchored the procession. Bishop Amos presided at the bilingual Mass which Father Bernie Weir, St. Mary’s pastor, and Father Patrick Hilgendorf, pastor of St. Patrick Parish, Ottumwa, concelebrated. Catholic Daughters of America and Knights of Columbus carried red posters featuring short stories of the martyred priests into the church and set them at the foot of the altar.
The first reading, from Maccabees, told the story of a woman witnessing the deaths of her seven sons who gave their lives for their Jewish faith. The second reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, focused on St. Stephen’s martyrdom for his Christian faith. And the Gospel from St. Luke spoke of the conditions of discipleship: “… For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.…”
In his homily, Bishop Amos shared some of Mexico’s history, focusing on a period when the country went from being fervently Catholic to violently hostile against the Church. “The Knights of Columbus worked to raise the nation’s consciousness and demanded that the Mexican government respect the rights of its citizens,” Bishop Amos said. “And so the Knights of Columbus were outlawed and its members persecuted.” Among their members were the six martyred priests: Fathers Pedro de Jesus Maldonado Lucero, Miguel de la Mora de la Mora, Jose Maria Robles Hutado, Luis Batiz Sainz, Rodrigo Augilar Aleman and Mateo Correa Magallanes.
“This evening we celebrate the Mystery of Faith, this Eucharist, in the presence of their relics. Their stories are stories of great faith, stories of cruel torture and death; stories of flesh and blood human beings, some of them known even by people today,” the bishop observed.
Fourth-Degree Knight Andres Perez, standing proudly with fellow Fourth-Degree Knights, all of them dressed in regalia, was among the Catholics with personal stories of their kinsmen’s faith. “My father’s uncles and my grandfather fought with the Cristeros; they fought in the revolution that turned into the Cristero War. They did survive; one lost an eye. My dad used to say, ‘Quien vive’ (which means, who lives). That was like a code word for Cristeros.” “It’s a proclamation of faith,” added Fr. Weir, who himself found the pilgrimage to be a very devotional experience.
Perez and his wife, Lorena, didn’t realize the full meaning of the phrase “Quien vive” until they saw the movie, “For Greater Glory” about the Cristero War of the 1920s.
“I’m proud of it. My family was there fighting for our God,” Andres Perez said. He’s also proud of being a Knight. “When I started in the Knights, everything changed …it’s really nice to serve my people and my Church.”
Seventeen-year-old Angel Reyes of St. Mary’s said he volunteered to help out with the celebration because of his desire to help the Church. The occasion was so special, it was hard to describe, he added. “I think it was very brave” for the six martyred priests to die for their faith. “It takes a lot of courage.”
Courage to stand up to the faith is needed today, Bishop Amos suggested in his homily. He spoke of the “gradual, but persistent effort to silence and take away our cherished freedom” in the United States today through such means as the Health and Human Services mandate and repressive state laws pertaining to immigrants.
“If we are not free in our conscience and in our practice of religion, all other freedoms are fragile,” the bishop said.
At the conclusion of the Mass, Antonio Banuelos, the Iowa KCs state program director, ended his remarks in Spanish with a spirited “Viva Cristo Rey!” (Long live Christ the King!). The assembly responded enthusiastically, “Que viva!” which means long live!
Other communities in the Davenport Diocese have or will host the Iowa Knights of Columbus pilgrimage of the relics of six martyred Mexican priests. Parishes still to hold pilgrimages are St. Patrick, Iowa City, Nov. 29; Holy Family, Davenport, Nov. 30; and St. Mary Parish, Davenport, on Dec. 1. The diocese is the last stop on the pilgrimage across Iowa.
Antonio Banuelos, the Iowa KCs state program director, is responsible for seeing that the reliquary makes its way safely from one place to the next.
“I am happy the relics are here,” he said. “The pilgrimage has been a lot of work for so many. It’s been crazy.”
He noted that the Ottumwa turnout of about 300 people was among the largest so far on the pilgrimage.