Friday, December 14, 2012
Playing Billiards and Cleaning Floors: The Story of Sister Martina Vázquez Gordo
Stories of Sister Martina are different than the flowery descriptions I've found of some of the martyrs. Rather, she seems like the type of person you'd like to sit and have a beer with (that is, if Sisters drank...) I can imagine her with a loud belly laugh telling others of her blunt unconventional actions while, at the same time, remaining humbly silent about the many ministries she founded to serve the poor of Spain (that is, unless she could use the opportunity for fundraising!).
One such story is in her beginning years as a Daughter of Charity. She became the superior of the school Colegio de la Milagrosa in Zamora, Spain. There was poor enrollment in the school and soon Sr Martina found out why - people in the community thought the school gave inferior education. So, what did she do? She went out in the community and spread word of the school to boost enrollment. Admirable, but this is itself isn't that interesting of a feat. What is interesting is how she did it. Discretely (I'm assuming out of her habit - the cornette is pretty noticeable), she entered one of the men's clubs in the community. Surely, the club was full of cigar smoke and alcohol - certainly not the typical hang-out of a nun unless you're telling jokes. But Sr Martina struck up conversation with some of the men playing billiards, attempting to convince them to enroll their children in the school. Maybe annoyed, one man jokingly said "Fine! If you make this shot, I'll send my son there!" She took the cue stick and, lo and behold, made the shot. Upon enrolling his child, the man must have figured out that this billiards-playing woman was actually the superior, Sister Martina. From there, the school flourished....and so did her fame.
After her stint at the school, she was missioned to a hospital and school in Segorbe. The institution was in much debt and very poor physical condition. But similar to what she did for Colegio de la Milagrosa, Sr Martina turned the situation upside down. She not only built relationships with wealthy families to improve the physical condition of the buildings, but she also used her own personal family money to do so. But she wasn't satisfied with what the institution and the Daughters were already doing - she knew the poor needed more.
So she founded a soup kitchen called "Gota de Leche", a consultation center for nursing mothers, a center for the transient poor who needed help getting employment, and created the Charitable Board of Segorbe, a group of wealthy families to assist maintain the nursing home and hospital for the elderly. Oh, not to mention, she also taught courses in the school.
It's a wonder this woman even slept.
Soon, she was elected onto the Provincial Council but, after five years, she was off on a new adventure - going to North Africa to nurse the wounded Spanish troops from the Battle of Annual. Sr Martina did everything she could to serve the soldiers, even cleaning floors, stating often that they and the poor are what would lead her to heaven. At one point, a truck overflowing with wounded soldiers came and there was no more room in the hospital for all of them. The officers' club was nearby and would do perfectly. But one of the high-ranking officials refused. But Sr Martina didn't accept his answer so submissively. She went to a higher power - the war minister. Not only did he allow the use of the club as a temporary hospital, but he appointed her Captain General of the military, perhaps the highest title in the Spanish Army, which gave her the authority to do whatever it was she wanted.
Three years later, at the end of the war, she was sent back to Segorbe, though not before befriending the Muslim leaders in the area who gifted her a silk cloth to be used for the Virgin. It would be ten more years before the troubles would begin. Around 1936, Sr Martina started to become suspicious of the new government and its movement against the Church. One day, fearing a takeover of the house, the Sisters consumed all the hosts, prepared to be booted out of the hospital. And that they were. Told that they had to leave or the soldiers would bomb the hospital, the soldiers led them to an abandoned house, where they remained locked in for a few months.
Soon, like Sister Josefa after her, she got the premonition that she would be martyred. So she prepared for her death by making confession. Since a priest obviously couldn't enter into the makeshift jail the Sisters lived in, she improvised. Like Father Damien who confessed by yelling from one boat to another in the movie Molokai, Sr Martina confessed through signs in the window. When the soldiers came for her, they came for her alone. The Sisters cried to accompany her but the soldiers wouldn't allow it. Placed in a truck, Sr Martina bluntly told the soldiers You're going to kill me and so there's no need to take me far away. When the time came for her to be martyred, her killers asked her to turn her back to them. She absolutely refused. I want to die facing you like Christ and also like Christ, I forgive you.
With holy water, she blessed herself and kissed the crucifix, saying If I have offended you in anything, I ask forgiveness and if you kill me, I forgive you … when you want, you can fire your weapons. With her facing them, they shot and, in typical strong Sr Martina fashion, the two shots in her neck and face didn't kill her right away. With the strength she had left, she yelled My God, have mercy on me!
With that, Sr Martina Vazquez Gordo - the billiards player, the Capital General, the friend of Christians and Muslims, the admirable Daughter of Charity - fell into a ditch and died. She was 68 years old and had been a Daughter of Charity for over 30 years.
She is one of the many Daughters of Charity to be beatified this October, all martyrs of the Spanish Civil War. You can read the story of a fellow Daughter of Charity martyr, Sister Josefa Martinez Perez, here.