During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), Communist “Republicans” sought to wipe out all Catholic resistance to Spain’s amoral secular government. General Francisco Franco, who was the chief military officer of Spain, understood the viciousness of the Republican leaders and mustered allies to combat for the Faith and the fatherland. In 1936, Franco and other generals rose up against the Republican government, a duly elected but Communist-centered coalition that quickly implemented an atheist agenda. It persecuted the Catholic Church, destroyed places of worship, martyred thousands of priests and religious, tore down Catholic schools, and otherwise attempted to remake Spain according to a Soviet model. The severity of this persecution cannot be underestimated. The civil war left countless dead: estimates vary from 500,000 to one million.
Ismael Molinero Novillo, better known as Ismael de Tomelloso (Province of Ciudad Real, south of Madrid), was born on May 1, 1917, the fifth of eight children. His father and mother raised their large family with admirable self-sacrifice and devotion.
His mother, a very devout woman, taught Ismael his first prayers. At the age of ten, the headmaster of his school said that he was a good, smart and hard-working pupil who had been rewarded several times for his application and punctuality.
At the age of 14, Ismael had to begin working. Because of his open, merry, congenial personality, he became a necessary presence at every feast and party in Tomelloso. He played the guitar and the mandolin well, was stylish and versed in the social arts. He loved to entertain his friends with songs, jokes, recital of poems, and with all sorts of tricks that made people laugh. Highly successful, he became less and less concerned about the Church and the salvation of his soul.
One day some youths of his age spoke to him about the recently founded Catholic Action Youth Center. Much later, Ismael gratefully recalled all that he owed to that friend who introduced him to Catholic Action:
“So many live plunged in the darkness of sin, pulled down by the chains of vice, because they lack a friend’s hand to pull them from such wretchedness! Although raised a Christian, I would undoubtedly have lost myself forever. I was pulled irresistibly towards the pleasures of the world, in which I would have wallowed, if another boy from my town hadn’t come to stand by my side like a guardian angel. He was from the very first Catholic Action Youth group that the chaplain had founded in my town. He sought us out and began to educate us, taught us the value of sacrifice; and, finally, prepared us for martyrdom…”
Ismael began to change his friendships and discard anything that would slow his walk towards perfection. He did not put away his guitar or burn his mandolin, put on a sad look or hide his attractive personality. Simply, he had found a direction.
One of his friends wrote: “I saw that from day to day the call of Divine Love was growing stronger in his heart. I understood that a change was taking place in him, which, though not as sudden as St. Paul’s, was still quick. This perfecting was visible because he fulfilled his obligations day in and day out, in town as well as in the Church. We could see a gradual change in his conversations, his dealings with people, his comportment, and his absorption in church, which was especially noticeable.”
In Tomelloso, the hospital-shelter where the homeless elderly of the town lived was Ismael’s frequent field of apostolate. “Every Sunday and often during the week as well,” one of his friends commented, “after Mass at the parish Church and after breakfast, or even missing breakfast, he would walk to the Shelter to offer his charity and his good cheer to the elderly. He always tried to make them laugh and give them as pleasant a time as possible.”
Soon, those who had invited him to the Catholic Action Center looked to him as their superior, and were amazed to realize that he had overtaken them and was cheerfully signaling to them from afar, inviting them to follow on the road to Christian perfection. In him they saw a strong, dominating will, extraordinary self-mastery, and an abundance of sacrifice. They admired him when they saw him kneeling in deep meditation. This change happened quickly once he answered yes to the call of grace.
In 1935 he was able to do the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in the seminary of Ciudad Real. He could not hide his happiness at being in the Seminary, where his only thoughts were about his eternal salvation. When taking leave, he said to one of the seminarians: “How I envy you, who know much more than we do how to go about being good… and it’s so easy to be good in here!” The Exercises gave a more pronounced profile of fortitude to his character, but without erasing his good humor.
On July 18, 1936, civil war broke out in Spain. The Republican army, which ruled the region of Tomelloso, needed more manpower and on September 18 they called up Ismael’s class to be enrolled in the Popular Army. The night before he left for the front, he sewed a medal of Our Lady between the fabric of his vest and departed with the friends who had been mobilized with him. Many of these, at the risk of their lives, escaped the red trenches, passing over to the National Army, to fight under the command of General Franco for God and for Spain. God would ask Ismael for a special combat: the sacrifice of silence…
He had to suffer hearing blasphemies against God, and countless torments which would undermine his delicate constitution. Much later he stated that he had suffered more from the blasphemies and the conversations he had heard in the trenches than from the freezing weather and deprivation of those terrible days. “When that happened,” he confessed, “I would squeeze my Rosary tight and pray…”
Ismael was a victim of satanic hate: there were many times when those godless soldiers wanted to force him to blaspheme. He kept quiet. For the love of God, he suffered with exemplary resignation, and came out triumphant from those infernal attacks. Much later he would exclaim: “The trenches, I am horrified at the memory!…I was so close to getting the palm! What a torment not to have been a martyr! I so envy the Catholic Action boys who have died a martyr’s death. But that is God’s will, and may He be blessed.”
On February 5, 1938, the Battle of Alfambra began, in which the Popular Army was defeated. In the battle, eyewitnesses tell us, Ismael offered himself as a holocaust: “…he threw his rifle, remained standing, clutched the Virgin’s medal in his hands and began a feverish, trusting prayer. Hissing balls barely missed his silhouette; his fellow soldiers were running and cursing, or falling heavily to the ground, mortally wounded. Upright on his feet like a praying statue, Ismael waited until he heard a harsh voice order: ‘Hands up!’ He surrendered and was taken prisoner.”
Ismael unassumingly stood in the line of the defeated… When they started to card everyone, he saw that his companions who offered up excuses and past merits were released; those who said nothing were imprisoned. So, Ismael decided to say nothing “because I wanted to suffer for God, for souls and for Spain.”
Soon he was taken to the Concentration Camp near Saragossa. There he lived anonymously until the disease secretly undermining him finally overcame him. The chaplain of the camp recounts:
“On March 18th, 1938…I noticed a noble attitude in one of the patients, like a halo of holiness. I approached him, asking the usual questions one asks when starting a conversation. He made a general confession of his life, then we talked a good while. As I was affectionately reproaching him for not revealing his identity sooner, he replied with sublime spontaneity:
“‘Father, I’ve been here a long time. Whenever you came to visit, I was deeply moved, and when you left I would become despondent. But I wanted to suffer for God and for Spain, and I knew that if you had known who I was you would have deprived me of this chance, or at least mitigated my pain. Now that I feel my situation is serious and you can do nothing for me, it doesn’t matter anymore. I feel so happy, Father! Talk to me about suffering, troubles and crosses, they have been my golden dream and were alive and real in me, especially since the war began. How well I now understand the words that the Catholic Action chaplain repeated so often: “Children, know that God’s immense graces only fall into empty, lonely hearts. And how lonely is my heart! I have neither parents nor friends, nor glory nor wealth, nor any human comfort… And yet, I’m happy!”
“When I wished him a promising future, should God want to save him, he sat up on the bed, looked at the Crucifix that presided over the room, pointed his finger and said: ‘I want nothing to do with this world. I am from God and for God. If I die, I will belong entirely to God. If I don’t… I want to be a priest! Yes, I want to be a priest. A good priest. Like the ones God needs to work for Him gratis. I want to live absorbed in Him, lost in His immensity, totally delivered over to Him. No selfishness or money, comforts, family, or honors, only Christ! Tomorrow, when I receive Communion, I will complete the detachment I started days ago and haven’t been able to achieve. I will leave my whims, my likes, the needs of my poor nature with Christ.’”
Much later he said to him: “Father, I feel so much happiness! Indeed, how can God give me so much comfort?! What’s heaven going to be like if I already feel so happy here? Father, so many men live plunged in darkness, pulled down by the chains of vice, because they lack a friendly hand to pull them up from their terrible state! … I will serve Spain anonymously; I will offer all the discomforts of my illness and the pain of my sacrifice to God. I craved martyrdom and I finally succeeded. Not because I am shedding my blood for the faith, but because of the abandonment, the drawn-out suffering, the anguish of dying without my saintly mother at my side.”
Seeing that Ismael was seriously ill, the camp physician ordered his transfer to a Saragossa hospital. The priest wrote a letter of recommendation for Ismael to deliver to the chaplain of the hospital, but he, wishing to go on with the sacrifice that God had asked of him, decided not to deliver the letter. Ismael, being questioned by his nurse who suspected his Catholic identity, was obliged to confess: “God was asking this sacrifice from me, and with His help I was able to achieve it!” It was she who found among Ismael’s belongings the letter of recommendation which he brought from the chaplain of the concentration camp.
Fr. José Ballesteros, who met Ismael in 1935, met him for a second, and longer, time at the Saragossa Hospital. He testifies: “Due to his heroic spirit of sacrifice, his restraint in asking for help, and especially his supernatural modesty, he told no one about the terrible sores and ulcers that festered on his back and his legs. It was only by chance that I saw them, and he allowed only me to care for them.” During the Holy Week of 1938 his sufferings increased so much that it clearly seemed that Our Lord wanted to associate him with His Passion. He murmured: “Finally I have the joy of offering something to Jesus!”
On May 5th, he fervently received Communion, as he usually did, and in giving thanks told Jesus that he would “see Him soon.” He received Extreme Unction with full consciousness. With a weak voice, the dying man replied to the Ritual versicles. Until his last breath, with an almost imperceptible voice, he repeated: “Mother of Pilar, save me! My God, mercy! Sacred Heart of Jesus, in Thee…”
His remains were enclosed in a plain coffin and interred in a plot. Soon his tomb began to be frequented by the Catholic Action Youth from Saragossa. They published in their bulletin a beautiful article dedicated to his memory: a testimony of admiration to that little unknown soldier, who being reckoned as a red prisoner, suffered like a saint and died as such. If he had lived, he wanted to be a priest to resemble Jesus, to celebrate Holy Mass, to unite himself with Christ in the sacrifice of the altar. God gave him to live this sacrifice with Jesus on Calvary, joined to Mary, making every instant of his life sacred, sacrificial.