A Century of Jesuit Martyrs

On September 7, 1999, the JesuitUSA News Service reported that the political situation in East Timor was becoming very tense. Sporadic gunfire forced refugees to escape the growing violence by flooding into the Jesuit schools and a residence in Dili. Two days later the news service reported that four nuns and three priests had been killed in the town of Suai; one of the priests was the Jesuit Tarcisius Dewanto. And on September 11, armed intruders killed Fr. Karl Albrecht in the Jesuit residence in Dili.

Fr. Dewanto was 34, an Indonesian, ordained to the priesthood earlier in 1999. Fr. Albrecht, 70, was a German; he had worked in Indonesia for many years and was the director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in East Timor. Fr. Dewanto, the nuns, and the other priests were killed in a massacre that included around 100 Christians in all; they had taken refuge in the parish church in Suai. Fr. Albrecht died alone in the night, perhaps killed by mistake.

Fr Dewanto, SJ

Fr. Tarcisius Dewanto, SJ
1965—1999

Our religious tradition has many kinds of heroes—masters of learning, models of commitment, pioneers of ministry, and servants of God's people. But we hold in special regard those whose lives are cut short, who meet untimely death for their faith or for their commitment to God's people. Earlier times reserved the title "martyr" for those killed explicitly out of hostility to their faith, people like Tarcisius Dewanto and his companions. But more recently we have come to recognize the martyrdom of those like Fr. Albrecht whose living out their faith puts them in mortal danger, whose loyalty and commitment keep them in danger when they might otherwise have fled.

In Great Esteem

Pedro Arrupe, the Jesuit Superior General, wrote to Jesuits worldwide about the five Jesuits martyred from October 1976 to March 1977:

Who are the victims that God has chosen? The five were men of average human gifts, leading obscure lives, more or less unrecognized, dwelling in small villages, and totally dedicated to the daily service of the poor and suffering. These were sons of the Society who never took part in broad national controversies and who never made headlines in the news media. Their style of life was simple, austere, evangelical; it was the life that used them up slowly, day-by-day in the service of "the little ones."

Rutilio Grande, SJ

Fr. Rutilio Grande, SJ
1927—1977

The Lord seems once more to be showing us his preferences and to be pointing out the values and the kind of witness that he holds in great esteem. He has lifted out of obscurity for the whole world to see and crowned with martyrdom these "faithful servants" of his, men who were faithful to him in little and humdrum affairs, men who served him in the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, men who loved him in the poor by their works and sincerity.

The Lord seems to be showing us, then, what kind of martyr is found in today's world. And the Church seems to believe that too, for in a spontaneous reaction it has not hesitated to label their deaths a "martyrdom." Pope Paul VI used that word about the victims of Rhodesia; the bishops of Brazil applied it in reference to Fr. Burnier; and finally, the bishops, the clergy and the people of El Salvador interpreted Fr. Grande's death that way when they thanked God "for having given us the first Salvadoran Martyr."

Frs. Dewanto and Albrecht were the latest Jesuits killed for their faith, but before them in the twentieth century alone 340 of their fellow Jesuits had also been killed. And the circumstances of their deaths chronicle the violence and persecutions that have marked the whole century.

The century was six months old, in fact, when its first Jesuit was martyred. In June 1900, two French Jesuits were killed in China in the Boxer Uprising, a movement that sought to drive foreigners and their religions from the country. During the next year, two of their Jesuit companions in China were also killed. And during the following decade, two others were killed in Armenia. This first wave of martyrs were victims of hatred for different races or for strangers.

In the next wave were victims of religious persecution, from Miguel Pro in Mexico in 1927 to eight Jesuits in China in the thirties and early forties. During the Spanish Civil War, 122 Jesuits were killed, most of them in 1936.

At about that same time, the Nazis and allied regimes began to persecute people of faith in Europe. The greatest number, 69, were Polish, but significant numbers were Czech and Slovak, Dutch, French, and Slovenian, Austrian and German; they died in prison, in concentration camps, or just where they were found. Dutch Jesuits died in concentration camps in Indonesia and Spanish Jesuits in Micronesia in 1944 and 1945. Three Canadian Jesuits were martyred in China in 1943.

Fr Albrecht, SJ

Karl Albrecht, SJ
1929—1999

The places, dates, and circumstances of many of these deaths are lost to history. For example, Johannes Pfefferkorn, a Dutch Jesuit working in Latvia, was considered simply disappeared for decades. With the fall of communism in 1989, it became known that he had been killed by the Nazis in Minsk, Belarus, where he had gone at a bishop's request.

After WWII, the communist regimes of Eastern Europe and Asia killed many Jesuits. In Albania, Bohemia, Croatia, Hungary, Lithuania, Romania, Poland, and Slovenia and again China, many died for their faith in prisons, in Siberian work camps, or in the cities where they lived and ministered.

More recently, as movements of liberation have gained power and breadth, oppressive regimes have sometimes struck back. In the five-month period of October 11, 1976, to March 12, 1977, five Jesuits on three continents were killed, witnesses to their concern for the poor. On the October date, Fr. João Bosco Burnier, who worked among native peoples in Brazil, accompanied the local bishop to police headquarters to inquire about some people whom the police had detained. The police began to threaten the two clerics, and eventually a young police officer shot Fr. Burnier dead.

On February 6, 1977, three Jesuits were killed along with four Dominican sisters in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) when men invaded their mission and shot the missionaries. A fourth Jesuit was shot but recovered from his wounds. Two of the Jesuits were English, the other Irish; three of the sisters were German, the other English.

The next month in El Salvador, Fr. Rutilio Grande, SJ, and two lay companions were ambushed and machine-gunned as they were driving to evening mass at their church. These deaths profoundly affected the new archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, a friend of Fr. Grande; Archbishop Romero was martyred while celebrating mass three years later. And nine years after that, in 1989, six Jesuits were killed in El Salvador, along with two women.

In all, 44 Jesuits were killed in nineteen countries of South and Central America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East between 1973 and 1999.

What happened to the Jesuits happened also in massive numbers to others. Some of them shared the Jesuits' ministry; most were simply killed for being who they were, for believing in and worshipping their God as they would, for doing what their faith or simply the circumstances of their lives asked of them.

On November 5, 1999, the Jesuits in Europe news service ran what looked like a routine item. Amid write-ups for conferences and new publications was a notice that the Jesuit Refugee Service in East Timor "is looking for pastors and outreach workers experienced working among the most disadvantaged in village and rural areas." The killings were only two months earlier, but peace had returned. And already the Church was remembering its heroes by picking up where they had left off, honoring their memory, embracing their courage, and moving ahead.


This story makes extensive use of the research of Fr. Jaime Castellón Covarrubias, SJ, whose story "Jesuit Martyrology of the Twentieth Century" appears in the Jesuit Yearbook 2000. The list of all the Jesuit martyrs of the 20th century is available for your perusal.

Page maintained by Richard VandeVelde, SJ, [email protected] Copyright(c) 1999, 2000 Company Magazine. Created: 3/11/2000 Updated: 3/28/2000