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With my brother Josemaria in Madrid (1927-37)

Santiago Escriva

Tags: The Escriva family
Santiago Escriva (1919-1994) was the younger brother of saint Josemaria. After the death of Opus Dei's founder, he wrote down some of his memories of his brother, excerpts of which are presented here. Carmen was their older sister.

In March 1927, when Josemaria set off for Madrid, my mother, Carmen and I moved to Fonz. Josemaria bade us farewell in Zaragoza. Although I don’t know exactly when he left for Madrid, I think it was either that same day or the next.

From March until the autumn of 1927 we lived in Fonz in my Uncle Theodore’s house. I was longing so much for Josemaria to visit that once I dreamed I saw him arrive mounted on a white horse. But he didn’t forget about me: every week he mailed me some comic books. As soon as I heard the postman’s steps I ran downstairs to pick up the roll of comics and Uncle Theodore’s newspaper (“El Debate”), which I also read. Often I grew so impatient that I would go to the post office ahead of time to collect them.

At the end of 1927 my mother, Carmen, and I arrived in Madrid. Josemaria met us at the station and brought us to an apartment he had rented on a street named Fernando el Catholico. That year I went all over Madrid with Josemaria; he took me to all the museums. At the start of the following school year I enrolled in a Marist school.

When the time came, Josemaria gave me First Communion. I can’t remember if the chapel was in an orphanage or a convent, only that it was where we usually went to Mass, about a 3 or 4 minute walk from our apartment. I didn’t dress up as “a little sailor,” because he didn’t like the custom (Frequently in Spain young boys receiving First Communion dressed in a miniature version of the white jumpsuit worn by enlisted men on Navy ships). As a First Communion present, Josemaria gave me a series of novels by Salgari and Jules Verne, but I had discovered their hiding place and had already read them on the sly.

Josemaria loved to read. He read everything by Jules Verne, but also the classics of the Spanish Golden Age and the English, French, and Spanish authors of the 19th century.

Josemaria gave a number of private lessons, some of them in the apartment on Fernando el Catolico. When a young girl came there for class, he always arranged to have my mother present, doing her sewing. He also gave classes to some boys somewhat older than me, dubbed the “The Great Aunt’s Boys” because they came with a very nice great aunt of theirs, whose name I do not remember, but who became a good friend of Josemaria.

Josemaria was very solicitous in my regard. He would take me out for a walk when he had some free time, especially Sundays. Sometimes he took me for an afternoon snack at the Sotanillo, where he would get together with the young men whom he was drawing closer to God. I didn’t understand very much about the work he was doing, but I would form part of the group.

May 11th, 1931 was the day of the burning of the convents in Madrid, and we had to flee the Patronato [Foundation for the Sick] (The Escriva’s had moved in 1929 from the apartment on Fernando el Catolico to an annex of the Foundation for the Sick, of which Blessed Josemaria was chaplain). I went with Josemaria to transfer the Blessed Sacrament from the chapel of the Foundation to the home of Pepe Romeo. Cortes Cavanillas may also have been with us, but I don’t remember for sure. I am sure we went by foot because I remember the tension in the air, the people milling about on the sidewalks, etc. Josemaria changed from clerical clothing into a suit that Pepe lent him and a boina [type of beret] that covered the large tonsure he had back then. One could move about on the streets despite the revolutionary atmosphere, because the unrest was concentrated in the areas near convents. Later we went up to the roof terrace to watch the fires.

Many of Josemaria’s young friends would drop by our apartment [on Martinez Campos Street] (After Bl. Josemaria left the Foundation for the Sick in 1931, he and his family moved into an apartment on Martinez Campos Street). I would buy crullers and doughnuts to go with the hot chocolate that Carmen would make. My mother was also happy to pitch in. It must have been around this time when I remarked, “Josemaria’s boys eat everything in sight,” a remark others have recalled.

I also remember Isidoro Zorzano, a classmate of Josemaria’s in the last three years of high school at Logrono Institute. He used to say he was struck by how my brother could earn top grades with a normal amount of study, without seeming to make any great effort, while he (Zorzano) had to spend hours and hours studying just to get decent grades. He recalled how Josemaria easily grasped and retained the subject matters. Thus he could devote time to readings not directly related to course work, deepening his knowledge of the humanities.

It was during this period that I used to go with Josemaria and some of the young fellows to Vallecas and Tetuan. I don’t remember the exact dates, but I was still quite young. The areas we visited were filled with people living in shacks. Some in our group would teach catechism classes and we brought containers of food as well.

[Some months after the war began in 1936] Jose Maria Gonzalez Barredo found a place for us in the Honduran Consulate and made arrangements for Josemaria and me to take refuge there. They came to pick us up in a car from the Consulate and we went directly there. The car was tiny and decorated with a Honduran flag. We easily passed through the checkpoints around Madrid despite having no documentation, since the guards were impressed by the blue and white Honduran flag. During the first days there Josemaria celebrated Mass in the hallway until the consul said that it was dangerous and refused to allow it. He even preached a meditation for whoever wished to attend; but after the consul prohibited that too, Josemaria celebrated Mass in our own room and would give meditations aloud for the 5 of us there with him.

I recall that he fell sick for a time there. He suffered an attack of rheumatism, but I think the main problem was malnourishment. None of us ate very much but Josemaria less than the others; some days he ate next to nothing at all, I suppose as a mortification to offer up to God.

At the end of August 1937 Josemaria was able to leave the Honduran consulate with documentation given him by the consul. I remember that he wore an armband with the colors of the Honduran flag. He spent a month and a half going all over Madrid [carrying out pastoral work] before he departed for Valencia and Barcelona en route to the French border. He worked out of the attic of a house on Ayala Street. I don't know whose it was, nor can I now pinpoint its exact location. I only remember that a few days after Josemaria left I went with Isidoro to collect what he had left behind, and the room he had been using had been shelled with mortar fire. Among the items we recovered was an image of our Lady that I kept for the rest of the war and returned to Josemaria when he asked me for it. It is currently in Rome on top of the desk where he habitually worked.

Excerpts from Testimony Santiago Escrivá, Newsletter