HomeDocumentationThe early years of Opus Dei1936-1937: First stages of the civil war. Situation of Opus Dei
The early years of Opus Dei

1936-1937: First stages of the civil war. Situation of Opus Dei

John Coverdale

Tags: Alvaro del Portillo, Spanish Civil War, Madrid, Franco, The DYA academy, Isidoro Zorzano, Juan Jimenez Vargas, The Honduran Legation, Opus Dei members, first members, Spanish history
- Military Uprising
- International Aspects of the Civil War
- Revolution and Anticlerical Violence in Republican Spain
- The Early Weeks of the Civil War
- The Giral Government and the Revolution
- The Military Struggle for Madrid
- On the Run
- The Military Revolt Becomes the “National Movement”
- Franco Takes Power in Nationalist Spain
- Largo Caballero Replaces Giral
- Seeking Refuge in Madrid. In Dr. Suils’s Asylum for the Mentally Ill
- Seeking Refuge in Madrid. The Honduran Legation

Military Uprising
The assassination of Calvo Sotelo by government agents confirmed the view of the military conspirators and their civilian supporters that the government was either unwilling or unable to control the situation, and that Spain was rapidly descending into chaos and revolution. The conspirators’ final plans called for a military uprising on July 18, 1936, which they hoped would quickly put them in control of the government. Initially the military rebels and their civilian supporters had no name for their movement, but within a few weeks they began to call themselves “Nationalists.”
The civil war actually began one day ahead of schedule, on July 17, 1936, with an uprising by military units in Spanish Morocco. It soon spread to the rest of the country. The leaders were primarily younger officers, because most of the senior generals either opposed the revolt or were undecided. Significant parts of the Army and a majority of the Air Force and Navy refused to join the officers who had risen against the government. In many areas, the militarized police (the Civil Guards and Assault Guards) fought vigorously against the army units that had joined the revolt.
Unnerved by the military uprising against his government, Casares Quiroga resigned as prime minister. His replacement, the moderate Republican Martínez Barrios, tried to reach a compromise with the Nationalist leaders. His efforts failed, and, within hours, he was replaced as prime minister by José Giral, a relatively obscure Left-Republican professor who had served as minister of the Navy. Giral formed a new government made up entirely of middle-class liberals, but it had the explicit support of Socialists, Anarchists, and Communists. On July 19, 1936, Giral, urged by his Socialist and Anarchist backers, took the momentous step of “arming the population” by issuing weapons to the members of Socialist and Anarchist militia units. This decision pushed many ambivalent army units into the arms of the Nationalists.
By July 20, 1936, the country was more or less clearly divided into two zones. Forces opposed to the revolt and nominally loyal to the Republican government occupied approximately two thirds of the territory, including most of the Atlantic coast and the entire Mediterranean coast except for an area near Cádiz. They held all the principal cities and industrial centers, with the exception of Zaragoza in the north and Seville and Cordoba in the south.

International Aspects of the Civil War
The civil war rapidly became an international event. Both sides promptly sought arms and assistance from the countries they thought would be sympathetic to their cause. During the course of the conflict, both sides received significant aid that helped shape the war.
In the early days of the war, Franco and other rebel leaders turned to Germany and Italy for arms, while the Republic sought assistance from France. Hitler promptly provided bombers—which would prove invaluable in ferrying the Army of Africa across the straits from Morocco to southern Spain—and fighter aircraft to protect them. He also sent some anti-aircraft guns, machine guns, and rifles. A few days later, Mussolini provided aircraft as well.

During the course of the war, both sides received significant foreign assistance, although historians disagree over the amounts. Estimates of the airplanes received by the Republic range from 1,200 to 1,800, while the number of airplanes received by the Nationalists has been placed between 1,250 and 1,500. Estimates of the numbers of foreigners who served the Republic in the International Brigades range from a low of 30,000 to a high of 100,000. More than 75,000 Italians and approximately 15,000 Germans fought for the Nationalists. Certain types of Soviet aid, especially tanks, were very effective. In general, however, aid from Germany and Italy to Franco was somewhat larger and much more effective than the aid received by the Republic from the Soviet Union and elsewhere.

Revolution and Anticlerical Violence in Republican Spain
The Nationalist uprising and the government’s response to it brought about the revolution that the military leaders had feared and that their movement was intended to head off. Concretely, Giral’s decision to give out arms to Socialist and Anarchist militia units helped prevent a quick Nationalist victory, but it led to an almost complete breakdown of government.
Only in Madrid did the government retain any control over events, and even there its orders were ignored more often than not. Militia units and popular tribunals quickly took control of cities, towns, and country villages in the areas where the Nationalist movement initially failed. Republican legality collapsed in the face of a full-scale social revolution. As the most prominent Spanish Communist orator of the time, La Pasionaria, put it, “The whole state apparatus was destroyed, and state power lay in the streets.” Although the Giral government laid claim to being the legal government of Spain and presented its followers as “loyalists,” it bore little resemblance to the liberal parliamentary government foreseen in the Republican constitution. Nonetheless, the forces opposed to the Nationalists are usually called “Republicans.”
It was to take the central government months to regain control of the streets in Madrid and the other parts of the country where the Nationalist movement had failed. In the early months of the war, revolutionary committees, whose composition varied from province to province, had far greater influence and power than the central government. Republican Spain became de facto a confederation of regions governed, to the extent that they were governed at all, by Socialist and Anarchist trade unions and their militias, working through juntas of various sorts.
The collapse of governmental control in the Republican zone was accompanied by an outbreak of terror. It was primarily the work of small groups from the revolutionary parties who organized themselves for this purpose. In Madrid, however, some of the killing was carried out by police units at least nominally controlled by the Republican government. Neither in Madrid nor elsewhere did the government initially make any serious effort to stop the violence.
Much of the terror took the form of attacks on the Catholic Church and its ministers. Between July 18 and July 31, 1936, fifty priests were assassinated in Madrid and a third of the capital’s one hundred fifty churches were sacked or burned. Anti-Catholic violence continued unabated through August in much of the Republican zone. During that month, more than two thousand priests and religious were killed. The violence against priests, religious, and others known as Catholics gradually tapered off after August 1936, although specific assassinations of priests and religious continued until the end of the war. By the end of the war, twelve bishops, more than 4,000 diocesan priests, and more than 2,500 religious had been killed. One of every seven diocesan priests and one of every five male members of religious orders died. In Escrivá’s home diocese of Barbastro, 123 of 140 priests were murdered. It is impossible to say exactly how many lay men and women were killed just because they were known as Catholics, but the number is large. Many of the victims were executed after summary trials before “people’s courts” set up by Anarchists, Socialists, Communists, and members of other left-wing parties. Others were simply lynched.
The terror of summer 1936 was accompanied by economic revolution. Workers’ militias and union groups seized control of whatever they found useful. In some areas, unions took de facto control of factories and other economic resources. In Madrid and its environs, where the government had somewhat more authority than elsewhere, about a third of all industry was brought under governmental control and directed to production of war materiel. In the countryside, Socialist and Anarchist unions seized large tracts of land. Often peasants continued to work the land on much the same terms as before, except that ultimate control now lay with a union rather than with a private landowner. In eastern Spain, hundreds of agrarian collectives were formed, each following a different pattern.
Close Calls in Revolutionary Madrid
JULY 1936–MARCH 1937
The Early Weeks of the Civil War
In Madrid, the center of the Nationalist uprising was the Montaña barracks, located directly across the street from Ferraz 16. Most of the members of the Opus Dei then in Madrid were getting the new residence ready. On July 19, 1936, government security forces and militiamen began blocking the streets leading to the barracks. That evening, at Escrivá’s urging, del Portillo, Hernández de Garnica, and Jiménez Vargas left the residence and went to their homes. They called the residence to tell Escrivá, Zorzano, and González Barredo that they had arrived safely. The next morning they gathered in Jiménez Vargas’s house.
Early on the morning of Monday, July 20, government security forces and militia units, supported by armored cars, cannons, and one or two planes, began an all-out attack on the Montaña barracks. By midday, they had captured the barracks and killed most of its defenders. With mobs forming outside, it was no longer possible to stay in the residence, so Escrivá, Zorzano, and González Barredo fled to the streets. To avoid being recognized as a priest, Escrivá had donned some overalls he found in the residence. Although the crown of his head was shaved, as was the custom for priests at the time, no one noticed, and he made it safely to his mother’s home. Zorzano and González Barredo also made it home safely.
Through the first week of August, Escrivá remained in hiding in his mother’s home, racked with anxiety about the members of the Work in and around Valencia (Vallespín, Casciaro, Botella, and Calvo Serer). He had not heard from them nor had he received any word about them. He was especially concerned about Hernández de Garnica, who had been jailed. The lives of prisoners were in constant jeopardy. Virtually every day, groups were taken out and shot without any kind of trial. In mid-August, a number of moderate political leaders being held in prison, including four former ministers in Republican governments, were assassinated.
Zorzano’s situation also became critical. Railroad workers had searched for him in vain in Málaga in order to assassinate him for his religious convictions. They then sent a photograph and information about him to their contacts in Madrid. For two months, he was obliged to remain at home. The apartment would probably not be searched because of a document proclaiming that it was under the protection of the Argentine embassy. Although this meant he was relatively safe at the apartment, going out would have been dangerous. Zorzano did not have an Argentine passport, because he had left Argentina as a child, and Argentina did not issue passports to children born there to Spanish parents until they completed their military service. He had a document indicating that he had been born in Argentina, but it provided little protection on the streets of revolutionary Madrid without an accompanying passport.
Escrivá spent most of his time in his family’s apartment praying for the Church, for Opus Dei and its members, and for his country. When he lacked the hosts and wine necessary to say Mass, he celebrated what he called a “dry Mass,” praying all the prayers of the Mass except the Consecration. Even in these difficult circumstances, he remained focused on the growth and development of the Work. The texts he used were frequently those from the Mass for vocations, with the Gospel that narrates the calling of the apostles.
The Giral Government and the Revolution

The Giral government faced a dilemma. It needed to restore governmental authority, both for its own sake and to avoid alienating its Western European backers. But it also needed to retain the support of the leftists on whom it depended. Privately, many members of the government were disturbed by the violence in the areas nominally under their control, but they lacked the means to stop it and were afraid even to speak out against it for fear of losing the support of the Socialists, Anarchists, and Communists.
The Military Struggle for Madrid
Nationalist leaders had hoped that resistance to their uprising might collapse in two or three days, but they had realized from the beginning that they might easily fail in Madrid. In that case, they would need to isolate and reduce the capital with attacks from the north and south. This, they thought, might take several weeks.
Plans for attacks from the north were quickly put into effect. By July 22, 1936, a column coming down from Burgos had reached the Somosierra Pass, twenty-five miles north of Madrid, where the road crosses the Guadarrama mountains. Another column coming down from Valladolid had reached the Alto de León pass, twenty miles northeast of Madrid. Both columns, however, were brought to a halt in heavy fighting.
The plans for attacking the capital from the south focused on the elite Army of Africa, comprised of about 30,000 Spaniards and 10,000 Moroccans, mostly volunteers. They were the best-trained and best-equipped units of the Spanish army.
In March 1937, in yet another attempt to isolate the capital, four Italian Fascist divisions, sent by Mussolini to help the Nationalists, attacked from the north in the direction of Guadalajara. After initial advances, the Fascists were pushed back by Republican forces, including the Garibaldi Brigade, made up of anti-Fascist Italians, supported by Russian tanks and aircraft. The failure of the Guadalajara offensive marked the end of the Nationalists’ attempts to capture or cut off Madrid.

On the Run
One day a mob hanged a man who looked like Escrivá from a lamppost in front of the building. The apartment was clearly not a safe hideout. Many people in the neighborhood knew that he was a priest. It was not easy, however, to find a better place. Even friends were reluctant to take in a priest, since his discovery in their home might mean their own deaths.
Wearing civilian clothes and his father’s wedding ring, Escrivá slipped down the back stairs and managed to reach a boardinghouse.
Shortly after Escrivá’s arrival, militia units carried out a search of the apartment immediately above Sainz’s. The next few weeks were free of such close calls, though they were filled with news of the death of friends and acquaintances, including priests and religious who died as martyrs. Occasionally there was good news, such as the letter from Vallespín to Zorzano saying that the members of the Work in Valencia, which had remained in the hands of the Republican government, were all safe.
As August wore on, Nationalist troops fought their way to within a few miles of the capital. On August 27, Nationalist aircraft bombed the city for the first time. This triggered new repression and heightened vigilance. On August 30, a group of militia entered the building where Saínz’s apartment was located and began a systematic search, starting in the basement. When they reached the third floor and banged on the door of Saínz’s apartment, the seventy-year-old servant held them briefly at the front door by pretending to be even more deaf than she was. Meanwhile, Escrivá, Jiménez Vargas, and Juan Manuel slipped up the back stairs to an attic used as a coal bin. Sainz, who was at work when the search began, came home while it was still in progress and was immediately arrested.
In the suffocating heat of the attic, as the fugitives heard the search drawing closer, Jiménez Vargas asked Escrivá what would happen if they were caught and killed. “We’ll go to heaven, my son,” Escrivá responded. Comforted by this reply, Jiménez Vargas stretched out on the floor covered with coal dust and went to sleep.
Eventually, the militia reached the section of the attic adjacent to their hiding spot. Escrivá whispered: “I am a priest. We are in danger. If you like, make an act of contrition, and I will give you absolution.” Juan Manuel commented later: “It took a lot of courage to tell me that he was a priest. Had they entered there, I might have tried to save my own life by denouncing him.” Fortunately, the militia left without searching the part of the attic where they were hiding.
During the second half of September, they remained there, together with del Portillo’s brother and Jiménez Vargas.
During the time they spent in the house on Serrano Street, Escrivá, del Portillo and his brother, and Jiménez Vargas tried to live as normal a life as possible. They were anxious to use their time well, because the sanctification of work and other ordinary activities is the heart of Opus Dei. With no books to study, they set up other activities including lectures on areas of their professional competence. Escrivá frequently preached meditations, and their schedule included fixed times for other acts of piety. This pattern recurred throughout the war. Whenever a group of Opus Dei members were together, they set up a schedule to facilitate making good use of their time.
Finding another refuge was urgent. Escrivá talked by phone with González Barredo, who said he was sure he could find them a place. Shortly thereafter, Escrivá met with González Barredo, but he turned down the refuge he offered. Escrivá threw the key down a sewer when he learned that the apartment’s only occupant was a young maid. “My son,” he said, “don’t you realize that I am a priest. With the war and the persecution, everyone’s nerves are on edge. I cannot and do not want to remain shut up day and night with a young woman. I have a commitment to God that is more important than anything else. I would prefer to die rather than offend God, rather than fail in that commitment of love.”
Once again, Escrivá, del Portillo, and Jiménez Vargas took to the streets without papers and with no place to go. Police and militia vigilance was intensifying due to fear that supporters of the Nationalist armies, now virtually surrounding the city, might stage an uprising. Many days the members of the Work wandered the streets from dawn to dusk because that was safer than staying in one place. Various friends, including Professor Selles and Dr. Herrero Fontana, took them in for a few days but were unable to offer a permanent refuge.

The Military Revolt Becomes the “National Movement”
Within a week of the Nationalist uprising, General Mola set up a seven-member junta of national defense. General Sanjurjo, the most senior general among the Nationalists and leader of the failed coup attempt in 1932, was slated to be the president of the junta and the overall leader of the uprising, but he died in a plane crash on his way to Spain. The largely honorary presidency of the junta then fell to the next senior officer among the rebel leaders, General Cabanellas, an elderly Mason and well-known liberal who had served in the Cortes as a deputy.
At first, the military revolt lacked any well-defined political program beyond reestablishing law and order under a military government. Except in Navarra, where the Carlist monarchists were strong, the Nationalists had no particular desire to bring back the monarchy.
Nationalist leaders initially were even further from having well-defined cultural goals than they were from having a clear political plan. Reaction to the on-going revolution in the Republican zone, however, stimulated a cultural counterrevolution. The rejection of the liberal values and institutions of the Enlightenment and the restoration of traditional values and attitudes served as the emotional and ideological support of the Nationalist cause during the long civil war.
Religious revivalism played a prominent part in the cultural counterrevolution, although it too was foreign to the early plans of the leaders of the military uprising. Their initial proclamations said nothing about defending the Church or religion. In one of his earliest statements, General Mola declared that “the Church ought to be separated from the State for the good of both institutions.” Even as late as October 1, 1936, General Franco said that the State would not be confessional. Supporters of the Falange desired amicable Church-State relations but wanted a clear separation of the two. The nominal leader of the junta of national defense, General Cabanellas, was a well-known member of the anticlerical Radical party.
Despite the initial absence of religious elements in the plans of Nationalist military leaders, persecution of the Church in the Republican zone rallied a vast majority of practicing Catholics to the Nationalist cause. At first, Church leaders were cautious in their statements. Pope Pius XI was well disposed toward those who defended the Church against one of the most bitter persecutions it had ever suffered, but he was reluctant to take sides officially. In a private audience in September 1936, he spoke of the victims of religious persecution as martyrs and gave his blessing to those who were striving to defend religion. He focused, however, on the religious aspects of the conflict, “over and above all political and worldly considerations,” and warned against the dangers of unjustifiable excesses, while calling for compassion and mercy. Press censors in the Nationalist zone suppressed parts of the text before allowing it to be published.
The Spanish hierarchy issued no sweeping collective statements in favor of the Nationalists in the early stages of the war. By fall 1936, however, prominent bishops, especially the primate and archbishop of Toledo, Cardinal Gomá, had openly embraced the Nationalist cause. In a pastoral letter issued at the end of November 1936, Gomá described the conflict as “a war waged by the Christian and Spanish spirit against another spirit. . . .”
Although most of the Nationalist leaders were far more interested in law and order than in religion or culture, they were quick to take advantage of these sources of popular support. By mid-August 1936, General Mola pledged to raise over the new state “the cross that was and remains the symbol of our religion and our faith.”
The only significant exception to the general rule of Catholic support for the Nationalists was in the Basque country. Many devout Catholic Basques, including Basque priests, supported the Republic. Most of them were traditionalists, who might have been expected to support the Nationalists for political as well as religious reasons, but their desire for Basque autonomy outweighed other considerations. In return for an autonomy statute for the Basque country, the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) joined the Caballero government in September 1936. In response, the Nationalists expelled the bishop of Victoria. They complained that he had not disciplined the pro-Republican clergy of his dioceses, even though he generally supported the Nationalist cause. In October 1936, the Nationalists executed twelve Basque priests for political crimes. During the entire course of the war, the Nationalists executed fourteen Basque priests, and the Republicans fifty-eight.
By August 1936, the insurgents had begun to call their movement “Nationalist,” but most of the prominent leaders of the movement had little enthusiasm for the doctrines of the Falange, the National Socialist party in Germany, or other radical “Nationalist” movements in Europe. They intended to maintain an all-military government until the end of the civil war, but they had no clear plans for the more distant future beyond a vague conservative authoritarianism.
The Nationalists faced significant civilian opposition, even in the northern provinces where their uprising met with initial success and where they probably enjoyed the support of the majority of the population. In the impoverished areas of the south and southwest, which the Nationalists conquered during the first few months of the war, a large portion of the population bitterly opposed them.
Opponents faced brutal repression. Historians have debated at length about the extent of the repression by the two sides. One carefully conducted study recently concluded that during the war there were 70,000 executions in the Republican zone and 40,000 in the Nationalist zone, with another 30,000 carried out by the Franco government between the end of the war and 1950. It seems unlikely that there will be consensus on the numbers, but clearly large numbers of civilians were killed, and horrors and atrocities abounded on both sides.
The harshness of the repression practiced by both sides was partially based on the need to pacify areas in which popular resistance could be expected. Additionally, the intense ideological conflicts of the preceding years had served to demonize opponents and thus to justify in the minds of many even the most extreme measures. This, combined with the horror caused by the violence against churches and churchmen in the Republican zone, helps explain the public silence of many Church leaders in the face of Nationalist excesses. Bishops and priests frequently intervened on behalf of individual victims of Nationalist repression. By and large, however, they did not speak out publicly, although Bishop Marcelino Olachea of Pamplona did issue an impassioned plea for compassion and pardon in November 1936: “Not a drop of blood in vengeance!”

Franco Takes Power in Nationalist Spain
During the first two months of the war, the junta of national defense made little effort to develop a governmental structure or even to impose any uniform plan on the various parts of Spain nominally under its control. Commanders on the different fronts enjoyed a high degree of autonomy and often clashed with each other.
As the Nationalist forces drew closer to Madrid in September 1936, the need for a unified command became more urgent. Franco was not a member of the junta, but his command of the Army of Africa and his successful bids for aid from Mussolini and Hitler gave him authority among the Nationalists. On September 29, 1936, the members of the junta named him generalísimo and chief of state, investing him with “all powers of the new state.” He adopted the title Caudillo, a classic Spanish term for leader that rapidly took on some of the overtones of the Italian Duce adopted by Mussolini and the German Fuerher used by Hitler.
Franco immediately replaced the junta of national defense with a technical junta that included only one of the members of the now dissolved junta of national defense. The new organization was not designed as a long-term solution but rather as an expedient to oversee the war effort. It would, however, serve as the government of the Nationalist zone for almost a year and a half, until Franco finally formed a regular government.

Largo Caballero Replaces Giral
At the beginning of September 1936, the Socialists withdrew their support from Giral, whose government collapsed. His successor as prime minister, Largo Caballero, was the leader of the most revolutionary wing of Spanish socialism, the Unión General de Trabajadores. He formed a government comprised of five Socialists (two revolutionaries and three moderates), four Left-Republicans, two Communists, one Basque Nationalist, and one nominal Socialist, who by this time was actually aligned with the Communists. He invited the Anarchists to join the government, but they preferred to lend their support without entering the cabinet.
Caballero was determined to create an effective army. His efforts to transform the militias into a People’s Army met with resistance from many of his political allies, especially the Anarchists, who saw an army as the antithesis of everything for which they were fighting. Caballero’s reputation as a revolutionary firebrand, however, made it possible for him to use more professional officers, at least in staff positions, and to reorganize the militias into brigades of a People’s Army. These measures would have been politically impossible for Giral.
In early November 1936, when the Nationalists had already entered the suburbs of Madrid, the Anarchists sacrificed their principles in a last desperate attempt to prevent a Nationalist victory. Four of them entered the Caballero government, which was expanded from thirteen to eighteen ministers. A few days later, on November 6, 1936, in the face of what seemed the imminent Nationalist capture of Madrid, the government moved to Valencia. The leading civil servants and politicians of all parties, except the Communists, abandoned Madrid, opening the door to Communist dominance after the unexpected success of Republican forces in resisting the Nationalist offensive against the capital.

* * *

The rapid division of the country into two zones, and the breakdown of communications within the Republican zone, separated the members of Opus Dei who were outside Madrid from Escrivá and the rest of the members in Madrid. The outbreak of violent class conflict and religious persecution throughout the Republican zone interrupted Opus Dei’s corporate apostolic activities and obstructed its members’ personal apostolate with their friends, colleagues, and relatives. Like many other Spaniards, a number of the members found their lives in danger and were forced to go into hiding.

Close Calls in Revolutionary Madrid JULY 1936–MARCH 1937
In Dr. Suils’s Asylum for the Mentally Ill
Dr. Suils, a former classmate of Escrivá’s in Logroño, had already given refuge to several people in a private asylum for the mentally ill that he operated in Madrid. Although he had not seen Escrivá since their school days, when he learned about his plight, he offered to take him in. Dr. Herrero Fontana used a car from the hospital where he worked to transfer Escrivá from his home to the asylum. He put Escrivá in the back seat and told the militiaman who was driving that the patient was delusional but not dangerous. During the drive to the asylum, Escrivá talked to himself, asserting from time to time that he was a well-known physician and author, Dr. Marañón. The act convinced the driver, who commented, “If he’s that crazy, it’s better just to shoot him and not waste time on him.”

Escrivá’s brother, Santiago, soon joined him in the asylum. González Barredo and Jiménez Vargas, who had been arrested and held briefly in jail, also sought refuge there, but they soon were forced to leave.

The asylum was far from being a safe hiding place. One day, militia came and took away one of the patients. Another day, a group of militia came on a tip that some of the patients were in fact political refugees. As the inmates were being lined up, one of the real patients walked right up to a militiaman and asked whether his gas mask was a wind or a string instrument. The encounter so unnerved the militiamen that they abandoned the search, exclaiming, “Let’s get out of here. These people are raving mad.” One of the nurses, however, suspected that some patients were not as crazy as they pretended to be; and as the number of refugees increased, the risk of denunciations grew.

After the first few days, Escrivá was able to say Mass daily in his room. A friendly nurse stationed herself on a couch in the hall outside. If it appeared that someone was going to enter the room, she would signal Escrivá, who would shut the doors of the closet where he had arranged the things for Mass. After Mass he gave Holy Communion to some of the refugees, and when he left in March, he gave them small particles of the consecrated Host wrapped individually in cigarette paper. That way, even after his departure, they were able to receive Holy Communion while respecting the liturgical rules of the time that prohibited lay people from touching the Host. One of the refuges commented afterward, “I recall that incident very well, because I was impressed by the profound respect he had for the Blessed Sacrament.”

The months in the asylum were marked by intense suffering. There was little food and almost no heat. Escrivá suffered a severe rheumatism attack that kept him in bed for two weeks. Worse than the physical privations were the isolation, the need to feign madness and, above all, the uncertainty surrounding the precarious situations of the other members of the Work.

* * *

The failure of the Nationalists’ repeated assaults on Madrid in late 1936 and early 1937 led them to abandon their efforts to capture Madrid as a means of ending the conflict. The war was transformed into one of attrition and occupation that was destined to last until the spring of 1939. The change in the character of the war is clearer in retrospect than it was at the time to the members of the Work, whose information came entirely from heavily censored press reports and unreliable rumors. Nonetheless, by early 1937, even their sketchy and unreliable information suggested that the war would probably not end soon. The time had come to seek safer and more stable refuge and to begin finding ways to carry on Opus Dei’s apostolate in a country that might be indefinitely divided by war. In examining their response to these new circumstances, it is helpful first to outline the course of the war from March 1937 to its conclusion on April 1, 1939.

Seeking Refuge in Madrid. The Honduran Legation
The Legation of Honduras
González Barredo found refuge in January 1937 in the legation of Honduras through a friend of the consul’s son-in-law. The legation occupied two floors of a Madrid apartment building that had been the residence of the acting consul general of Honduras, a diplomat from San Salvador. It enjoyed limited diplomatic immunity. A mere legation headed by a consul of a small country would get much less respect than a full-fledged embassy—and even embassies had been invaded in December 1936. In any case, it offered more security than the asylum.

González Barredo’s efforts to obtain permission for other members of the Work to join him proved fruitless at first. The consul was well disposed, but the place was already overflowing with refugees. Finally, on March 13, del Portillo was able to get into the legation. The next day, Zorzano went with a car of the legation to pick up Escrivá and his brother, Santiago. On the way back, three separate patrols stopped them, but each time they were allowed to continue. A few days later, they were joined by Eduardo Alastrue.

Vallespín, serving in the Republican army, took advantage of a brief leave in March 1937 to make his way to Madrid. Bearded and dressed in a militia uniform, he knocked at the door of Zorzano’s apartment. Zorzano immediately took him to visit Escrivá and the others at the legation. Vallespín considered the possibility of remaining in the legation in the hope of evacuation through diplomatic channels, but he eventually decided to return to his unit and look for an opportunity to cross the front. Two months later, in May 1937, he managed to slip across the front to the Nationalist side.

Jiménez Vargas joined the group in the legation on April 7, 1937. Moved by the conviction that Escrivá and the others needed him in Madrid, he had deserted the Anarchist militia unit in which he had been serving and had returned to the capital. Despite the danger of harboring a deserter, even briefly, Zorzano took him in immediately and hurried to Vargas’s house to find his civilian clothes. As soon as he had arranged for Vargas to find refuge with the other members of the Work in the legation of Honduras, Zorzano returned home and burnt Vargas’s uniform.

Although it was far from entirely safe, the legation had a number of advantages. It was less risky than the asylum, and a number of members of the Work could be together there. Most important, it seemed that the consul might be able to arrange for all the refugees in the legation to be evacuated from Spain through diplomatic channels.

The legation was packed with almost a hundred refugees: mostly men, a few women, and even a child. Doctors, lawyers, and engineers constituted the majority, but there were also priests, professors, army officers, and an artist. The apartments that comprised the legation were totally inadequate for so many people. On Escrivá’s floor there was a single toilet for thirty people. Food was barely sufficient to keep people alive and consisted primarily of a type of beans used in peacetime to feed animals. Often the beans were infested with bugs.

Most of the refugees did nothing but wait for the war to end, worry about the possibility that any moment the militia might invade and carry them away, and ruminate over what they had lost. One of the members of the Work describes their daily life:

"After a long night spent on a cot, the refugees had to await their turn for the bathroom, whose use was tightly regulated. I don’t recall any breakfast at all. The morning stretched ahead endlessly and was spent talking, daydreaming, or sleeping again. Very few read or studied. Then, after a wretched meal served at midday on a dilapidated table, came a seemingly interminable afternoon as tedious as the morning. Supper was served quite late and was just as thin as the midday dinner. Afterward, the refugees retired to await another day as depressing and empty as the previous one".

Nerves were on edge, and arguments broke out frequently. Alastrue recalls:

"Some spent the time silently bemoaning their misfortune. Others poured out their troubles, bitterly lamenting family setbacks, career or business losses, and the uncertain future. Ever-present was the fear awakened by past sufferings and persecutions, a fear that painted the world outside our asylum as uninhabitable. In some cases, fear spilled over into hatred for the enemy, a hatred powerless for the moment but buoyed by the prospect of future revenge".

At first, the members of the Work were scattered around the apartment, but soon the consul gave them a room for themselves. It measured about a hundred square feet, little bigger than a small bedroom for one person in a modest home. Its only window looked out on an air shaft and provided little ventilation. The room was so dark that most of the day they had to keep lit the bare bulb that hung from the ceiling. The furniture consisted of five long, thin cushions that they folded and stacked next to the walls during the day in place of chairs. At night, they rolled out four of the cushions, totally covering the floor where the six of them slept.

Because of the other refugees’ fears, most of the priests hiding in the legation said Mass only rarely, but Escrivá was undeterred. At first he celebrated Mass in the vestibule and reserved the Blessed Sacrament in a silver box that he placed inside a decorative metal chest he kept in a locked compartment in a sideboard in the vestibule. Soon, however, other refugees protested that his saying Mass in the vestibule was dangerous; and in May, the consul asked him to stop using the vestibule. From then on he said Mass every day in their small room. The altar was some suitcases piled on top of empty crates, and the chalice a crystal glass. After Mass they kept the Blessed Sacrament in a wallet that they took turns carrying.

The early years of Opus Dei: Historical, political and social situation in Spain. Condensed from the book written by the history expert John Coverdale, Uncommon Faith, chapters 1 and 3-18