Msgr Gerard Burns
A martyr is someone who witnesses to faith until death. I have met three people who will officially be declared martyrs by the Church later this year. They are three priests – Miguel Tomaszek, Zbigniew Strzalkowski and Sandro Dordi – who were assassinated in Peru in 1991.
I was working as a priest in the diocese of Chimbote, an industrial city on the northern coast of Peru from 1989‒1994. My parish was made up of various small suburbs of people struggling for food, water, housing and work. It had about 30,000 people, five churches, four shared kitchens, a medical post and an extensive catechetical programme.
Peru is a country of great natural beauty, amazing historical heritage and major social and economic inequalities. From the early 1980s two revolutionary groups looked to overthrow the government. The more sectarian group was the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), which began in the Peruvian mountains and was met with repressive responses from police and army units.
The diocese included an extensive mountain region that led up into major food-producing areas. The Shining Path sought to control those areas and the access routes to them. On those access routes were various small villages, many poor farmers and some sprawling parishes. One parish was staffed by three Polish conventual Franciscan priests (Miguel, Zbigniew and Jaroslav) and another was staffed by an Italian diocesan priest (Sandro).
Miguel, Zbigniew and Jaroslav were in their early 30s and arrived in the diocese of Chimbote about the same time as I did in 1989. Finding their way with the language and the culture of Peru and full of vitality they visited the many corners of their vast parish. I met them various times. Fr Sandro had been in Peru longer and worked determinedly in his parish. He lived a life of great simplicity and dressed in similar garb to the country people he served.
The rural parishes of these four priests were engaged in similar kind of catechetical and social assistance work as I was doing in the urban context. Their work involved much travel to outlying villages by four-wheel drive, horse-back or hiking. Where the government presence was minimal, the Church presence in various forms was strong. It was because of this, the SL groups in the area decided the Church presence should be removed. The catechetical work of the priests and catechists and assistance with crops and irrigation meant armed revolution had less attraction.
The Polish priests were certainly warned they should go, while Fr Sandro was aware of the dangers he faced. In July 1991 the SL made a decision to frighten off foreign (‘imperialist’) Church personnel in the Chimbote region. I was leaving the city by bus for some fundraising work abroad when I heard that a Spanish priest in Chimbote had been attacked on returning to his house from Sunday evening Mass. He had miraculously survived but was in hospital with a bullet in his jaw. We initially thought it was attempted robbery.
Two weeks later on a Friday afternoon an SL column arrived in the mountain village of Pariacoto where the Polish Franciscans lived. Frs Miguel and Zbigniew (Fr Jaroslav was away) were about to celebrate a Mass followed by a meeting with the youth group when they were advised the column was looking for them. They celebrated the Mass and then told the youth group to return home as the SL group entered the church. They were taken prisoner and held in their jeep while the SL searched for the mayor and the government agent.
While that search went on one of the local religious sisters got into the jeep and heard the conversation between the priests and the SL representatives about why the SL saw them as a problem.
Having found the mayor, the SL decided to go back up the mountains. They put the sister out of the jeep, took the priests a kilometre up the hill and shot them in the middle of the dusty, stony road. The shots were heard in the village below. A sign was left on them saying ‘This is how those who speak of peace die’.
This story concludes in June Wel-Com. Msgr Gerard Burns is Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Wellington, parish priest of St Joseph’s, Mt Victoria, and of Te Parihi o te Ngakau Tapu personal parish for Māori.