While we were there I noticed that the old church of “La Capilla de Santa Cruz” was open. This was the first time that I saw it open because the wooden beam roof had fallen in some years ago and it had been closed for a long time. It was replaced about twenty years ago by a new church, “Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe”, and had been in disuse all this time. Now the roof has been patched up (sort of) and it is being used as some kind of community center where meetings are held. This church is special because it was built way back in 1723 to serve a small community of about 400 people. It was built with local labor and materials and is of simple construction. In 1913 father Bernabé de Jesús Méndez Montoya was assigned to the little village of Valtierrilla as the pastor of this church. He labored long and hard and became very involved by the community. He practiced his Catholicism openly and carried out his duties despite the growing pressure by the government to abandon his religious activities lest he be considered a rebellious “Cristero”.
On the 5th of February 1928 government troops entered the town while Padre Méndez was saying mass and knowing that danger was imminent Padre Méndez took the consecrated hosts and hid them in his garments. He tried to escape the church building when the soldiers entered but he was caught and when they found the consecrated hosts in his garments they asked him if he was a priest and he told them that he was. He asked the soldiers if he might have a moment to pray and they relented and after praying he quickly ate the hosts so that they would not be defiled. He then told the soldiers that they could do whatever they wished with him. They obliged by taking him to the edge of town, putting him in front of a firing squad, and shooting him dead. Pope John Paul II declared Padre Méndez beatified on November 22, 1992.
When I entered the church I could see that the old altar had been removed and on the wall behind where it must have stood there was a large portrait of Padre Méndez. I had the place all to myself and I closed my eyes and imagined how it must have been 81 years ago when Padre Méndez met his test of faith. I enjoyed a moment of reflection and felt a deep sense of peace. Several hours later we arrived back home in Irapuato and I happened to check my e-mail. I had received a letter from a lady named Lucy who had read my post about Valtierrilla from last year and she thanked me for writing it because it was her husband's home town and he still had family there who ran a grocery store. She told me about an experience that his family had not long ago when a poor family was passing through Valtierrilla and because of some misfortune had no money and could not continue their journey. All of a sudden they showed up at the grocery store to buy some food with money that they said the young pastor of the little church had given them. They said that he told them that everything was going to be okay and the priest they described was Padre Méndez. Lucy wanted to know if I had heard of any other people who might have had the same experience.
Now I can imagine what some of you might be thinking. Yes I had those same thoughts too but what a coincidence, eh, that a couple hours after I had been in the church reflecting on Padre Méndez I get this message from Lucy. She invited me to stop at the grocery store in Valtierrilla and visit with her husband's family which I just might do. This thing struck a chord with me because it is not the first time something like this has happened to me. A number of years ago I was in the hospital and in intensive care after a very serious operation to remove a large tumor that was lodged against my heart. I was not sure whether I was going to live or die. My wife, Gina, who at the time was my steady lady friend was at my bedside and suddenly there appeared at the foot of my bed an old priest. We didn't even see him come in. We just looked up and there he was. He put on a priestly stole and said a few prayers and gave me a blessing and he told me that everything was going to be alright and then he turned around abruptly and walked out. I told Gina to run after him and bring him back so that I could thank him but when she went out into the hall there was nobody there except some nurses at the nurses' station. She asked them where the priest went and they said that they hadn't seen anybody. Not long after that I began to recover and thank God I am still here. So then, tell me. Is this all just a series of coincidences, hysteria, and hallucinations? Personally I just don't know but I think that I will follow the biblical counsel of “Test all things” and “Hold fast to that which is good” and I hope to see all of you next year in Valtierrilla for some nopal ice cream. My treat!