This article was translated by John R. Bopp

It’s hard for us to talk about the Passionist Fathers without being overwhelmed by a mixture of feelings: the pride in knowing that our country, our Basque community, was able, for over a century, to offer the energy of some extraordinary people who were able to do so much and so much good in the worst circumstances; the sorrow at seeing how their colossal, homeric, epic poetry-worthy work is diluted in a society which far too often is blinded by shiny trinkets and lives ignorant of the immense wealth that lives in the hearts, and works, of many good people; admiration, felt since we were young, in knowing about the commitment of many of them to helping those persecuted by Francoism; and also personal shame at not having known about this extraordinary work in the Amazon until recently, at least regarding its magnitude.

Ultimately, we can only talk about the Passionists from the “passion” born of admiration and respect for their work and commitment to humanity.  After all, as we’ve commented before, we were born in Barakaldo and went to the Salesian school, meaning, and we say this proudly, we can appreciate missionary  work based on the defense of the weak and the commitment with Social Justice especially well.

Monseñor Miguel irizar
Monsignor Miguel Irizar 

We’re writing this article on the first anniversary of the passing of Miguel Irizar C.P., a great Passionists and a great Basque, dedicated to the “Church of Jesus of Nazareth” that was born of the Second Vatican Council.  Between 1972 and 1989, he was the bishop of the Vicariate of Yurimaguas, located at the heart of the Peruvian jungle, before being named the Bishop of El Callao, at the administrative heart of Peru. He retired to San Felicísimo of Deusto in Bilbao, and passed away on August 19, 2018, missing his jungle, his congregation, and his fellow brothers.

We’re writing this article on this sad anniversary as an “excuse” to do our part to preserving this glorious part of our society’s history in the collective memory of the Basques.  We’ve blogged, with respect and pride, about many extraordinary people, well-known and anonymous, who, over the centuries, have made sure our small people have had and have a starring role in History.  In this part of “the best” of our Homeland are many missionaries who dedicated their lives, and lost them, to helping those who had nothing. We’ve blogged about Basque missionaries on many occasions, but we’ve always had the feeling that it wasn’t enough, a feeling that becomes more intense when we think about the Passionists.

12 Basque Passionists in the Peruvian jungle in 1913
12 Basque Passionists in the Peruvian jungle in 1913

Because when we see these twelve young men next to Monsignor Emilio Lissón, Bishop of Chachapoyas, in the photo at the top of this entry, we can’t help but wonder if they were aware or not of the exceptional work they were about to undertake, whether they understood if that was really their destiny, or what their destiny really was.

Passionist Fathers sailing the rivers of the Peruvian Amazonia
Passionist Fathers sailing the rivers of the Peruvian Amazonia

These young Basque men must have left convinced that their mission was to “convert savages” and “save souls”.  But soon they realized that their true mission was to collaborate in creating a fairer society, where even the humblest person in that jungle could receive meical care, education, civil rights, housing…and that, in general, they would be recognized that respected as citizens.  That they understood, and practiced, right from their arrival, with the stron push and backing needed for that work, fifty years later, in the Second Vatican Council, in which they would actively participate.

Missionary schools in Yurimaguas
Missionary schools in Yurimaguas

They were not about “giving people fish”, but rather “teaching how to fish”.  Even they had to learn first in order to teach: learn how to manufacture roof tiles and bricks, to build roads, boats, buildings, shops, schools, etc.  They set up printing presses, radio and TV stations. All their energy, and it was a lot, given the results, was dedicated to one fundamental mission: improving the lives of those people, giving them the resources and autonomy they needed as people and as a community.

Communion in the Jungle
Communion in the Jungle

This doesn’t mean they gave up their role as missionaries.  They never ceased to transmit and share the Faith they professed.  They did so with their example, with commitment, sacrifice, and respect.  Their Faith, like the Twelve Apostles following Jesus of Nazareth, in the Peruvian jungle, and that of all those who continued their work, improving and straightening the path they started, is the faith of those who live by the refrain that is so ingrained in the Basque mentality: Dios rogando y con el mazo dando (Pray to God but hammer away).

What’s more, their goal was never to become essential.  Their mission, their goal, wasn’t to become leaders, but rather collaborators.  One of their main goals was to train people to help create a society capable of handling itself.  Today, the Basque Passionist community is dwindling in the Peruvian Amazonia. The reasons are obvious: the Basque society of the 21st centuryis not the same as it was 100 years ago, or even 50.  There is no longer the same commitment with Faith, nor the same number of young men. But this diminishing Basque Passionist presence is not a symbol of failure, nor a cause of it. This is so because thanks to the hard work of all those years, the inhabitants of that region themselves can now take the reins.

However, we’re sure that the Passionist Community will continue there, working and maintaining their dedication to the mission.

In this new scene, the basic role of Basque society needs to change, and is: supporting it by giving it the resources necessary to encourage development projects, actively and committedly collaborating  in building a more fair and balanced world.

Ultimately, what we’re writing about in our blog is a shadow of the more than 100 years of authentic Basque history in the jungles of northern Peru, work carried out by the Vicariate of Yurimaguas, with its headquarters in the capital of the province of Alto Amazonas.

Today, along with our thoughts, we can share elements we find key, to help everyone get a glimpse of the incredible magnitude of the work of the Basque Passionists.

    • First, there’s an article by a historian at the UPV, Oscar Álvarez Gila, one of the people who has studied the work of Basque missionaries most.
    • We’d also like to make available to all our readers a book that the Brotherhood of Our Lady of Aranzazu published in 2015 titled “100 Years of the Passionist Presence in Peru”, which tells not only what happened, but also includes extensive documentation that will help us get an idea of the immense amount of work carried out with the poorest of the poor over the last century.
    • We’d also like to share three videos that have an immense historical value that will help us understand this gigantic amount of work in a different light.

But it’s important to note that we can do this because there have been people who have been able to preserve and collect this priceless documentation.  Once again, we have to turn to the members of the Brotherhood of Our Lady of Aranzazu in Lima who, since 1612, have assembled the “members of the Basque nation” in that part of the world.  We are once again quoting them, as we’ve done so often before, because they have been faithful to the commitment they were founded with, and have protected the legacy of the Basques in that part of the world.  It was they who, in 2013, on the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the first Basque Passionists, organized the religious and academic acts to pay homage to this group of Basques.

The Passionists of Peru, and Bishop Irizar himself, are being silenced and “forgotten” by the public institutions and media of Peru, a country whose most needy the Passionsists served for over a century.  Perhaps that silence is due to the Passionist community’s struggle for and commitment to the weakest.

In that situation of injustice and abuse of power, the Bazán-Aguilar family led the Brotherhood’s event planning, helping Monsignor Irizar break that circle of silence and isolation.  They did so supporting him in putting together and advertising the different explanatory and academic activities organized to commemorate the Centenary throughout the places where the Brotherhood is active.  This meant they were held not only in Peru but also in New York, Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, Boston, Bilbao, Santiago de Compostela… This global reach also meant it was big news in Peru.  Of course, this sometimes meant having to purchase ad space that should really have been news, given the importance of the commemoration, at the market rate.

As we said at the beginning, we can’t help but recognize that we feel we owe a great debt to the Basque Passionists, to those who went on missions in order to make a better world in the harshest of places, and to those who, in the darkest years of the post-war, when the monster of Francoism bit hardest, helped those persecuted by the dictatorship escape its talons.  We feel we owe them. It’s a debt that we can never repay, but we hope to at least pay back part of it by remembering the commitment that has turned them into heroes, into martyrs, and, especially, into good people who were worthy followers of the most worthy principles of the faith they profess.

Today, August 19, on the first anniversary of the passing of Miguel Irizar, the Brotherhood of Our Lady of Aranzazu and the Aranzazu Eusko Etxea of Lima have prepared a series of events to pay homage to this Basque Passionist Father, whose work left a profound mark on the Peruvian Amazonia.  These homages include an academic event in Lima and memorial acts throughout the Americas: New York, Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, and Boston.

Oscar Álvarez-Gila, doctor in History and researcher at the UPV, offers us this article, written for this occasion, and historical perspective.  The book we include after that (in .pdf) also includes a marvelous foreword by him.


Oscar Álvarez-Gila. Doctor en historia. Investigador UPV/EHU

Óscar Álvarez Gila is a doctor in History at the University of the Basque Country, where he is currently working as professor of New World Hisotry. During the 2008-9 course, he was a Visiting Fellow at the European Studies Center at the University of Oxford. Two years later, he was the W. Douglass Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the University of Nevada, Reno. Moreover, in 2013-4, he was the Elena Días-Verson Amos Eminent Scholar in Latin American Studies at Columbus State University in Georgia. Finally, during the 2016-7 course, he had a research stay at the University of Stockholm as the Magnus Mörner Memorial Professor. His research is especially focused on the study of international migrations during the 19th and 20th centuries, with special focus on emigration from the Basque Country to France, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, and Cuba. This line of work has allowed him to also study the links between religion and emigration, the institutionalization of emigrant communities, as well as the culture and construction of identities in the communities of the diaspora. He has also worked on and collaborated in inter-disciplinary research on topics related to migration and climate change, and, more recently, on topics linking genetics and history.

The Passionists in the Basque Country

Founded in the 18th century in Italy by Paul Francis Danei (St. Paul of the Cross), the Congregation of the Passion of Jesus Christ, as they are formally known, or the Passionist Fathers more commonly, at the end of the 1870s, decided to start over again on the Iberian Peninsula.  Fruit of those first steps was the first convent on the outskirts of Deusto, in Biscay, which would soon receive governmental authorization via a Royal Order on July 12, 1880.  A convent had been born, to be then followed by a sanctuary and the parish of San Felicísimo.

After the end of the first Carlist War, and after the process of secularization and expropriation of the religious orders had taken place, these were banned and closed in Spanish territory.  Monks and friars had to abandon their cloisters and either become normal priests in some cases, or escape into exile to continue living in a convent in others.  That was when the colonial governors of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines exclaimed horrified: “without religious orders, these territories will be lost to us,” they said.  And that was how religious orders survived and flourished in the colonies, while becoming illegal on the mainland.  Throughout the whole of the mainland?  No; the same law allowed for “overseas missionary schools” to operate on the mainland in order to prepare religious who would immediately be sent to the other side of the ocean.

In the first decades, there were only three religious orders allowed to have these missionary schools.  After the Concordat of 1853, however, this rule was broadened to include other orders and congregations.  And that was how many religious who had been secularized, and many religious orders that had been dissolved, found a way back into legality.  The new convents that were thusly opened in the following decades would not be convents as such, but splendid “missionary schools”.

And here, again, we come across the Passionist fathers.  Understanding what the law made clear, they sent out a first expedition to find the best place to open their first convent, or rather, missionary school.  And they couldn’t find a place better than the Basque provinces, which were already famous for being one of the largest sources of vocations for the Catholic Church in Europe.  That old saying, “euskaldun, fidedun” (Basque, believer) was not, in those closing decades of the 19th century, an exaggeration but rather a great truth.  Even in 1950, when receiving a visit from a delegation of Athletic Bilbao, Pope Pius XII expressed his joy in receiving visitors from a land “blessed by God” for its high number of vocations for the Church.  It would still be several decades before the consequences of that profound transformation caused by the Second Vatican Council and the accelerated secularization process Basque society underwent in the 1970s would be felt.

The Beginnings in the Americas

So, in 1887, the Passionists were spreading throughout Spain to such a degree that it led the leaders of the order to decide that it would be a good idea to create their own demarcation, the so-called “Passionist province of the Holy Heart of Jesus”.  In that province, several convents that had recruited the first Passionists as missionaries in Basque territories were included, and they had begun to spread to several countries in the New World.  The nerve center of that new province, to which several Basque vocations had already started coming, was set up in their oldest convent, in San Felicísimo de Deusto, the obvious choice.  There, for a century, Basque Passionists would manage their presence in several different areas of Latin America.

It all got started, as the law made clear, in Cuba, which was still a Spanish colony.  Getting his official recognition as an “overseas missionary”, which involved the economic and material support of the Spanish government for moving to the New World, the provincial superior himself moved to the Caribbean island to handle the opening of their first New World convent, in Santa Clara.

But this was not the first foundation of the Passionists in the Americas.  They had already settled in the United States, with a strong presence that had allowed them to try to expand the order throughout Latin America, with convents being founded in Mexico (1856), Argentina, and Chile (1890).  However, as Antonio Artola writes in his chronicle of the hundred years of the Passionists in Deusto, the differences in mentalities between the Anglo-Saxons and Latin people made adapting difficult.  Thus, it was believed that the Basques, given their past and present relationship with those territories, might be able to handle those convents better.  Of course, this was happening at the same time as many Basques were emigrating to countries such as Argentina or Chile.  Therefore, suddenly, the Basque Passionists found themselves in charge of what they called the “Great Unified Commissariat of Cuba-Mexico-Chile”, with three countries and thousands of miles between them.  By 1891, the first Basque Passionists were present in Chile, where they opened a novitiate in Viña del Mar and a residence in Ñuñoa, a town close to the capital, Santiago.  The Chilean experiment must have been well received by the superiors in Rome, since, in 1893, the Passionists gathered in Deusto received the order to take charge of the only house of the order’s in Mexico, in Toluca.  The forces had to stretch themselves across a huge amount of area.  The characteristic activity of the Passionist congregation (which they were carrying out in Europe), was preaching missions, and it was at that time that the first mission was carried out in the three countries.  This main role was supplemented with receiving the public in convent churches.  Moreover, in Mexico and Cuba, work that was completely separate to the habitual work of the Passionists was begun: opening Catholic schools “to influence the Christian upbringing of the people” and to counter the laicism of education; also, in 1904, the first parish in Cuba, in Caibarién, was opened.

But as the saying goes, “Jack of all trades, master of none”.  By 1905, it was quite obvious for the superiors of the Passionist order that the unimaginable breadth of the unified commissariat made it impossible to do anything well.  So, after exploring several options, it was decided to reduce the area the Passionists were in charge of to their delegation in Chile, which at the time, despite the name, also included some recently established convents in Peru.  They didn’t know it at the time, but this country, in the end, was going to be the one that was most directly joined to the later missionary actions of the Basque Passionists.

The Passionists in Peru and the Apostolic Prefecture of Yurimaguas

In fact, between 1910 and 1920, while the Passionist presence was consolidated in Chile and Peru, opening new convents and intensifying pastoral activity (mission preaching, spiritual exercises, and especially the encouragement of associations, brotherhoods, and other devotions), the germ of division was growing in Europe.  While at first, Passionist vocations had mostly come from the Basque Country, the expansion throughout Spain led to an increase in Castilian religious, all of them integrated in the same province.  The growth of vocations, the increase of convents in Europe and the Americas, and also cultural differences led to the 1923 division of the original Passionist province.  The province of the Holy Heart, with its headquarters in Deusto, would basically include Basque territory.  In the Americas, Chile would go to the hands of the new Castilian province, while Basque Passionists would focus on Peru.  The move was quick: by 1926, all Basque Passionists who had been living in Chile had move to Lima.

We have to go back in time, however, to take a look at how those Basque Passionists got established in Peru starting in the 1910s.  When the bishop of the Peruvian diocese of Chachapoyas, on a trip to Rome, asked the Passionist general curia to send some religious to several of his parishes, the superior of the order decided to remit the petition to Bilbao.  As a consequence of those conversations, in 1913, the first Passionists of the Holy Heart arrived to the towns of Juanjuí, Tarapoto, Saposoa, and Moyobamba, on the shores of the Huallaga River, in the department of San Martín, that is to say, in the “brow of the mountain”, at the start of the Amazon region in Peru.  At the time, it was practically virgin territory, with no roads, and with a climate and social characteristics that were completely different to those the Basque Passionists knew in their homeland.

So it’s not surprising that the first years of their presence there were extremely difficult, to the point that the Basque Passionist superiors were convinced that it was necessary to “withdraw personnel from the Mission at the first best opportunity to establish themselves in more comfortable places on the coast of the same Republic”.  The former bishop of Chachapoyas, who was by then the archbishop of Lima, played his last card: after some wrangling with the Holy See in 1923, an apostolic prefecture was created in the Peruvian jungle, with its Seat in Yurimaguas, Loreto, and it was entrusted to the Passionists from Bilbao, in a region close to where they were already established.  An apostolic prefecture is a kind of embryo for a diocese, but in a mission’s territory.  And Celestino Jáuregui was named as the first prefect.

The first step taken in the prefecture was to create the non-existent ecclesiastical infrastructure in the territory.  Several chapels and temples were built along the two rivers in the prefecture, Huallaga and Marañón, with the constructure of the cathedral of Yurimaguas from 1928 to 1931 standing out.  The personnel also grew in Basque predominance: in 1923, Passionists from all over Spain were working there, but by 1931, almost all were Basque.  Moreover, from that same initial contract, the missionaries had committed themselves to sustaining certain social works: over the years, letters would arrive to the missionaries in the new prefecture saying things like, “The Esteemed Bishop would like the Fathers to establish there a basic agricultural school, for which the Bishop expects to receive the protection of the Government of Peru” or similar.  Education, in fact, acquired a central role in the work of the Passionists.  According to Juan Cruz Irízar, “almost all the schools in the Upper Amazon were missionary schools first, and then gradually became official or state schools”.  Several dispensaries were also established, and were staffed by Basque Lay Missionaries starting in the 1950s.  Regarding the indigenous population, primarily Aguarunas and Huambisas, the traditional system was followed: missionary expeditions.

“More urgent than a church, a residence, or a hospital is a fast boat,” said Celestino Jáuregi in one of his trips to Biscay.  The tributaries to the Amazon were the only means of communication in a region without trails or roads.  The Basque reply was quick in coming: in the 1920s, the Secretariat of Missions of Vitoria, with donations received from the Basque faithful, financed the prefecture’s first boat, called Our Lady of Begoña.  Following that, attempts were made at education based on stable agricultural centers near the chapels built along the prefecture’s rivers.  The years of changes, when the missionary action transformed, giving more importance to “the enculturation and defense of autochthonous values” would end up being the responsibility of the second vicar of Yurimaguas, Gregorio Olázar.

Parroquias pasionistas vascas en la costa peruana

The need of the prefecture of Yurimaguas to have representation in the country’s capital (among other reasons) explains the 1926 opening of the first Passionist house in Lima.  In order to remedy the provisional nature of the opening, they managed to get Archbishop Lissón to give them the management of a series of parishes in Lima and the surrounding area: Lince, Santa Beatriz, and Chorrillos.  It should be noted that these were accepted by the Bilbao Passionists only after express authorization from Rome, as parish ministries are expressly against the rules of the order.  In 1930, the Basque Passionist province, which had been providing personnel to the Yurimaguas mission for a while, then began to expand itself, with convents of its own, rather than of the mission’s in Peru, starting with Lima.  The Basque Passionists thereby started to spread to other cities on the Peruvian coast.  In 1935, they took charge of the Sullana parish, in Piura province, and started itinerant preaching missions from there through Piura and Tumbes.  Though they abandoned the parish in 1952, the missions didn’t stop, and they continued quite intensely from 1954 to 1960

The Nullius Prelature of Moyobamba

In 1948, those parishes in the diocese of Chachapoyas that the Passionists had taken over in 1913 and been running since then were finally grouped into their own ecclesiastical jurisdiction, to be run by the Passionists.  The first prelate of Moyobamba is the old Holy Heart provincial leader, Gipuzkoan Fulgencio Elorza.  For political reasons, it was not set up as a prefecture or apostolic vicariate, which are the legal terms for the missionary territories set up by the Holy See, but rather as the curiously named “prelature nullius”, which might be translated as “bishopric of nobody”: a territory that does not belong to any diocese, but for which a leader, or “prelate”, who has the title of bishop, is installed.

The creation of the new prelature did not, in practice, mean any significant variations in the actions the Basque Passionists carried out, except they now had the autonomy (and prestige) conferred onto them by the creation of the new seat and by having a bishop among their ranks.  The main goal set by the new prelate in his first years as bishop was to improve the material and human aspects of the Church, which at the time was tended to by only eleven priests.  First, women religious were called, who started arriving in 1956, as well as some secular priests, and in 1958, the initial number had been doubled.  Later, vocations from among the native populations would be sought.  Moreover, a system of Catholic schools was set up, run by the women religious, which was still getting started in 1962.  It is interesting to highlight that among the vocations Bishop Elorza recruited for Moyobamba was the interesting figure of Basque politics and culture, Jon Andoni Irazusta, who had been a deputy for the Basque Nationalist Party in the Spanish Congress during the Republic, and later exiled to the Americas, first to Colombia and then Argentina.  There, he wrote two important novels in Basque, Bizitza garratza da and Joañixio, which reflect his experiences in both countries.  He was accepted by the Bishop of Moyobamba as an older man, ordained a priest, and worked the last year of his life under the orders of the Passionist bishop.

The Passionists in Colombia

Finally, while most of the Basque Passionists’ work in the Americas was focused on Peru, as we have seen, they also did quite a bit in neighboring Colombia.  They arrived in Colombia in 1926, the same year they opened their first convent in Lima, at the request of the archbishop of Bogotá.  They settled down in the Colombian capital and dedicated themselves to preaching in popular missions.  Through the years of the Passionist presence in Colombia, “the areas and regions most frequented in this work have been those of Boyacá, Cundinamarca, Caldas, Valle, Tolima, Huilla, Santander, Quindio, Risaralda, and Antioquia”, that is, practically the whole Andean Arc.

In short order, they started taking over a series of parishes in the department of Cundinamarca, the so-called “Alto Magdalena Mission” which, given its name and rural location, had “set its sights on being raised to an Apostolic Prefecture”.  However, in 1936, this was confirmed to be impossible, so not only was the area abandoned, with a contract with the archbishop of Bogotá, but also, by then, the Passionists from Bilbao had extended into other locations in Colombia, Santa María (1931), Bogotá, (1947), and Medellín (1951).

The year before, on the other hand, the first seminary for native vocations had opened, after a long search, in an area close to Bogotá, in order to train local Passionists.  A similar process would later be carried out in Peru.  In both countries, it took a long time for the vocations to come, but they did.  That was when the Basque Passionists began their slow withdrawal from Colombia and then later Peru.  But that’s another story


These three videos, of immense historical value, show us three viewpoints of the worl of the Passionists in a tale that spans 50 years.  From the conference led by Victor Belaúnde, broadcast on TV and radio in 1963, to the 2013 interview with Monsignor Irizar, including a documentary filmed by the Passionist missionaries themselves in the ‘60s, we can get a good idea of their life and world

Víctor Belaúnde en el 50 aniversario de la llegada de los pasionistas a Perú

Documental de los Pasionistas misioneros de la Amazonía
(Voz  de narrador: monseñor Miguel Irizar)

Entrevista monseñor Miguel Irizar en «El Puente» 2013

This book was written by Monsignor Miguel Irizar, and given to the Brotherhood of Our Lady of Aranzazu in order to be published.  We are very eager to help in sharing it with the world.


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Last Updated on Feb 27, 2021 by About Basque Country

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