MADRID — Two Augustinian missionaries martyred in 1994 during the Algerian Civil War are today remembered within their community for their faithfulness, even to the point of death.
Sisters Caridad Alvarez and Esther Paniagua were killed during a war between the Algerian government and Islamists, who targeted various groups, including foreigners living in the country.
The decade-long war, which began in 1991, became especially violent in the summer of 1994. Amid worsening violence, the Spanish Embassy in Algeria advised all their nationals to leave the country as soon as possible.
Archbishop Henri Teissier of Algiers issued a similar warning, asking the religious communities in his city to discern and to freely decide whether or not to remain in Algeria, as the situation was extremely dangerous.
Faced with this situation, the provincial superior of the Augustinian Missionaries, Sister Maria Jesus Rodriguez Munoz, decided to visit the order's three communities in Algiers and accompany them in their discernment, which turned out to be decisive for their lives.
“We made this discernment on Oct. 6-7, 1994. It was a powerful experience of faith,” Sister Maria Jesus told CNA.
“The archbishop of Algiers joined with us, and we prayed in a calm atmosphere. All the sisters were very conscious of the danger they were facing, but they all freely and individually decided to remain in Algiers,” she said.
“One by one, they gave their reasons: out of fidelity to the Gospel; out of love for the Algerian people who had welcomed them; because they were sharing faith and life with those people; and they did not want to run away, but, instead, to share in the same fate,” she said. “At no point did they want to die; they loved life. But they also loved their people, and they decided to remain there.”
In the Hands of God
Periodically, the superiors of the congregation — who were in Madrid — called the Algerian communities to ask if they had changed their minds after discerning.
According to Sister Maria Jesus, they always responded the same: “Do not worry. We are in the hands of God.”
“But what if something happens to you?” the superiors would say.
“‘Well, if something happens to us, we are still in the hands of God,’ they replied,” recounted Sister Maria Jesus.
Sister Maria Jesus remained with her communities in Algiers for several weeks, and, on Oct. 23, she encouraged Sister Caridad to return to Spain, but the sister replied, “This is my fidelity to the mission. I told you at home that if something happens to me, I want to be buried in Algeria.”
“She told me this an hour and a half before dying,” Sister Maria Jesus said.
The same day, Spain’s ambassador to Algeria visited Sister Esther at the hospital in which she worked, asking her to leave the country as well.
“She told us that the ambassador wanted to take her away in an armored car, and she said No and that she would return home, walking as usual,” said Sister Maria Jesus.
The Martyrs Come Home
While she returned home that day, Sister Esther was carrying with her a book titled Your Surrender Out of Love.
The Augustinians were going to Mass that evening, “at the chapel that the Little Sisters of Foucauld had a short distance from our house,” in the Bab El Oued neighborhood of Algiers, Sister Maria Jesus explained.
“We decided to follow the safety guidelines for going to the chapel given to us by the embassy: ‘Always go out in pairs.’ So Caridad and Esther left first, and then five minutes later, Lourdes and I left. We were going about 100 yards away.”
“Caridad and Esther turned down the street, and we lost them from sight,” she said. “At that moment, we heard two gunshots. Seconds later, people began running, and one woman pulled us into her home. We heard crying, and we found out that a Christian had died.”
“We went up to the roof of the home, and, from there, we could see the chapel of the Sisters of Foucauld, and we saw the bodies of Caridad and Esther lying on the ground.”
Sister Caridad was ringing the doorbell at the home of the Sisters of Foucauld when she was martyred.
She and Sister Esther are two of the 19 religious martyred in Algeria between 1994 and 1996. Also included in this group is Bishop Pierre Claverie of Oran, who was killed along with his driver when a bomb exploded at his home.
Seven Trappist monks from the monastery of Tibhirine were also killed. The monastery’s story was told in the 2010 film Of Gods and Men.
The 19 martyrs' cause for canonization was opened by the Diocese of Oran in 2007 and is ongoing.