Beatification Advances for Tortured Martyr of the Sacrament of Confession

The local Church in Guatemala recently commemorated the 40th anniversary of the death of Franciscan Father Augusto Ramírez Monasterio.

Franciscan Father Augusto Ramírez Monasterio is shown after his initial interrogation and torture; he is hiding the wounds on his hands and wrists.
Franciscan Father Augusto Ramírez Monasterio is shown after his initial interrogation and torture; he is hiding the wounds on his hands and wrists. (photo: Courtesy of Ana Morales Ramirez)

On Nov. 6, 1983, a barefoot man with his hands tied behind his back was seen fleeing across a street near downtown Guatemala City. Dodging oncoming traffic on Santa Elena Avenue in the capital of the Central American republic, he cried out, “Help! Help! They’re trying to kill me!” 

Following behind was a car bearing his assassins: probable members of Guatemalan security forces. Within seconds, he was struck down. Shot eight times, he was still breathing as he agonized on the pavement. One of his pursuers finished him off with a bullet in the head.

The killers then followed police procedure as if they were ordinary cops and strung yellow tape around the perimeter, awaiting the arrival of an ambulance and a justice of the peace. An ambulance driver recorded that “whoever shot him remains unknown,” while the justice would later write that the priest “died under as yet unknown circumstances.”

Those are the bare facts of the martyrdom of Franciscan Father Augusto Ramírez Monasterio, one of many in a decades-long civil war in Guatemala, which pitted official security forces against Catholic clergy, Marxist guerrillas, political dissidents and the poor. He was not the only member of the clergy and religious who was murdered during the conflict — the list includes American missionary priest Blessed Stanley Rother. At the time of the Franciscan’s death, 13 priests had been murdered since 1978, presumably by security forces in Guatemala. That month, the Conference of Bishops of Guatemala issued a pastoral letter titled “Confirmed in the Faith” that denounced the “persecution” and “harassment” of the Church by the government. 

At his inaugural Mass in 1967 as a newly ordained priest, Friar Augusto read from the Gospel of Matthew: “And fear ye not them that kill the body and are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him that can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).

In an interview with the Register, Franciscan Father Edwin Alvarado said this reveals that Friar Augusto’s life was a preparation for his death. 

“He should figure among other notable Guatemalans, such as poets and artists,” Father Edwin said, “as a martyr of charity and a saint of the sacrament of confession. As his canonization process unfolds, he is a great example for confessors, priests and laity.”

In 1983, he served as father superior of Franciscans and pastor of San Francisco el Grande Church in Antigua, a city known for its colonial churches just 14 miles from the capital. Known for his radio program and work for the poor, he encouraged youngsters to learn to play music. He was never associated with Marxist groups, but did defend teenage boys from roundups seeking army conscripts.

Safeguarding the Sacrament

After de facto president Efraín Ríos Montt offered amnesty to Marxist guerrillas, Fidel Coroy, a member of the Maya Kaqchikel people, went to San Francisco El Grande on June 2, 1983, to confess his sins and seek amnesty.

Coroy had already tried to surrender, but later said Guatemalan authorities only wanted to put him in the grave. After his confession, Friar Augusto took him to the local mayor’s office to obtain identity documents required for amnesty. Authorities told them to go to the nearby village of Parramos for the documents. Friar Augusto drove Coroy to the village police station, taking along with them altar boys Luís Quino, 11, and Antonio Molina, 18. When they arrived at the police station in Parramos, the priest told the boys to remain in the car and not give their real names to the police. Coroy and the friar went into the station, where an officer refused to issue an I.D. for Coroy and accused him of being a guerrilla leader. Soldiers arrested the friar, Coroy and the two boys.

Coroy was separated from his companions, who were in an office for hours, awaiting their fate throughout that afternoon. They had no word about Coroy’s condition, but at about 8 o’clock that evening, they heard him scream from another room, “Go ahead and kill me, but leave them alone!”

The soldiers seized Friar Augusto and the two boys, blindfolded them and tied their hands behind their backs. In an interview with the Register, Quino recalled, “The soldiers threatened us. I could feel that a gun was put against my head and expected death.” Separated from the friar, they were driven to another place, where they were thrown into a trench. They were exposed to winter rain as they spent the night with other prisoners, not knowing the friar’s fate.

In the morning, the boys were released and found Friar Augusto waiting for them in the car he had driven to the town. After signing a document claiming he had not been harmed, the priest and boys were allowed to return home. He did not tell them what he had endured that night.

Later accounts showed that Friar Augusto had been tortured by his military captors, who stripped and strung him up by his wrists, subjecting him to beatings and burns. Several ribs were broken. But he refused to reveal what Coroy had told him, safeguarding the sacrament of confession. 

Thus began a nightmarish five months for the friar. He and his family received death threats and were kept under surveillance, but he remained publicly silent about his torture and the guerrilla’s confession. He even unraveled the cuffs of his brown habit to conceal the wounds on his wrists and hands.

As for Coroy, he was also beaten and lashed by soldiers for hours and left for dead on a road near Parramos. However, he survived and now bears witness to Friar Augusto’s heroism.

Historian Ana Ramírez, Friar Augusto’s niece, recalled what happened later. In an interview, she said her family offered him international airline tickets. “He refused to leave,” she said, and told them: “God wills it. He knows how to protect me. I accept whatever he sends.” As the entire extended family was frightened by surveillance and death threats, Ramírez said her mother eventually wrote a letter to Guatemalan authorities swearing that she would not further pursue demands for clarification of the crime.

On Nov. 5, 1983, Friar Augusto celebrated his 46th birthday and was in Guatemala City to receive a fellow Franciscan at the airport. How his abduction took place has not been revealed. But by the next evening, his tortured body was found along a road in the capital. The National Police promised to find the culprits, but their investigation languished.

On Nov. 8, the Archdiocese of Guatemala issued a statement saying: “It is with great sorrow that the Diocesan Curia and the Franciscan Order announce that Father Augusto Ramírez Monasterio was murdered. This unspeakable crime was committed against an exemplary priest and adds to the attacks against the Catholic Church which have been repeatedly denounced by its pastors. The Archdiocese of Guatemala declares that anyone who attacks a sacred person is thereby excommunicated.”

A presidential spokesman claimed the killing was committed by subversives seeking division between the government and the Catholic Church and disavowed any involvement in the priest’s death. Years later, however, the extent of the government’s surveillance and threats was revealed

“The perpetrators of the crime were never brought to justice,” explained Ramírez, who said that her uncle’s eyeglasses and the blood-stained ropes that had bound him were found in his truck.

Mourned and Honored

On Nov. 9, Friar Augusto’s body was taken in a cortege from the capital back to the church in Antigua, which was filled with mourners, despite fears of retaliation. The young musicians he mentored played music at the funeral Mass. He was buried in the Church of San Francisco El Grande, not far from the tomb of St. Peter Betancourt, a Spanish Franciscan missionary of the 1600s, also revered for charitable works.

Tomb of Father Augusto Ramirez Monasterio
Tomb of Father Augusto Ramirez Monasterio(Photo: Courtesy of Ana Morales Ramirez)

Friar Augusto was soon proclaimed a martyr by many Guatemalans, especially poor Maya. In 2006, Cardinal Rodolfo Quezada Toruño began the beatification process on the basis of martyrdom. In an interview with the Register, Friar Edwin revealed that he is assured that Friar Augusto’s cause is advancing at the Vatican after the local Church recently commemorated the 40th anniversary of his death.

“Father Augusto’s spirit still lives,” Friar Edwin said, “and when I was asked at the Vatican this year, ‘What purpose does his beatification serve?’ we Franciscans responded that the secret of confession thus remains alive.” He added that the Church of San Francisco El Grande, where Friar Augusto served, is now known as “the sanctuary of mercy” — priests hear confessions before Masses from 6:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. every day.