Church of Activists

2009.Dec.06 Sunday · 4 comments

in Life

“Disappearances of Argentinean citizens began in 1973, before the death of Juan Peron and continued through the presidency of his wife Isabel until such heinous human rights violations reached a head under the new military government (called the Proceso) after 1976. The repressive regime instituted a state of terror, involving kidnappings, torture, rape and drowning any opposition to the state: “At first perhaps the victims were known opponents, such as labor union members, university activists, or journalists. Later the choice of victims came to be whpat one can only describe as random”. Any compassion for victims or their families could result in one’s own disappearance or death. Such scare tactics of targeting victims’ families after loss, acted as a tool for military leaders to quiet and maintain strong power against those they considered subversives.

The definition of ‘subversive’ used by the military was extremely broad: “Any person might be suspect: a socialist, liberal, social activist, reform-minded Catholics and Jews, a trade union member, an intellectual, a nun, an adolescent, or anyone who remotely or accidentally aided an opponent to the military”; such a broad definition allows for severe brutality that can be somewhat justified by military leaders. Anyone was subject to the brutality and anger of the military, including for the first time, women, even those who were pregnant, children and the elderly. The Argentine Constitution was suspended, as was Congress; civil rights were denied. The military controlled the media and disallowed society to assemble without express permission of the state.”

– from Las Madres and the Human rights Movement in Argentina

Growing up in Michigan, Argentina was not omnipresent in the news. Occasional bits about Perón certainly appeared here and there in the media. I vaguely remember some protests around the University of Michigan campus about human rights violations, but it wasn’t until the end of high school and beginning of college that the country came more to notice. Two events, one political and one not, brought Argentina’s name to people’s lips – the first, the non-political, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s acclaimed musical Evita was launched as an album in 1976 (though didn’t go into stage production in London until 1978). The second, a group of a dozen persons were kidnapped by the Argentine government (we didn’t know that at the time, at least not for sure, the government having laid the blame on opposition forces) out of the Church of Santa Cruz, here in Buenos Aires. What brought this particular group of 12 to international notice was that two of them were French nuns, and the French government, backed by others, began to demand answers. Prior to that, most of the world, particularly at governmental level, seemed content to let Argentina manage its own internal affairs, regardless of the numbers of its own citizens that were disappearing.

Church of Santa Cruz

The Church of Santa Cruz was already noted as a focal point of anti-government activism, regularly hosting meetings for Las Madres, who had started up in mid-1977 demanding answers from the Argentine government as to what was happening to their families, friends and neighbors.

Church of Santa Cruz

“A unique aspect of Las Madres is that they were the only public protesters against the Argentinean military while the military still maintained power. 1977 was an extremely volatile year for the relationship between Las Madres and the military. Three months after beginning their demonstrations in the Plaza, the Madres presented 159 writs of habeas corpus in June, and “on 15 October 1977, some 300 Madres were dispersed from the Presidential Palace by tear gas and arrested by the Federal Police after gathering to present a petition, with 24,000 signatures, calling for investigations into the disappearances”. Las Madres requested a meeting with President, General Videla, but were refused. In December, eleven Madres were kidnapped from the Church of Santa Cruz. Two days later, Madres leader Azucena DeVicenti disappeared near Buenos Aires. Around the same time, two French nuns were kidnapped and disposed of by being thrown out of a helicopter into the ocean; the military later gave this horrific act the nickname “The Flying Nuns”.

– ibid

[Note: The two nuns were actually part of the eleven who were kidnapped from the church (Esther Ballestrino de Careaga, and María Ponce de Bianco (two of the three founders of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo); the nuns Alice Domon and Léonie Duquet, and human rights activists Angela Auad, Remo Berardo, Horacio Elbert, José Julio Fondevilla, Eduardo Gabriel Horane, Raquel Bulit, and Patricia Oviedo), and then the addition of the group’s leader, Azucena Villaflor de Vicenti, two days later brought the total to twelve.]

Church of Santa Cruz

In early 1978 some of the bodies, including those of the two nuns, washed up on the shore near Bahia Blanca in Buenos Aires province, and though the Argentine government immediately tried to cover it up, the news did leak out via an unnamed government source through the US Ambassador, though was not officially declassified until 2002.

Church of Santa Cruz

Memorial plaques to the two nuns and some of the others are in the garden surrounding the Church of Santa Cruz, and, each year on December 8th (coming up in two days), there is a major memorial held at the church sponsored by both the church and Las Madres. Corner of General Urquiza and Independencía, in Barrio San Cristobal.


Two other photos:

Church of Santa Cruz

This is probably the only Roman Catholic church I’ve ever been in that includes, amongst its “stations of the cross” panels, a triptych of Cain and Abel, Moses with the serpent staff, and Abraham and Isaac.

Church of Santa Cruz

Interestingly, all half dozen or so confessional booths have this sign on them. Wondering where the Spanish confessions were heard…?


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Barbara December 6, 2009 at 13:36

Nice post.

Concerning the English-language confessionals: Although it is certainly no longer the case, at the time the church was founded the congregation were all English speakers. The church was founded by Passionist Missionaries from Ireland ( I am curious to know what happened to the Irish Community in that neighborhood. Certainly by the 1970’s the congregation must have been primarily Spanish-speaking.

You didn’t mention in your post that there is a huge building across the street from the church, somewhat rundown now, labelled “Keating Institute.” An English-language article on Irish educational institutions in Buenos Aires posted at mentions the Keating Institute and Santa Cruz church (under the section “The Ladies of Saint Joseph’s Society”). The institute was founded as a school for orphaned Irish/Argentine girls.

Saratica December 7, 2009 at 09:47

Great article. Thank you, very interesting. Noticing there’s no musical about Isabel or the General…

dan December 7, 2009 at 10:02

Perhaps one day in the future. In Isabel’s case, she’s still alive and kicking… and besides, she just wasn’t that interesting. He at least gets a good amount of singing and dancing in during Evita… 😉

dan December 12, 2009 at 11:01

Interesting note this week from Mercopress, nineteen military officers responsible for this particular atrocity was just put on trial for the crime, including the “Blond Angel of Death”, who, I gather, led the squad that executed the nuns and others.

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