Blessed Elias gives men and women of today a shining example of pastoral
zeal and courageous witness to the Christian faith.
Mateo Elias Nieves del Castillo was born in the Isle of San Pedro, Yuriria
(Guananjuato, Mexico) on 21 September 1882. He was the son of Ramon and
Rita, two humble and deeply religious farmers.
Early on he showed a great desire to become a priest but circumstances
in life prevented it. At the age of twelve, a case of tuberculosis put him
at the door of death and months later his father died at the hands of highwaymen.
It was necessary for Elias to abandon his studies in order to be able to
earn some money with which he could contribute to the support of his family.
In 1904, the Augustinian College of Yuriria had just recently reopened.
Despite his scarce preparation and his adult age, he managed to be admitted.
The understandable difficulties stemming from seminary studies undertaken
by one who was twenty-one years of age and had just abandoned farm duties
were overcome with incredible endurance and effort. As a result of the need
for economic aid and his weak, physical constitution, he was on the verge
of losing his sight, yet there was always someone to lend a hand. In recognition
of help from on high at so many times during his life, upon his profession
in 1911 he changed his name from Mateo Elias to Elias del Socorro.
Once ordained to the priesthood in 1916, he practiced his ministry in
different localities of Bajio, until 1921 when he was named parochial vicar
of La Cañada de Caracheo, a town of around 3,000 inhabitants, situated
in the crevices of “Culiacán.” In this obscure center
of scarce economic resources, devoid of sanitary services, public schools,
and electricity, the works of Padre Nieves were not limited to the spiritual
assistance of his flock. Having known all too well from his youth the meaning
of manual labor and impoverishment, he was not burdened by the privations
of poverty which he dealt with by way of a generous spirit, a jovial disposition,
and confidence in divine providence.
It was precisely during these years that there arose the popular movement
of the “cristeros.” The servant of God kept himself on the margin
of the revolutionary movement that in ways barely echoed among the local
population which was very distant ideologically and geographically from
the socio-political problematic underlying the revolution. At the end of
1926 when persecution of the Church broke out, despite his timid character,
instead of obeying the government order to reside in the big urban centers,
he established himself in a cave near the hill of La Gavia, assuring his
faithful in this way of religious assistance, usually under cover of night.
In the fourteen months during which that situation lasted, someone to administer
the sacraments or celebrate daily Mass was never lacking.
This clandestine effort came to an end the morning he stumbled across
a posse of soldiers, whose attention was caught by what could be made out
under his white peasant’s cloak as the vestments he used during his
nocturnal ministry. Once interrogated he declared his status as a priest,
and was arrested along with two ranchmen, the Sierra brothers, who had offered
to accompany the priest. Driven to La Cañada, he opposed the ransom
attempts made on the part of some of his faithful. He also had the occasion
to discuss religious topics with two of the officials who had custody of
him, but his luck had run out.
At dawn on 10 March 1928 the military and prisoners set out in the direction
of the small urban center of Cortazar upon which La Cañada depended.
In his first order, the captain, facing the troops, gave the order to execute
the two companions of Padre Nieves, who after going to confession to the
Padre died valiantly proclaiming Christ the King as victor. At the next
station which was connected to a beautifully landscaped mesquite, near the
town, the captain addressed Padre Nieves, saying: “Now it is your
turn; let us see if dying is like saying Mass,” to which the servant
of God responded, “You have spoken the truth, because to die for our
religion is a pleasing sacrifice to God.” He requested a few moments
to collect his thoughts, then gave over his watch to the captain, gave his
blessing to the soldiers kneeling to receive it, and began to recite the
creed while they prepared the guns for his execution. His last words were
“Long live Christ the King.”
His feast is celebrated by the Augustinian Family on 11 October.