If the CC.OO became the quintessential organizational vehicle for anti-Franco working-class dissent, the most symbolic action to occur in the decades-long struggle to obtain elementary democratic rights for working-class constituencies was the May Day celebrations. A mainstay of Marxist- and anarchist- inspired celebrations of labour and of labour movements ever since the Chicago Haymarket massacres in 1886, by 1955 Pope Pius XII had decided to counteract this popular, secular, left-wing tradition by proclaiming the first of May the feast day of Saint Joseph the Worker, honouring the husband of Mary, mother of Jesus: the carpenter Joseph. In most countries around the world, this ideological counteroffensive did not exactly turn out to become a full-blown success, but in Spain this new holiday took on a life of its own.

Celebrations organized to venerate Saint Joseph the Worker quickly mutated into anti-regime expressions of increasingly radical intent. Thus, for instance, as early as 1961, in the Asturian industrial port city of Gijon, the festivities to honour Saint Joseph, organized by the JOC and HOAC, went somewhat astray. The auxiliary bishop in the course of the morning celebrated the eucharist in the Parish of San Jose (Joseph), then presided over a public gathering which attracted 2,000 participants. On this occasion, several Christian activists took to the floor and developed stridently critical assessments of the economic and socio-political situation in Gijon, Asturias, and Spain as a whole. Enraged, the auxiliary bishop then delivered a closing address in which he sharply criticized the earlier speeches and expressed his fundamental disagreement with what had been said by the Catholic Action representatives. In the afternoon of 1 May 1961, the diocesan chaplains of the HOAC and the JOC were promptly removed from their positions, and other dissident parish priests were subsequently forced to relinquish their posts as well.[1] But a pattern had become established.

An information bulletin on the events surrounding the first of May celebrations in Bilbao in 1965 further exemplifies which way the wind was now beginning to blow. From early April onwards the workers’ organizations of Catholic Action (HOAC and JOC) had begun to plan for their—by then— traditional public celebration, ‘whose purpose is the evangelization of the world of labour, familiarizing this milieu with the social doctrine of the Church within which there exist solid bases for the just aspirations of the working class’. In the course of April 80,000 leaflets and 3,000 posters were distributed throughout the diocese, ‘causing a massive buzz of activity within working-class communities’.[2]

The organizers of the event had chosen a neighbourhood high school as their venue. Then, on 29 April, the Bilbao Police Chief suddenly called in the high school principal, alerting him to the fact that the school was located in a neighbourhood in which the clandestine labour movement had selected to stage a demonstration on 1 May. The Police Chief informed the principal that the authorities could not be held responsible for any damages to the school facilities that would be likely to occur. And he suggested that the principal should refuse to rent out his building to the Catholic Action groups in order to avoid complications. Incredibly, the high school principal refused to break the agreement he had entered into with the apostolic movements. Secular and ecclesial authorities now intensified their attacks against the organizers of the Catholic Action celebration of Saint Joseph the Worker, which may perhaps have been scheduled for that particular high school because of the simultaneous illegal action planned by the CC.OO and other labour movements operating in the underground.

At 8:15 p.m. that very same evening, Thursday, 29 April 1965, the official representative of the Spanish curia in the Bilbao diocese, Don Teodoro Jimenez Urresti, paid a visit to the offices of the diocesan branches of the HOAC and JOC. He informed the stunned activists present of a flurry of activity earlier on that evening. The Bilbao Police Chief had apparently telephoned the bishop of Bilbao in the late afternoon, warning the bishop of the possible consequences of the celebration of Saint Joseph the Worker planned for the Colegio Santiago Apostol. At 6 p.m., the bishop then had a conversation with Don Jimenez, in which Don Jimenez informed the bishop that he, the episcopal emissary in Bilbao, had decided on his own to suspend the public celebration in the Colegio Santiago Apostol. And now, Don Jimenez announced to the assembled working-class ‘apostles’ that he was paying a visit to the offices of the HOAC and JOC to inform them of this decision. The activists listening to Don Jimenez immediately lodged vocal protests with him, but the latter simply responded ‘that I did not come here to engage in dialogue, but to impose this decision which is irrevocable. And to inform you that I have already sent a note to the local newspapers’, the text of which Don Jimenez then read aloud, in which the suspension of the public celebration in the Colegio Santiago Apostol was proclaimed.[3]

On Friday, 30 April, the local newspapers published Don Jimenez’s note, and the local radio stations likewise publicized Don Jimenez’s authoritarian decision. The subtext clearly suggested that the HOAC and JOC should regroup for a celebration of Saint Joseph the Worker at some other time and place. The working-class Catholic Action groupings of the Bilbao diocese responded in kind. They drew up and printed their official response to Don Jimenez’s missive. They distanced themselves from Don Jimenez’s decision, and then concluded: ‘We do not intend to celebrate this act at some other date, which would not make any sense.’66 To celebrate Saint Joseph the Worker on a date other than 1 May was no option for the HOAC and the JOC. The 1965 Bilbao feast in honour of Saint Joseph thus never did occur, but the consequences of such arbitrary actions by church and secular authorities were no doubt manifold.

  • [1] Oscar Iturrioz Fanjul, ‘La Iglesia asturiana en la transicion politica espanola’, XX Siglos 4,no. 16 (1993), p. 129.
  • [2] ‘Informe de los acontecimientos ocurridos en Bilbao ante la suspension del Acto que losMovimientos Obreros de la A.C. tenian previsto celebrar el Primero de Mayo’, p. 1—Archivo dela HOAC (AHOAC) [Madrid], 31.5.
  • [3] ‘Informe de los acontecimientos’, p. 1.
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