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2011 Quito Pilgrimage – Part III

Discovery of Garcia Moreno's &
Archbishop Checa's Remains

Marian T. Horvat, Ph.D.

Eight years after Gabriel Garcia Moreno was murdered on that tragic August 6, 1875, renovation work began in the chapel where his coffin rested in Quito’s Cathedral. Family members feared that his enemies, still seething with resentments against the Catholic President, would take advantage of the situation to desecrate his body.

On the evening of March 27, 1883, the deteriorating wood coffin containing his body and a smaller box with his embalmed heart in a crystal vial were rolled in a carpet and smuggled out of the Cathedral by friends and transferred to the house of his mother-in-law. The skeleton was placed in a new coffin, marked with the letters GGM formed with yellow nails, and transferred to a secret place. Only a few trusted friends and priests knew the location. These precautions convey the extremely hostile political climate of that time and the Liberals’ intense hatred for Garcia Moreno.

Garcia Moreno, Archbishop Ignatius Checa y Barba

Garcia Moreno, at right Archbishop Ignatius Checa y Barba
Years passed, and the persons privy to the secret died. Only rumors lingered: Some said the coffin was hidden at Carmel Bajo (a Carmelite convent); others, at the Dominican Convent of St. Catherine of Siena or St. John’s Cloister; yet others, at the Church of the Good Shepherd.

This remained the state of affairs until 1973, when the Ecuadorian Conservative Party started preparations to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the death of Garcia Moreno. It would be shameful to be without his mortal remains on this occasion, thought Dr. Francisco Salazar, a member of the special planning committee. He made the decision then to do everything in his power to find the corpse, hidden for 90 years.

A surprise discovery of the hearts

This was an Old World search, without computers or high-tech technology. The secret of the President’s hidden body was given to trustworthy persons who passed it on from one generation to another. Dr. Salazar needed to find those key persons. With an essential letter from the Cardinal authorizing his search, he entered the different convents to speak to the Superiors and make his inquiries.

Good Shepherd Church, Quito

Good Shepherd Church in Quito
Two years passed, and in March of 1975, a commission was formed to offer more support to Dr. Salazar’s work. His interviews had narrowed the search to two Convents: the Good Shepherd Sisters (an Order rought to Ecuador from France by President Garcia Moreno and dedicated to rehabilitating fallen women) and the Dominican Church and Convent of Santa Catalina.

At Good Shepherd Convent, Dr. Salazar spoke to a very old sister who claimed it was not the body of Garcia Moreno that had been hidden in her Convent, but rather, the embalmed hearts of the President and the murdered Archbishop Ignatius Checa y Barba (poisoned for refusing to cooperate with the Masonic government). But she refused to say anything more. She told him she could only give this information to the Mother Superior.

So Mother Maria de Santa Eufrasia questioned the Sister and learned one of the Convent’s best hidden secrets: The boxes containing the hearts of the President and Archbishop were in two of the columns in the Church. Which ones? She did not know, but that precious data allowed a focused search to begin.

On April 8, a day he still recalls with joy, Dr. Salazar, accompanied by the Mother Superior and sisters as witnesses, entered the Convent Church with a workman. His method was simple. Knocking on the columns with his hands, he found one in the lower choir with a hollow telltale ring about five feet up the column, signaling an interior opening. The workman opened it to reveal a cavity two feet deep and 15 inches high.

Inside was a light colored wood box, and on it were these handwritten words: February 21, 1913, the Heart of Archbishop of Quito His Excellency Ignatius Checa. In the box was a flask with the embalmed heart of the poisoned Archbishop and an official document signed by Archbishop Federico González Suárez describing the contents. The heart, drained of blood, has a whitish color and is marked by a black spot, a sign of the poison that killed the Archbishop.

Good Shepherd Church Quito

At left, Good Shepherd Church with its thick square columns;
at right, Dr. Salazar removing the first box from the column

In the pillar across from it, they found a similar niche at the same height and another wood box, this one of dark cedar. On its lid were these words: February 21, 1913, the Heart of the Illustrious Prelate Dom G. Garcia Moreno. Inside, another flask with the embalmed heart of the President and another signed letter of the Archbishop (Encuentros, Documentos, pp. 259-260).

Addressed to the Superior of Good Shepherd Convent, that letter ordered that the hearts be conserved in a hidden place inside the Church. To understand this directive, issued almost 50 years after the assassination of the President, one must know something about that turbulent period in Ecuador’s history.

Unsettled times

In the 3rd apparition of Our Lady to Mother Mariana on January 16, 1599, she told the Conceptionist religious that the years following the Consecration of Ecuador to the Sacred Heart would be ill-fated ones. She accurately prophesized that “the accursed sect of Masonry will take command of the civil government” and that there would be a “cruel persecution of all religious communities.” (The Admirable Life, Vol. 1, pp 141-142)

Francisco Salazar, Cardinal Pablo Munoz Vega

Francisco Salazar and Cardinal Pablo Munoz Vega with the crystal vials
In fact from 1895 to 1925 - the Liberal Era - the Freemasons established a laicized State with laws of civil matrimony, divorce and equal rights for all religions. At the same time the Church was persecuted: The Jesuits were expelled from the country, education was secularized, and laws were passed despoiling the properties and goods of religious communities. That persecution was particularly intense under President Eloy Alfaro, the standard-bearer of the Radical Liberal Party.

With the overthrow and murder of Alfaro in 1911, Ecuador found itself in the throes of a bitter civil war. In that turbulent climate, Quito’s Archbishop judged it prudent to secure the hearts of the two conservative heroes in a secret place. Thus they were hidden in the Church of the Good Shepherd Convent in 1913.

After the death of Archbishop Checa in 1877, his successors adopted the policy of keeping the Church out of all politics for the rest of that lamentable Liberal Era. Instead of encouraging the militant Catholic conservatives to rally against the Masonic government, they kept silent. The persecution of the Church continued and her action was severely restricted, but this was considered by the ecclesiastic authorities to be a “lesser evil” than facing the bloodshed and martyrdom sure to come with active resistance.

This sad stance of Church authorities continues to this day, who make little to no resistance against the present-day Communist government.

In the Oblates’ private chapel

For some months, the crystal vials with the hearts of Garcia Moreno and Archbishop Checa had a place of distinction on the desk of Dr. Salazar in his home library. He recalls those days with fondness as an unexpected benefit of his search and an honor for his family.

Sacred Heart picture Quito

The plaque reads: Picture before which the National Consecration of Equador was made
Finally, Church authorities decided they should be entrusted to the Oblate Fathers of the Immaculate Hearts of Jesus and Mary. The vials were placed in the Congregation’s private chapel in their residence next to the Basilica of the National Vow. Pilgrims to Quito should make a special point of ringing their doorbell to ask to venerate the two hearts. In addition, another treasure awaits them.

In that chapel over the altar is the original picture commissioned by President Garcia Moreno to commemorate the Consecration of Ecuador to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The decree of the Consecration was passed by both Houses of Congress and signed by Garcia Moreno on October 18, 1873 at the Government Palace, where the picture was given a place of honor in the Congressional Hall.

The picture was removed when the Liberal government was installed following Garcia Moreno’s death. Its animus against the Consecration was so great that at the turn of the century it went so far as to officially “de-consecrate” the country to the Sacred Heart.

The picture has its own history of loss and discovery, too long to relate here. Suffice it to say that today that impressive picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus stands custody in the Oblates chapel over the human hearts of the two murdered heroes. The crystal vial containing Garcia Moreno’s heart is in a small niche on the right side of the altar, with Archbishop Checa’s directly opposite to the left side of the altar.

Three days after that surprising discovery, Dr. Salazar would have what he calls “the greatest day of my life”: The bodily remains of Don Gabriel Garcia Moreno were finally found. That is the topic of my next article.

Oblates Chapel, Quito, Sacred Heart, Garcia Moreno

The Oblates' chapel, where one can venerate the hearts of Archbishop Checa and Garcia Moreno
Photo credit, Mathieu Guillory, Excelsior Tours
1. These facts were in a letter found with the remains of Garcia Moreno written by Rafael Varéla, a friend of the family. Encounters with History, Documents, pp. 189-190; Encuentro con la Historia, Documentos, pp. 259-260

Posted March 4, 2011

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