On 4 July 1976, the Argentine military dictatorship executed
five religious members of the Irish province Pallotine Order
at the Church of San Patricio in Buenos Aires.
The event shocked Argentinean society. Father Alfredo Kelly
and his seminarians, assassinated that early morning, were
well aware of the volatile political atmosphere. They were
murdered by the forces of repression as revenge for a
guerrilla attack which had taken place two days before. The
Pallotine community had long been singled out by the
dictatorship for preaching in favour of human rights. On the
very day of the massacre, there were indications as to the
identity of the actual perpetrators. Nevertheless, the
Argentinean Catholic hierarchy, after making a tentative
complaint, preferred to remain silent.
A Cold Early Morning in July 1976
It was late, and Father Alfredo Kelly was in his room,
sleepless and a little anxious. His companions in the
seminary house, Alfredo Leaden 
and Pedro Dufau, had already gone to bed, while the
seminarians Salvador Berbeito and Emilio Barletti had just
arrived from the cinema a few minutes earlier. They had gone
to see the film Verdict starring Sofia Loren and Jean
‘Another tense and painful day, because I spoke about the
topic with a certain degree of uncertainty as far as the
results were concerned…’ wrote Alfredo Kelly in his personal
diary that morning of the 4 July 1976.
The Church of San Patricio, located in the residential
middle-class neighbourhood of Belgrano in Buenos Aires, was
profoundly quiet though there was a sense of apprehension.
Around 3 a.m, a task force of the dictatorship went into
action. They burst into the parochial house and subdued its
four occupants. After carrying out all kinds of destruction,
they had the priests and seminarians kneel down in a row on
a red carpet. Then they opened fire. Before leaving, the
murderers scrawled on doors and windows, ‘For our comrades
killed in defense of Federal security - . we will conquer.
Long live the Fatherland’. They added a postscript making
their motives clear: ‘Lefties; brain-washers of innocent
There is judicial evidence suggesting that a group belonging
to the Argentine Navy were those responsible for the crime.The
act was merely the culmination of a series of threats that
Fr Alfredo Kelly had been receiving for some time. In his
Sunday sermons he would question what had happened to the
It was no secret among his parishioners that Father Kelly
and his seminarians held progressive views. The Pallotine
priest Rodolfo Capalozza was the last person to see the
priests alive. During that last supper on Saturday the 4
July they talked about a number of things. Capalozza reveals
in the film 4th of July
that Father Kelly had told them that he had received a
letter signed by three specific individuals who had accused
him of being a Communist. Capalozza recalled the following
words uttered by Father Kelly, ‘If I am murdered, the people
who wrote this letter will regret it’.
Western and Christian Civilization
Long before the coup, the military government had
maintained that the Church was prone to ‘infiltration’ by
left-wing groups and that this situation would lead to
future tensions between the Church and the military.
However, the Church hierarchy favored reaching an agreement
with the Armed Forces. The Catholic hierarchy had been
informed beforehand about the plans to overthrow the
constitutional regime and set up a dictatorship.
The military regime sought and obtained, as was shown later,
the go ahead for its repressive actions. It counted on the
assistance of the Bishops in exchange for supposedly
defending ‘Western and Christian civilisation’ and
consolidating many of the Church’s privileges.
The dictatorship made no distinction between those who took
part in the armed struggle and those who opposed the regime
with words. As the de facto president General Jorge
Rafael Videla declared, those who ‘want to change our way of
life’ are enemies.
Anyone who threatened this ‘way of life’ was considered
‘subversive’ whether or not they engaged in armed struggle.
The word ‘subversive’ became a very dangerous and vague
term. As the philosopher Jose Pablo Feinmann notes
‘subversion was anything that threatened the ‘Argentine way
of life’ or the ‘national being’. Hence, as both terms were
too broad to define, and were therefore all-encompassing,
‘subversion’ could be anything’.
At the beginning of 1976, it was easy to predict that
military intervention would cause much bloodshed. But it is
possible that before the military coup, the Catholic
hierarchy did not realise, or did not want to realise, that
the blood to be spilled would inevitably flow at the ‘heart
of the Church’.
Striking at the Heart of the Church
The clerical victims of the San Patricio massacre made the
crime particularly shocking. Father Kelly had been receiving
threats and for quite a while unmarked cars had been keeping
watch on members of the religious order. Under Albano
Harguindeguy, the Interior Minister, the Department of the
Interior maintained files on all the Pallotines considered
‘suspect’ or clearly ‘subversive’.
On 7 July, but not made known until 10 days later, the
Argentine Hierarchy released a document stating, ‘We wonder,
or rather, the people wonder, what kind of forces are so
powerful that they can act at their own discretion in our
society with total impunity and anonymity’. This document,
however, concluded on a conciliatory note, despite the
Church having a clear indication since 4 July of the
identity of those responsible, ‘We have made this statement
sure of Your Excellencies’ understanding, knowing your high
ideals and your generous attitude towards the fatherland,
its institutions and its citizens’.
A more forceful response was that of Passionist priest
Federico Richards, who in the pages of The Southern Cross,
the Irish-Argentine community’s newspaper, called for an
explanation from Videla himself, ‘Because Argentineans are
being kidnapped, tortured and murdered and in most cases no
one knows who is arming and directing these criminals’.
Eduardo Kimel believes that the motive behind the massacre
was ‘to send a clear signal to all the progressive elements
in the Church that had adopted as their central philosophy
the teachings of Vatican II and of conferences held
throughout Latin America, not to continue with that line of
For Fortunato Mallimaci, sociologist and specialist in
religious issues, the massacre:
was an example of how the dictatorship labelled a religious
order as ‘subversives’ and under the guise of that label
proceeded to wipe out Catholics. In order to understand what
happened one must take into account that the crime
perpetrated was related to Argentine society’s long process
of Institutional Catholicism and Militarism. This brought
about a situation in which people were tortured and murdered
in the name of Christ. And it brought about, too, a
situation in which priests and religious would give their
lives in pursuit of a project of liberation: also in the
name of Christ.
Given the historic Irish connections with the church of San
Patricio and that two of the victims were of Irish descent,
it is interesting that there was very little coverage of the
event in Ireland, nor was there official condemnation of the
massacre. Perhaps, as the victims were Argentine citizens,
there was deemed little need to get involved in Argentina’s
domestic affairs. Just as the embassies of Germany, France
and Sweden had done for their own citizens, the Irish
Embassy in Buenos Aires did intervene four months later when
it facilitated the release of Irish national, Patrick Rice,
a member of the order of Charles Foucault, who had been
kidnapped and tortured by the state terror apparatus. Thanks
to the negotiations of the Embassy, he was rescued from one
of the military government’s clandestine prisons, and
travelled to Europe where he denounced what was happening
While the assassinated priests and seminarians had
not been born in Ireland, Fathers Leaden and Kelly
came from Argentinian families of Irish background
and were well known among the
community. The order had no official contact with
Ireland apart from that of an ecclesiastical nature.
However, there were priests in the order who had
been born in Ireland. The foundation of the church
was also inextricably linked with Ireland. The
church itself was founded in 1929 at the behest of
the Archbishop of Buenos Aires to cater for English
speaking catholics of various nationalities resident
in the suburb. The Irish province of the Pall when
the Irish province of Pallotines was invited
establish the mission.
Alfredo Leaden did
in Thurles, Co. Tipperary, Ireland, before moving to
Rome for training.
As part of the research for his book
El honor de
Dios. Mártires palotinos: la historia silenciada de
un crimen impune Gabriel Seisdedos had access to
the personal diaries of Fr. Alfredo Kelly (who was
writing in it right up until moments before his
The account of these events is taken from the
rigorous investigation ‘La massacre de San
Patricio’ carried out by the journalist Eduardo
Kimel. On the 2 July 1976 a guerrilla group planted
a bomb in the Departamento Federal de la Policía,
causing the deaths of eighteen people and injuring
another sixty six. Revenge was speedy. Police, army
and navy acted together. Besides the Palottines at
least 16 others were found murdered in different
parts of the city: one at the obelisk right in the
heart of Buenos Aires. (Kimel 1986:35-36).
The Judicial investigation stalled for the first two
years of the dictatorship. With the return to
democracy in 1984, the case was reopened with judge
Néstor Blondi presiding. An investigation was
carried out, in which evidence was obtained from an
ex-member of the navy, Miguel Angel Balbi. He told
the tribunal that Claudio Vallejos, an ‘ex-comrade
in arms’ had confessed to him his participation in
the homicide along with that of Antonio Pernias,
Naval Lieutenant Aristegui and Petty Officer,
Cubalo. There was also testimony by Graciela Daleo,
detainee and survivor of the ESMA (Navy Mechanics
School), who declared to the court that her torturer
Antonio Pernias confessed to her that he had
participated in the massacre. p.2 12, 2 July 2006
and Kimel 1986: 107.
Film 4 de julio (Young- Zubizarreta 2008).
Testimonio de Rodolfo Capalozza. (Seisdedos
1996: 122) y (Young – Zubizarreta 2008).
(Obregón 2005: 48).
(Mignone 1999: 43) (Obregón 2005: 58) (Verbitsky
The Episcopate ‘held prolonged meetings at critical
moments when fundamental decisions were being taken
and so must have carried out a complete examination
of the situation’. (Mignone 1999: 43 and following).
‘It is because we defend our western and Christian
status as a way of life that this struggle has
arisen against those who didn’t accept it and wanted
to impose a different way of life’. Videla, Jorge
Rafael, in Gente magazine, 22 December 1976.
‘A terrorist is not only such because he kills with
a weapon or plants a bomb, but also if he plants
ideas in other people’s minds contrary to our
Christian and western civilisation.’ Videla, Jorge
Rafael, in La Prensa, 18 December 1977
(Feierstein 2009: 26-27).
‘The language of the dictatorship took upon itself a
deliberate and fierce vagueness when it coined the
term ‘subversion’ and used it in place of ‘terrorism
or guerrilla warfare’. (Feinmann 2003: 104).
In the document the Episcopate did not even ‘dare
name what the Pallotines’ crime was, merely citing
“recent events that had profoundly injured the heart
of the Church”’. (Verbitsky 2010: 67).
Eduardo Kimel, Interview, June 2008.
Fortunato Mallimaci, Interview, June 2008.
-Cid, Pablo, ´El martirio y la memoria´,
in The Southern Cross (Buenos Aires),
July 2004, p. 3
-Cid, Pablo, ´Editoriales en tiempos de
oscuridad´, in The Southern Cross
(Buenos Aires), 2005, p. 5
-Cid, Pablo, ´A 32 años del asesinato de los
palotinos` in Miradas al Sur (Buenos
Aires) 29 June 2008, p.21
-Feierstein, Daniel; Terrorismo de Estado y
genocidio en América Latina, Colección Estudios
sobre Genocidio. (Buenos Aires: Editorial
-Feinmann, José Pablo; La sangre derramada.
Ensayo sobre la violencia política (Buenos
Aires: Editorial Seix Barral, 2003).
-Film 4 de julio by Juan Pablo Young- y Pablo
Zubizarreta, Buenos Aires, 2008.
-Kimel, Eduardo, La Masacre de San Patricio.
(Buenos Aires, Ediciones Dialéctica, 1986)
-Kimel, Eduardo, ´A treinta años de la
masacre de San Patricio´ in Página 12
(Buenos Aires) 2 July 2006, p. 2.
-`Consternación y horror ante la masacre
sacerdotal´ in The Southern Cross
(Buenos Aires), 9 July 1976, p. 1
-´Mensaje del Episcopado a la Junta Militar´,
in The Southern Cross (Buenos Aires) 23
July 1976, p. 2
-Mignone, Emilio F., Iglesia y Dictadura. El
papel de la iglesia a la luz de sus relaciones con
el régimen militar. (Buenos Aires: Editorial
Universidad de Quilmas, 1999)
-Obregón, Martín, Entre la cruz y la espada. La
Iglesia católica durante los primeros años del
“Proceso”. (Buenos Aires, Editorial Universidad
Nacional de Quilmes, 2005)
-Robin, Marie-Monique, Escuadrones de la muerte.
La escuela francesa. (Buenos Aires: Editorial
-Seisdedos, Gabriel, El honor de Dios. Mártires
palotinos: la historia silenciada de un crimen
impune. (Buenos Aires: Editorial San Pablo,
Víctimas y mártires de la década
del setenta en la Argentina. (Buenos Aires: Editorial Guadalupe, 2000)
-Verbitsky, Horacio, La mano izquierda de Dios.
Tomo IV La última dictadura militar (1976-1983)
(Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 2010)
-Verbitsky, Horacio, Doble Juego. La Argentina
Católica y Militar. (Buenos Aires: Editorial