Volume 7, Number 4

November 2011

Download pdf

Table of Contents


Contact Information

        The ‘Assassinated’ Voice of the Pallotines

(Buenos Aires, 1976)

By Pablo Cid

Translated by Hugh Davey and Natalia Destefano

Pablo Cid graduated as a journalist from the Universidad Católica Argentina, and as a radio producer from ETER (Escuela de Estudios Radiofónicos). Today he serves as a journalist on the newspaper of the Irish Community The Southern Cross and for the daily newspaper Tiempo Argentino.


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.[1] 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 [2] 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 Gabin.

‘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.[3] 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 minds’.[4]

There is judicial evidence suggesting that a group belonging to the Argentine Navy were those responsible for the crime.[5]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 ‘disappeared’. 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[6] 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’.[7]

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.[8] 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.[9] 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. [10]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.[11]


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’.[12]

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’.[13]

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 thought.’[14] 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.[15]

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 Argentina. 



[1] 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 Irish-Argentine 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. 

[2] Alfredo Leaden did novitiate in Thurles, Co. Tipperary, Ireland, before moving to Rome for training.

[3]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 death).


[4] 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).


[5] 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.


[6] Film 4 de julio (Young- Zubizarreta 2008).

[7] Testimonio de Rodolfo Capalozza. (Seisdedos 1996: 122) y (Young – Zubizarreta 2008).

[8] (Obregón 2005: 48).

[9] (Mignone 1999: 43) (Obregón 2005: 58) (Verbitsky 2010: 14).

[10] 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).

[11] ‘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).

[12]‘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).

[13] 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).

[14]Eduardo Kimel, Interview, June 2008.

[15]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 Prometeo, 2009)

-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 Sudamericana, 2005)

-Seisdedos, Gabriel, El honor de Dios. Mártires palotinos: la historia silenciada de un crimen impune. (Buenos Aires: Editorial San Pablo, 1996)

-Siwak, Pedro, 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 Sudamericana, 2006)



Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2011

Published: 01 November 2011
Edited: 07 Diciembre 2011

Pablo Cid 'The ‘Assassinated’ Voice of the Pallotines' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 7:4 (November 2011), pp. XXX-XXX. Available online  (www.irlandeses.org/imsla2011_7_04_10_Pablo_Cid.htm), accessed .

The Society for Irish Latin American Studies

 Copyright Information