The Spanish city of Zamora–known as la bien cercada, or well enclosed, due to its impressive fortifications–straddles the River Duero in the north-western region of Castile and León. Deeply religious, it is famous even today for its sombre processions of hooded, barefoot penitents in Holy Week. In 1914, when its citizens learned that they were about to receive a new bishop, the bells rang out for three days. The man himself arrived a few months later, stepping down from a specially chartered train to a railway station packed with well-wishers. Fireworks were let off, and a joyful crowd accompanied him to the cathedral where he took his oath of office. The church-sanctioned newspaper, El Correo de Zamora, promised obedience to the new bishop, and praised his eloquence and youth.
The bishop’s name was Antonio Álvaro y Ballano, and at thirty-eight he already had a glittering career behind him. As a student at a seminary in Guadalajara, he had shone in every subject he had turned his hand to. At twenty-three he had taken up the chair in metaphysics, and after winning a hard-fought contest for the magistral canonry of Toledo, the most important archdiocese in Spain, he had come to the attention of Cardinal Sancha, Primate of Spain. He had been named a bishop in 1913, and prior to his arrival in Zamora, had held the post of prefect of studies at the seminary in Toledo.
When the Naples Soldier [the Spanish name for the flu] returned to Spain in the autumn of 1918, it appeared first in the east of the country, but it soon followed the bishop along the train tracks to Zamora. September is a month of gatherings in Spain. The crops are harvested, the army takes on new recruits, and weddings and religious feasts are held–not to mention that most popular of Spanish pastimes, the bullfight. Young army recruits, some from distant provinces, converged on Zamora to take part in routine artillery exercises, and in the middle of the month, the Correo reported nonchalantly that ‘There is cholera at the frontier, flu in Spain and in this tiny corner of the peninsula, fiestas.’ Then the recruits began to fall ill.
Attempts to quarantine the sick soldiers in barracks on the site of the city’s eleventh-century castle failed, and the number of civilian casualties began to rise. As it did so, the shortage of manpower began to interfere with the harvest, exacerbating pre-existing food restrictions. The press began to sound less sanguine. On 21 September, the Heraldo de Zamora–a newspaper that was nominally independent of the church–rued the unsanitary state of the city. Zamora resembled a ‘pigsty’ in which, shamefully, people still shared living space with animals, and many houses lacked their own lavatory or water supply. The paper repeated an old hobbyhorse, that the Moors had bequeathed to Spain an aversion to cleanliness. ‘There are Spaniards who only use soap for washing their clothes,’ it noted severely.
During the first wave of the pandemic, the country’s inspector general of health, Martín Salazar, had lamented the inability of a bureaucratic and underfunded health system to prevent the disease from spreading. Though provincial health committees took their lead from his directorate, they had no powers of enforcement, and they quickly came up against what he described as the ‘terrible ignorance’ of the populace–the failure to grasp, for example, that an infected person on the move would transmit the disease. Now that the Naples Soldier had returned, one national newspaper, El Liberal, called for a sanitary dictatorship–a containment programme imposed from the top down–and as the epidemic wore on, the call was picked up and echoed by other papers.
On 30 September, Bishop Álvaro y Ballano defied the health authorities by ordering a novena–evening prayers on nine consecutive days–in honour of St Rocco, the patron saint of plague and pestilence, because the evil that had befallen Zamoranos was ‘due to our sins and ingratitude, for which the avenging arm of eternal justice has been brought down upon us’. On the first day of the novena, in the presence of the mayor and other notables, he dispensed Holy Communion to a large crowd at the Church of San Esteban. At another church, the congregation was asked to adore relics of St Rocco, which meant lining up to kiss them.
Also on 30 September, it was reported that Sister Dositea Andrés of the Servants of Mary had died while tending soldiers at the barracks. Sister Dositea was described as a ‘virtuous and exemplary nun’ who had accepted her martyrdom with equanimity and even enthusiasm, who had slept no more than four hours a day, and who had spent much of her time coaxing sick soldiers to eat. The Mother Superior of her order asked for a good turnout at her funeral, and the papers passed on her request. In accordance with tradition, readers were informed, the bishop would grant sixty days’ indulgence to those who complied. Apparently the turnout was not as good as the Mother Superior had hoped, because the day after the funeral the Correo lambasted the citizenry for its ingratitude. The bishop, on the other hand, was satisfied with attendance at the novena, which he described as ‘one of the most significant victories Catholicism has obtained’.
By mid-November, the worst was over. … Zamora had suffered worse than any other Spanish city. But its residents do not seem to have held their bishop responsible. Perhaps it helped that they had grown up with the legend of Atilano, the first Bishop of Zamora, who in the tenth century had made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to repent of his sins and free his city of plague. There are even those who defend Álvaro y Ballano, claiming that he did what he could to console his flock in the face of inertia at the town hall, the real problem being an ineffectual health system and poor education in matters of hygiene. Before 1919 was out, the city had awarded him the Cross of Beneficence, in recognition of his heroic efforts to end the suffering of its citizens during the epidemic, and he remained Bishop of Zamora until his death in 1927.