Born in the province and diocese of Huesca, Spain, on April 16, 1844, the fifth of eight children born to Francisco and Rafaela Avellana, Mariano Avellana Almudévar was a respectable person of repectable social status. Baptized on the day of his birth in his family’s chapel in Saint Anne’s parish church, Mariano would later write: “Second only to the grace of God, I owe my being a priest to the religious observance of my parents.”
Avellana was ordained for the diocese of Huesca, but impelled by an ardent desire to embrace a missionary vocation, he traveled in 1870 to Prades, France, to become a Missionary Son of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Sent to Chile in 1873, Avellana served in Santiago, La Serena, Valparaiso, Coquimbo and Curico. He died on May 14, 1904, at age 60, during a mission in Carrizal Alto, a mining town in the diocese of Copiapo, and was interred in the Heart of Mary Church in Santiago.
Avellana was widely regarded as an exceptional religious and missionary. Undoubtedly, as a missionary, he walked in our Founder’s footsteps as few others have. His fame as a missionary continues to attract devotees.
Life and mission
Like most children, Avellana received his early education in the town school. According to one of his teachers: “He successfully completed his courses in elementary school in a timely manner and always exhibited exemplary conduct.” At age 14, Avellana went to Huesca to study Latin and the humanities and entered the seminary 1861. His tenacious and stubborn spirit soon brought a strong reprimand for his defense of the rights of seminarians. Thanks to an apologetic letter to the bishop, Avellana was allowed to finish his seminary training and was ordained on September 19, 1868.
For a time, Avellana was spiritual director to the young priest Pablo Vallier, who joined the Congregation of Missionaries, and, after serving as Master of Novices, led the first Claretian mission to Chile. Vallier was the most influential Claretian in the region and Avellana maintained contact with him for over twenty years.
In 1864, the Missionary Sons of the Heart of Mary settled in Huesca, and the young Mariano felt for the first time the desire to belong to this Congregation which was then growing and spreading throughout Spain.
The liberal Revolution of 1868 changed his plans. Queen Isabel II was dethroned and religious persecution began. The members of the Congregation were banished to Prades, France, and feeling the Lord’s call, Fr. Avellana, followed. At the conclusion of his Novitiate, he made his First Profession of Vows before Father Josep Xifré. Willing to serve the Claretian mission anywhere in the world, Avellana was assigned in 1873 to the mission of Chile, far from his homeland. Before leaving, having received the blessing of the entire community, he revealed the motto that would guide him his whole life: “Either a saint or dead.” His tenacious and tireless spirit would always keep him moving ahead.
On August 10, 1873, Avellana and six Claretian companions left for Santiago, Chile, where they arrived on September 11, 1873. For Avellana, who would spent the next thrity-one years in Chile and never return to Spain, it was the beginning of a new life. Chile, where he preached missions with hardly a day off, became his second home. In cathedrals, parish churches, chapels, convents, hospitals and prisons, in cities and on farms, traversing the coast, the mountains, the valleys and deserts on foot, by horseback and rail, Avellana subjected his body to veritable torture.
In the 1870’s, the population of Chile was 82% rural. Avellana devoted himself to the 2,600 kilometers between Arica and Concepcion, focusing on Chile’s central agricultural valley and the small mining camps in the north. Missions were preached on ranches, estates and in small towns.
Following his arrival in September, Avellana preached missions in Colina, Doñihue, Coltauco, Pichidegua, Peumo, Alhué and Maipu before the end of the year. Over the years, he preached about 300 missions in the provinces of San Felipe, Malloa, San Pedro, San Jose, Coinco, Curicó; Navidad, Rosario, Olivar, Rengo, Cáhuil and Tagua Tagua, traveling in farming carts, third-class on trains, and on horseback, which caused considerable pain because of a sore on his his leg.
In those days, herpes was not only extremely painful but incurable. Besides, Avellana never sought the care of a doctor. He regarded his suffering as a spur to penance and sacrifice, “a perpetual holocau, Deo Gratias“. In honor of the Holy Trinity he sought no cure but every three days he cleaned it with water and washcloth.” He piously endured such suffering, “I will beat that fierce and indomitable enemy: it will be the most meritorious cross.”
He suffered all the more, when he had to ride horseback to preach a mission or care for the sick. The brother infirmirian prepared a large supply of bandages, but Avellana sought comfort only in his love of God and others.
Avellana turned no one away and went wherever he was asked, embracing even the most hardened sinners and doing whatever necessary to bring them to conversion, even kissing their feet and inviting them to pary three Hail Marys. He was particularly devoted to the poor, the sick and the imprisoned. He accompanied a condemned prisoner, “a horrible sight,” he wrote. The press in Coquimbo, hostile to religion, wrote to the arrival of Father Mariano, “Inmates in Coquimbo, yesterday you were allowed to hear the voice of the saintly Father Mariano, on whom you can count to come everyday to encourage you.”
“The hospitalized could depend on Avellana to be bedside … If you can, stop to find the poor that are there.” “Tuesday: always the hospital.” “Preaching at the hospital and jail every week.” He invoked the intercession of saints devoted to the sick: “St. John of God, St. Camillus de Lellis, St. Francis Borgia and St. Vincent de Paul, give thanks to the Lord on my behalf and grant me great love for the sick, poor and imprisoned.” He resolved to “pray heroically, work heroically and suffer heroically.”
Such activity would have been inconceiable without an intense spiritual life. Avellana’s Claretian brothers, bishops, priests, religious and the most ordinary people attest to his devotion to prayer, mortifiction, work, and physical suffering. We catch a glimpse of his holiness in his writings: prayer, the inexhaustible power of life and action. He often begged his superiors’permission to rise at 2:00 am, in order to devote more time to prayer than to sleep or rest. In his ministry he was impelled by the spirit of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Divine Missionary or the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus, and strengthened by the maternal protection of Mary, as well as his devotion to our Founder, to his saintly patrons, particularly to those dedicated to the sick.
Avellana died in Carrizal Alto on May 14, 1904. On his last preaching tour, he fell from his horse.
The process for Avellana’s canonization was begun in 1924. Pope John Paul II declared him venerable in 1987. Since 1981, his remains have been preserved in the Basilica of the Heart of Mary.
- ALDUÁN, M., Life of Fr. Mariano Hazelnut Lasierra, Lima 1931.
- ARRANZ, A. O, holy or dead, Estampa biography on the Fr. Mariano Hazelnut, Barcelona 1973.
- CABRÉ RUFATT, J. A., Mariano or the power of God, Santiago de Chile 2005.
- GUTIERREZ, F., Servant of God Fr. Mariano Hazelnut Lasierra, Rome 1982.