SAINT VALENTINE BERRIO-OTXOA
Saint patron of Elorrio
Valentín Berrio-Otxoa was born in Elorrio on 14 February 1827 to Juan Isidro de Berrio-Otxoa and his wife Mónica de Arizti y Belar. He was a lively, intelligent child who spent his time at home helping his father to cater for the family by working in his carpentry shop. He learned to play the Basque flute known as the txistu and to dance the aurresku, as did all the young people of his times, but his favourite pastime was the game of PELOTA, which he played on the old court in Elorrio. This court stood on the site now occupied by the three arches built to commemorate the long-gone Puerta del Rosario gate in the town wall.
He began to serve as an altar boy at the Convent of the Dominican nuns of Santa Ana and stories of missionaries in faraway lands that he heard from the chaplain at the convent kindled a desire in him to become a Dominican friar.
At the age of 15 he told his father that he wanted to become a priest, but the family could not afford it and he had to continue working at the carpentry shop. It was not until three years later, in the autumn of 1845, that he finally entered the seminary in Logroño to begin his education in philosophy and theology.
Five years later his father had to call him home, as the family could no longer afford to pay for his studies at the seminary. But his teachers and instructors were unwilling to let him go: they did not wish to lose a good student and good priest for purely financial reasons. Eventually Valentín returned to his studies and was soon granted a ministry licence, which enabled him to earn enough to pay for his own studies. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1851.
For two years he worked as a spiritual director at the seminary itself and in various parishes around the city. His jovial character and his dedication to others made him well loved and much appreciated by his parishioners, but he was still interested in becoming a Dominican friar. After thinking it over carefully, in 1853 he entered the novitiate at Ocaña without saying a word to his parents until after he had joined the order.
He spent a year as a novice then two more years at Ocaña training for missionary work before eventually leaving for Seville with eight other Dominicans and then on to Cádiz to take ship for Manila, where they spent six months studying the Annamite language before heading off to preach in Tonkin, in what is now Vietnam.
This was a time of persecution, in which churches were frequently ransacked and destroyed, and friars and catechists were imprisoned, tortured and killed. The missionary life was hard: fear, living in hiding, fleeing continually and suffering austerity.
Bishop San Pedro chose him as his successor, and Valentín de Berrio-Otxoa accepted the post reluctantly. He could not refuse, because his willingness to serve others was one of his strongest character traits.
His letters to his mother, written in Basque, give an account of his life. He was an accurate chronicler of events: his letters provide first-hand testimony with a wealth of details. They also provide us with valuable information on just how the local variant of the Basque language in Elorrio was spoken at that time. These letters can now be seen beside the mausoleum altar dedicated to him at the Basilica of La Purísima Concepción.
He was denounced and arrested together with Father Hermosilla, a Dominican catechist from Catalonia. What happened to them is a familiar story: they were questioned, tortured and asked to inform on others and renounce their faith. The outcome is also well-known: he was sentenced to death by beheading. The sentence was carried out on 1 November 1861, when he was 34 years old.
News of his martyrdom spread quickly. It was requested that his body be brought home to Elorrio, where it arrived in 1886, for burial in the parish church. Valentín de Berrio-Otxoa was beatified in 1905 and canonised in 1988 along with 116 other martyrs from Vietnam. His remains now lie in the mausoleum altar which was built in the Basilica following his beatification.