The Match Made On a Train

By Olga Emily Marlin

The story of the Alvira couple began on wheels: the wheels of a Spanish train, in 1926. Paquita would never forget that day, January 23, when she saw Tomás for the first time. His father—a member of the city council of Zaragoza, and the principal of Gascón y Marin School—had organized a study trip to Barcelona and asked his twenty-year-old son (then a student at the University of Zaragoza) to come along and help him. Among the pupils was this fourteen-year-old girl, Paquita Domínguez.

In those days, the journey of 185 miles by train to Barcelona could take at least seven hours—plenty of time for leisurely strolls up and down the coaches. Tomás’s eyes met Paquita’s several times; she noticed that he was looking at her, and was pleased. That was the spark that set off a blaze that would never go out.

Many years later, whenever Paquita would put on a new dress, Tomás would say to his children, “Do you see how beautiful your mother is? I’ve always thought I carried off the loveliest girl in Zaragoza!”

When he first saw her, Paquita was surely not wearing something new, that could be ruined by the cinders of the train; but she did have an attractive feminine grace. Her wavy chestnut hair fell softly around her face, and her serene brown eyes shone with admiration. For Tomás it was love at first sight, and from that moment he never looked at anyone else.

During that trip there were lively get-togethers after supper, and Tomás made a point of talking with Paquita. He learned about her family and her dreams for the future. Francisca (“Paquita”) Domínguez was born in a village near Jaca, a city in northeastern Spain, on April 1, 1912. Her parents were Francisco Domínguez Oliván and María Susín Escartín. The families on both sides came from farming stock and were staunch Catholics. At the age of nineteen, Francisco joined the prestigious Carabineros, which would later become the Guardia Civil. As his profession involved frequent moves to different parts of the district, the couple’s five children were born in different cities. The last child, Juliana, came into the world almost five months after her father’s untimely death in 1914; he was thirty-three.1 Paquita was then two years old.

The death of the father of a family at that time, when there was no social security, generally left the family in serious financial straits. This family was no exception. María was thirty-one, the eldest child only ten. After recovering from the initial shock, María returned to Jaca, where she could take time to think things out. She finally decided to move to Zaragoza, where a brother of hers was living. With his help, there would be a better future for her children.

At the age of three Paquita began attending a convent school, and when she was six, was enrolled in the newly opened public school: Gascón y Marín. She was very intelligent and studied hard. During her last year there (when she was thirteen), her teacher asked to talk to her mother. The teacher told María that in view of her daughter’s academic record and intellectual gifts, it would be a pity if she didn’t continue with her studies. María called together her other children, for whom she hadn’t been able to afford post–middle school studies, and asked them if they’d be willing to make a financial sacrifice to enable Paquita to go to high school. They all answered that there was no need to ask; they were all happy to help make that happen. And Paquita did go on to graduate from high school and then college. But her most important lessons she learned in the stout sobriety of that home where María was both father and mother. The family’s close bond also taught Paquita how important family would always be.

One of her sisters, María Domínguez, has recorded some memories of those years. “After my father’s death,” she writes, “our financial situation was very precarious, but that didn’t affect the atmosphere in our home, where there was always a lot of joy. In fact, I can’t remember anyone complaining about anything. Both my father and my mother were good Catholics, people with faith and a great devotion to Our Lady of the Pillar. From when we were little, they taught us to pray. My mother kept the family very united. We loved each other deeply, and would help one another—and have continued to do that all of our lives.”

The financial difficulties at home honed Paquita’s already good character. She was very sensitive to others and demanding of herself, and it was easy to be with her. A gentle and affectionate girl, she was always smiling, though not very talkative. She had an innate elegance, a refined taste for the noble and beautiful.

Upon completing her high-school studies, Paquita took the entrance exams for the Zaragoza Teachers’ College, together with about a hundred other candidates. She placed first, winning a scholarship that covered all her fees. Throughout her years at the college, she achieved brilliant results, though she never attached to them too much importance. She drew and painted very well. When, one day, she handed in a map of the regions of Spain, the teacher thought she had bought it. Believing it impossible that she had drawn it herself, she gave her a blank piece of paper and told her to duplicate it right then and there, from memory. To her astonishment, Paquita redid the project exactly as she had done it the first time. The teacher apologized for having doubted her.

Those were years when the curriculum for girls in the teachers’ colleges included embroidery. Paquita was so good at this that one of her pieces of work, a bed cover, was exhibited in a Zaragoza shop window. Someone wanted to buy it, but Paquita’s mother wouldn’t hear of that. “It can’t be sold,” she said, “because it is priceless.” Paquita’s mother kept and treasured it till the day she died, after which it went to the Alvira home, where it is still carefully preserved

Near the city of Zaragoza, there is a farming village (on the Gállego River) called Villanueva de Gállego; it was here, on January 17, 1906, that Tomás Alvira was born. Tomás was baptized in the same church as his father and paternal grandfather, and named after them.

Grandfather Tomás had been the village teacher. He taught in the school that his son would head years later—and was still teaching at the time he died, at age fifty-four. His wife, Antonia, was a strong, intelligent woman, and a good conversationalist. She brought twelve children into the world and managed her household with a firm hand and loving heart. Somehow she also managed to find the time to devour any book that fell into her hands, and to attend to the needs of the neighbors who came to her for advice and other kinds of assistance.

Tomás’s maternal grandparents were León and Pascuala Alvira. They lived off their businesses, as well as off the fertile lands they had inherited, but eventually León’s gifts for organization and his readiness to serve led to his also being appointed the City Council secretary. His wife was renowned for her beauty, discretion, and exquisite manners.

When Tomás was born, his father was already the teacher in Villanueva de Gállego. He had married Teresa Alvira the previous year (after obtaining the required canonical dispensation, as they were first cousins). Tomás was followed by Antonieta in 1908, Pilar in 1914, and Visitación (Visi) in 1919.

Infant mortality was high in the early twentieth century, and many little cribs were often left empty. A smallpox epidemic reached the seven-month-old Tomás, who nearly died. That ordeal was all the more terrible for this family because of the father’s occupation. Being a teacher, this father could hardly so much as look at his child, for fear of catching and spreading that deadly disease; and Teresa, largely for the same reason, felt that she must refrain from nursing her suffering baby herself. Fortunately, they found in the village a woman called “Gila” who had on her face the telltale signs that she herself had recovered from the disease and was therefore immune. Gila took Tomás and nursed him through the sickness—which in his case left no trace. His grateful mother made sure he would remember Gila thankfully all his life, though he never saw her again.

Tomás did not live long in Villanueva; just long enough to start enjoying the village’s festivals, and learn how to walk on its cobblestones. When he was two, his father won a competitive exam for a professorial tenure—with such high marks that he was able to select a school in Zaragoza, where he moved himself and his family.

Tomás began attending his father’s school when he was five, and would later note with pride that his father was the only teacher he ever had in those most formative years. At this one-room school, every child learned at his or her own pace. The students received individual attention and personal follow-up. Tomás’s father was a dedicated teacher, who made education a work of art. He was also a demanding teacher. One day, when Tomás was unable to answer a question in class, he said severely, “Tomás, you haven’t studied! This better be the last time!” It was.

At that school Tomás learned, of course, to read and write, to play and interact with others, but he also learned to pray—and would always remember with a special joy his First Confession. His father took him to the parish priest, who was a good family friend. His father, followed by Tomás, who years later said of this experience, “By then I knew the difference between good and evil. How happy I was after my confession! And what satisfaction it gave me to go with my father!” Of his First Holy Communion (received at age seven), he had this to say: “My parents got me ready for it. (I learned the catechism from Fr. Cayetano Ramos.) The ceremony took place in the parish church of San Miguel—and there was a big party at home. I was dressed in a sailor suit, with a wide embroidered band . . . which I’ve kept ever since.” That carefully preserved silk band, now yellow with age, is an eloquent witness to his love for the Eucharist.

On a financial scale, the family home was comfortable but not at all grandiose. At an early age Tomás learned that one should share everything. Giving alms was not enough; one had to give oneself, and not just in theory. At the age of six, “Tomasico” was already helping out with the adult literacy classes that his father held at night during the winter months. Many of the men who came were twenty or thirty years of age and had never learned to read or write. “They were fellows from the countryside,” Tomás wrote years later. “I taught them from a spelling book, so that my father could spend his time working with the more advanced students.”2 The classes were given gratis. Those great big men grew fond of the boy, and to him the looks of gratitude they gave him were reward enough. This experience made him feel very grown up and probably helped inspire his lifetime dedication to teaching.

For Tomás, his father was a constant point of reference—the perfect model of tireless worker and top-notch teacher. His stamina, determination, and talent brought him to the highest level of his profession, and got him appointed to the faculty of the General Technical Institute of Zaragoza, where new educational methods and procedures were being developed and put to the test. At the same time, he continued teaching in the elementary school and preparing candidates for admission to the Teachers’ College.

The first important challenge for young Tomás was the preparation for Institute entrance exams.3 Father and son worked together on this project: for the former, it meant the professional satisfaction of presenting a brilliant student who was also his son; for ten-year-old Tomás, it meant going to school “with the big kids.” The exams were a solemn affair. From his childish perspective, the exam tribunal seemed to Tomás a massive structure and the teachers menacing giants. However, once he got over that first impression, he did well, and the examiners praised him and congratulated his father.

In October 1916 Tomás started going to the Institute—together with about a hundred other students. The first thing he had to learn was how to get a good seat every day. The large classrooms had desks, at which only the fourteen girls in the class were placed by assignment. The boys claimed the best seats they could, though there were enough desks to go around. Tomás would forever retain a deep respect and admiration for his secondary-school teachers, who were very professional and competent. He also made many friends among the students. One of these was Pascual Galbe Loshuertos, whose father was Zaragoza’s librarian and had a passion for philately (the study of stamps). The boys spent hours with him, poring over his stamp collections. Pascual and Tomás would remain great friends for life.

The time came for Tomás to choose a profession and begin his university studies. His father discussed all the different options with him and then let him make the decision. Tomás had a marked inclination toward teaching, and was good at science—which offered many opportunities in the educational field, at both secondary-school and university levels. Moreover, chemical research and its practical applications were developing rapidly at that time and promised good possibilities for the future. He decided to pursue a degree in chemistry at the University of Zaragoza’s School of Sciences.

There he became friends with Lorenzo Vilas—a friendship which also would last all his life. And, in one of the math classes, he met a certain student who was already a pharmacist and was taking a second degree in chemistry. This student, who was older than all the others and shyer than any of them, was to reappear in important moments of Tomás’s life. His name was José María Albareda.

Tomás not only did classwork morning and afternoon (in lecture halls and in the lab), but also participated in student affairs—and in debates that often became quite heated. At that time it was very difficult to keep religion and politics appropriately separate. Tomás had never been to an officially Catholic school; he had received all his religious education from his parents. They had taught him to pray from the time he was a toddler, and he always saw them behave according to their beliefs. He looked with respect and affection on the priests who as family friends occasionally visited his home. But he never wanted to make the Church appear to be taking sides in a matter of mere opinion.

The Spanish political scene was turbulent at that time, with the working world steeped in lockouts, strikes, and union boycotts. Terrorism was an everyday fact of life in practically every city. Zaragoza experienced the effects of this upheaval in a particularly direct way. On June 4, 1923, its archbishop, Cardinal Juan Soldevilla, was assassinated in the street by anarchist bullets, just for having defended the rights of the Church.

Tomás learned a powerful lesson on freedom and responsibility in civil affairs from his father. This was in the time of the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera. One day the provincial governor called in the elder Tomás, offering him a position on the Zaragoza City Council. He replied courteously that while grateful for this show of confidence in him, he could not involve himself in politics, since he was totally committed to his teaching profession. The governor not taking for an answer either that or any other tactful refusal, Tomás finally gave the real reason. “Your Honor,” he said, “the fact is, I’m not in favor of dictatorships.” His interlocutor, an adept politician, changed his tactic. “I’m not asking you to change any of your opinions,” he said, “but I am asking that you accept this post as a service to the city.” Well, that was another matter; Señor Alvira could always be counted on to serve his countrymen. And he did so with such competence and dedication that soon he was elected mayor.

However, before he could take that office, he contracted tuberculosis of the throat and died—in the summer of 1926, at the age of forty-seven. The entire city attended the funeral: civil and academic dignitaries, his friends and colleagues, neighbors from Villanueva de Gállego. . . . Only Tomás, because of a high fever, was unable to go.

Tomás owed a great deal to his father, who was not only an outstanding teacher and a man with a great gift for government, but, above all, a good Christian. What is more, shortly before he died he had already, unwittingly, facilitated Tomás’s meeting of Paquita.

This is the story of the life and adventures of Tomás and his wife Paquita, who raised a large family and whose cause of holiness is now progressing through the approval process of the Catholic Church.

Mary Ann Glendon, J.D., LL.M. is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and a former United States Ambassador to the Holy See. She teaches and writes on bioethics, comparative constitutional law, property, and human rights in international law. She was the Vatican representative to the international 1995 Beijing Conference on Women, was appointed by President Bush to the President's Council on Bioethics, and in 2013 was named a member of the Pontifical Commission of inquiry for the Institute for Works of Religion (IOR) by Pope Francis. She serves on the board of directors for First Things, and is the 2018 recipient of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture's Evangelium Vitae Medal.

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