Someone who has family members in the Palmarians came across this very interesting article written by Nick Rider. It gives in a very neutral way a deep insight into the hidden world at the heart of the only true Church founded by Christ!
Journeys to the Bizarre: the Basilica of Palmar de Troya
Posted on June 29, 2014 | By Nick Rider
You first see it as you come down a long slope, rising up ahead of you out of the sunflower fields of Andalusia like a CGI-created palace in some post-Tolkien fantasy movie. Closer up, its gleaming maroon-and-white domes and eight strange towers have a look that’s more a mix of local Andaluz baroque, Buddhist stupas, and Disneyland. Architecturally it is genuinely – an over-used label, but this time justified – unique. This is the Basilica of El Palmar de Troya, just outside the village of the same name, about 45 kilometres south of Seville, home of the Iglesia Cristiana Palmariana de los Carmelitas de la Santa Faz (Palmarian Christian Church of the Carmelites of the Holy Face), which for over 35 years has claimed to be the one true Catholic Church in the world, with its own Popes, and denounced the official Rome-based organization as criminals and apostates.
It is certainly not a tourist attraction, at least, not unless you like to imagine monuments rather than just see them. Try to get a closer look and you find that the Basilica and its large (apparently leafy) grounds are ringed by a massive grey concrete wall over five metres high, its height so graded that at no point around the very extensive perimeter can you see anything over it, even from the hillocks in nearby fields. The only entrance is an equally massive iron gate in a gap in the wall.
There is no sign anywhere indicating what this huge complex is, nor how to contact those inside, nor any doorbell, nor intercom. This is one of the largest religious buildings erected in Spain in the last 50 years, but it isn’t signposted, nor does it feature on many maps (scarcely even on Google!), as if everyone was somehow pretending it’s not there. The Church does not appear to have any functioning listed phone number, nor email address, and must be one of the world’s few remaining organizations that does not have a website (although you can find one, http://laiglesiapalmariana.blogspot.com.ar/, set up by a group that broke away a few years ago, amid dark accusations that the Palmar Popes had strayed into heresy themselves).
The village of El Palmar de Troya, population c. 2,500, about half a kilometre back down the road, is the kind of place that can without any malice be called a backwater. I knew the name from years ago, when I was living in Spain, and was curious to see what was there, but hadn’t realised just how strange and mysterious the Palmarians’ lair would be. Is it ever possible to visit the Basilica, or get some information about it, I asked in the village. ‘I think so’, said a girl behind a bar, though without much interest, ‘you just go up there’. But there’s no bell, I pointed out. ‘You have to bang on the gate’, she maintained. This is not true, I tried it, and was met only by echoing silence, while a CCTV camera high up on the rampart obviously clocked that I was not a suitable visitor.
Another bar owner seemed better informed. ‘At seven every evening they let people in for Mass, but not like that’, he said, looking at me and making me feel like a real slob – though I should say that it was 38ºC/100ºF in El Palmar that day, so no one was exactly formally dressed. ‘You have to be buttoned up to here’ – holding his neck – ‘no jeans, everything covered up’. ‘A suit and tie, then, even in this heat?’ There was no consensus on whether a tie was absolutely necessary, but the need to button up was emphatic. Some old men agreed that the gates opened for Mass at seven – although none of them had ever been – and added that women ‘have to wear skirts down to here and be covered down to here’, with slicing gestures at ankles and wrists, ‘and have something on their heads’.
Do the people from the Basilica – ellos, ‘them’, as they’re simply referred to in El Palmar – not have any contact with the village then, I asked my third, most communicative bar owner. No, she said, ‘they’re not allowed, lo tienen prohibido.’ At one time they used to give work to village people, she went on, but now ‘they do everything themselves’. Since I was so interested, she gave me directions to find an elderly retired veterinarian, who she said had worked for them years ago. ‘Perdone la molestia’, I said when I found him, ‘but people have told me you know a lot about the Basilica…’, ‘No, no, I’m sorry, they’re mistaken, I don’t know anything,’ he said quietly but firmly, moving immediately to close the door (and I can testify, should any Palmarians be monitoring the web for anything said about them, that he gave absolutely nothing away).
I only had some pretty simple, non-confrontational initial questions – such as where the Basilica’s architectural inspiration had come from – but there seemed no way to find answers nearby. I tried the official route, beginning with El Palmar’s little public library. Given that the Basilica is far the largest thing in the vicinity, it must have some information on it, or even on how to get in touch with it? The librarian was very friendly but no, nothing at all. The same at the Ayuntamiento, the town hall. Surely, I put to the receptionist, matters must come up – refuse collection, the state of the roads – for which you have to communicate someway or other with whoever’s inside that giant wall? After some time asking around among her colleagues she came up with a phone number. But it didn’t work. Neither do any of the others that appear in some local listings on the Net. Perhaps they drop them after they’ve used them more than once.
The impenetrable isolation of the Palmarians’ compound – like an ultra-Catholic version of a Bond villain’s lair – is one thing, but beyond that, the more you discover about it, the weirder, more bizarre, more entangled the story gets. It begins in 1968, when four young girls claimed to have had visions of the Virgin Mary while out picking flowers in the field of La Alcaparrosa, where the Basilica now stands. In the ever-fervid religious atmosphere of Andalusia the spot soon began to attract pilgrims and devotees, including some from the official Catholic clergy, and there were reports of miraculous cures and other phenomena. Among the crowds flocking to the spot were Clemente Domínguez, a Seville insurance agent, and his best friend Manuel Alonso Corral, a lawyer. Several things are said about the early life of Clemente: that as a little boy his ultra-devout mother always dressed him as a priest, that his only game was playing at saying Mass, but also that in his teens he was a flamboyant member of Seville’s then deep-underground gay scene. At El Palmar Clemente not only claimed to have had his own visions, a much bigger deal than those of the girls, but also to bear the stigmata or wounds of Christ, dramatically exhibiting his bleeding flesh. The official Church began to feel the phenomenon was getting out of hand and the Archbishop of Seville disauthorized the visions at El Palmar, especially those of Clemente, but he was unfazed. On one day in 1970 he supposedly entered into a mystical trance in front of 30,000 people. A key point came in 1972 when Corral, who always seems to have been the brains of the operation, used the first of many unexplained ‘donations’ to buy the Alcaparrosa estate. From then on he and Clemente effectively ‘owned’ the visions, and the original four girls were forgotten.
Clemente claimed the Virgin had commanded him to free the Catholic Church from ‘heresy and communism’ and all forms of Progresismo, ‘progressivism’. In the last years of the Franco regime, and in the wake of the ’60s and the Second Vatican Council, it seems it was not too hard to find others – not just in Spain, but also abroad – who felt similarly that civilization was going to the dogs. It has also long been said that both before and for years after the death of General Franco, in November 1975, Clemente and his followers were ‘indulged’ by ultra-rightists encrusted in the local authorities, as an aggravation for liberal Catholics. In 1975 Clemente and Corral formed their band into a new religious order, the Orden de los Carmelitas de la Santa Faz (‘Order of Carmelites of the Holy Face’). They still claimed to be loyal to the regular Church, and in fact revered Pope Paul VI, who Clemente claimed was being held prisoner in Rome by liberal Cardinals and stuffed with hallucinogenic drugs.
The Church refused to recognize their order, however, and nor were either of them actually priests. They got over this through Corral’s astute cultivation of the shadowy network of ultra-right, traditionalist Catholics that had buzzed into life after Vatican II. Through the famous French traditionalist Archbishop Lefebvre he contacted Maurice Revaz, a very wealthy Swiss ultra-Catholic and supporter of anti-progressive causes, who in turn put him in touch with the Vietnamese Archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc. This was none other than the brother of President Diem of South Vietnam, who had been deposed and assassinated in a military coup in 1963 with the complicity of the USA, who feared Diem’s far-right regime was destabilizing their Vietnamese project. Theological issues aside, Thuc was disaffected from the Vatican because of what he saw as its inadequate support for his family and right-wing Vietnamese Catholics, and from his French exile made a nuisance of himself by ordaining traditionalist priests – as he could, as an Archbishop – in defiance of Rome’s authority. In January 1976 Thuc made the journey to Palmar de Troya, and ordained Clemente, Corral and several associates as priests, who very quickly elevated themselves to Bishops (both Thuc and Revaz were subsequently reconciled with the Vatican, and disavowed these ordinations, but this hasn’t mattered in El Palmar). A few months later Clemente was blinded in a car accident while on a missionary tour of Spain, but this only added to his image as a supernatural ‘seer’.
Things really got going in 1978, with the death of Pope Paul VI, followed in quick succession by the elections of John Paul I and II. Clemente announced that Christ had appeared to him in one more vision and directed him to transfer the Holy See from Rome, in the hands of heretics, to Palmar de Troya, and had directly appointed him, Clemente, the new pope, as Gregory XVII. The Order thus turned into the full-size, global Palmarian Church. Getting into their stride, Clemente and Corral immediately appointed their own Cardinals – 24 in one day – and filled out the church’s creed and style: Tridentine Latin Mass, rejection of everything associated with Vatican II, much ritual, rules, puritanism and penances, hell-fire and damnation Catholicism, ever-more apocalyptic preaching. They also proclaimed several new saints – such as Franco, Christopher Columbus, and several far-right Spanish politicians – and excommunicated and consigned to damnation a long list that included Pope John Paul II and all those loyal to him, the Spanish Royal Family, all socialists and communists, anyone who ever saw Jesus Christ Superstar, and anyone who expresses public opposition to the Church of the Holy Face. Equally condemned were all ‘false religions’, not just mainstream Catholicism but ‘Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism…’ and a long etcetera. In the next few years the Church, incomprehensibly wealthy, also began the great project that has marked them out from all competitor-sects, the extraordinary temple that rose up out of their field outside El Palmar.
This rapidly made them a news item across Spain, beginning with articles that tried to work out just how the thing was being paid for. Clemente, his crew and their baroque apocalypse pronouncements became a bizarre/comic feature of modern Andaluz folklore, part of the national freakshow. Their greatest notoriety came in 1982, on the eve of an official visit to Spain by John Paul II, when Clemente and several of his bishops drove north to Alba de Tormes, resting place of one of Spain’s greatest saints, Saint Teresa of Ávila, and due to figure on the papal itinerary. Bursting into church during Mass, they denounced John Paul as an imposter, abused the congregation and attempted to seize the saint’s body and carry it off back to Palmar de Troya. The locals didn’t take this lying down but beat them off, and a mob chased after them and bombarded them with rotten fruit until they were rescued by the Guardia Civil, while their car was pushed into a river. A while later the Clemente-ines and the village they had ‘adopted’ were also immortalized by the great Spanish punk band Siniestro Total in their ditty (I left my heart in) Palmar de Troya, in which a lad bemoans the fact that his girl has become a Clemente devotee and taken to admiring her all-black ‘Tridentine look’ in the mirror and mutilating herself with old sherry bottles.
In the following years they kept a lower profile, but their activities were still expanding. In the ’80s and early ’90s, while the Basilica and its compound were being built, Clemente and his main followers all still lived in Seville and drove out to El Palmar regularly in a fleet of vans, and their priests and nuns, in strict traditional habits, were easy to see in the city and the village. In their early building projects they also gave plenty of work to men from El Palmar, who were generally happy in return to cooperate with the demand for total secrecy, and above all to say nothing to the media, imposed on anyone dealing with the Palmarians.
In the 1980s John Paul II devoted a peculiar amount of effort to ‘retrieving’ leading ultra-traditionalists and convincing them to return to the Roman fold, which led to the Palmarians losing some of their influential supporters (even though they had previously accepted Clemente’s declaration that John Paul was a ‘usurper, apostate, traitor anti-Pope and precursor of the Antichrist’). Several rejoined the regular clergy, presumably still carrying their political opinions with them. Nevertheless, the Palmarians still seemed to have ample resources to draw on. During the ’90s, there were reports of Clemente, Corral and their Cardinals having been spotted in giant eating and drinking binges in Seville restaurants, and accusations of sexual abuse, of men and women (as well as reports, as usual unconfirmed, of Church members needing emergency medical attention after injuring themselves in grotesque mortification exercises). Clemente/Gregory XVII actually admitted some of the abuse allegations in 1997; this and other shenanigans did lead to exits from the Church, but for the true faithful it seems to have been just one more aspect of their leader’s struggle with the devil.
Clemente died in 2005, and was succeeded by Corral, as Pope Peter II. He it was who tightened up even more on the Palmarians’ already draconian rules of behaviour, and banned all contact with the villagers of El Palmar and their easygoing ways. Vague stories were heard from within the walls of bitter arguments inside the Church – given their obsessions with sin and heresy, disputes among Palmarians must move instantly to the apocalyptic – but as usual without much becoming clear, since even Palmarian dissidents generally maintain a remarkable degree of public silence. One exception was the group that now proclaims itself from its website (see above) to be the authentic Palmarian Church, which broke away around this time. In El Palmar, ‘Peter II’ died in 2011 and was succeeded by his secretary Sergio María, a former Spanish army officer, alias Gregory XVIII, who – it is said – ‘is the most radical of all’, and has turned the screws of severity a little further again.
Any sect claiming to be the one true church, though, needs to proselytize, to get converts, and at first sight it’s hard to see how any group as hermetic and self-isolated as the Palmarians could do this. In contrast to the Moonies, Scientologists or other similar cults, it’s likely that unless you’re involved in the world of fringe-Catholicism you’ve never heard of the Palmarians, and even in Spain they’ve largely been forgotten. The explanation seems to be that Clemente and Corral followed a very specific but productive strategy: instead of wasting time giving out leaflets on street corners, they directly targeted circles already involved in ultra-traditionalist Catholicism, already at odds with modernity and its works, and so open to their blood-and-melodrama message. In their heyday they travelled a great deal, across Europe and the world; when Jesus appeared to Clemente to appoint him Pope, he was in Bogotá, Colombia. They particularly found converts, and established Palmarian houses, in Germany, Austria, the USA, Canada and Ireland.
On the Net it’s actually easier to find information on life within the Church in English than in Spanish, from ex-Palmarians who have fled the closed circle, and there’s even an Irish website run by a ‘Palmar de Troya Support Group’. The picture they paint of life within the Palmarians is the familiar one of all such all-embracing cults: obsessive obedience and rule-observance, a sealed-in, hyper-intense atmosphere, being forced to hand over all money to the church, paranoia and bile towards the rest of the world, turning people against their families on the outside (one of Clemente’s declarations was that ‘the non-Palmarian family you are linked to by blood is often the worst enemy’). In among these comments there are a few replies from still-active Palmarians, throwing out all the pustulent hatred that a certain sort of religious mentality can generate. Aside from abuse and YOU’RE GOING TO HELL!!! rhetoric they tend to focus not on spiritual arguments but picky points of ritual and dress, with a special fixation on women wearing trousers, an obsession of Clemente’s that has stayed among the Palmarians’ ultimate sins, most of all if they’re made of denim, the material of Satan.
Most mysterious of all about the Palmarians is their money. At times they’ve got through loads of it. It’s estimated the Basilica has cost over 16 million euros, and it’s clear that in their day Clemente, Corral and their associates, as well as travelling, lived pretty high on the hog. Not all of this, naturally, came from exploiting the ordinary faithful, however much they were required to live in poverty. A number of Spanish journalists have struggled admirably to clarify where all these funds came from: the Palmarians’ success in preventing anything coming definitively to light is extraordinary, but a few points have partly emerged through the murk. It appears Corral was adept at cultivating the world of upper-class traditionalist Catholicism not just for political influence but also cash – were the full details ever to emerge, his travels could make for a bizarrely lugubrious adventure yarn, played out in fading mansions, schlossen and grand hotels across Europe. It’s believed that their first big donation, which allowed them to buy the land and begin building in 1972, came from an ‘elderly pious baroness’, name and nationality still unknown. It is also generally thought that Corral sought out hefty donations from foreign companies, religiously inclined or not, as they would serve as tax dodges in their home countries.
Income received was carefully invested by Corral in property, and for years the Church owned several large buildings in Seville. There have been repeated crises and ups and downs in the Palmarians’ wealth, reflected in the ebbs and flows of the long-drawn-out building at El Palmar, and repeated run-ins with the Spanish tax authorities whenever they’ve taken on the task of trying to unravel the impenetrable state of Palmarian finances. Having put so much in property they were hard hit by the Spanish economic crisis after 2009, and most of their city buildings have been sold. Local journalists have suggested that, due to these losses and a steady drip-away of members and donors, the Church has been on the verge of a terminal crisis. Nevertheless, in the last couple of years there’s also been an impression that new money has been coming in; the Basilica and its towers have been newly painted, and scaffolding is visible, indicating there’s work going on. The only conclusion is that there is still a significant number of people out there with very weird ultra-right wing, neo-17th-century, Catholic-traditionalist views and a great deal of money, ready to donate to causes like the Palmarian Church. With the special feature that, in constrast to what happens when celebrity believers like John Travolta or Tom Cruise bankroll the Scientologists, giving money to the Palmarians is more like the spiritual equivalent of depositing it in a Swiss bank, absolute discretion guaranteed.
Curiosity still not satisfied, I made my way back to the big gravel patch in front of the Palmarians’ gate one evening before seven, having made myself as respectable as possible, shirt buttoned and jacket on despite the heat, in the hope of getting at least a glimpse inside the wall, and a look at whoever might turn up to form the congregation. So I waited, and seven went by, but the gate did not open, and nor did anyone else arrive. Around 7.15 just one car drove up, quite fast, with as far as I could see a single man inside, sounding his horn loudly as an open-sesame. The gate opened and closed quickly around him, before I could see a thing, and silence was resumed.
Filed under: Palmarian Church |