November 2023

Father Carlos Goicochea quietly urged desperate refugees onto the crowded fishing boat, as it weaved and bobbed under the turbulent influence of Biscay Bay off the northern coast of Spain.  Betwixt passengers afforded furtive glances of the area.  If caught, he faced summary execution along with hundreds of thousands of others.

This was the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War which ended in 1939. Despite the passage of 31 years, the dictatorial regime of Francisco Franco had a long memory, and former enemies were shown no mercy. Their only recourse was to flee, and the small fishing village of Lekeitio offered covert passage by sea to camps in southern France.  The camps harbored half a million refugees, many of whom eventually resettled to other sympathetic countries around the world.

Over forty years later in the United States, a young woman headed to Sunday church with her brother, sister, and parents.  As a gifted pianist, Andrea was conscripted to play the organ for the congregation while her mother sang.  The family’s strong ties with the church led to a friendship with Father Goicochea, who had fled Spain for his own safety and joined the growing Basque community in southern Idaho, where Andrea lived.  It was during an interview for a school report that Andrea first learned of Father Goicochea’s remarkable past. 

That high school interview made an impression. Over the course of the following 29 years, Andrea built a life in the state of Washington where she dedicated her life to helping others much like Father Goicochea. Washington was in short supply of persecuted civil war veterans, however, so she instead turned her efforts towards fighting for the rights of people with disabilities.  Towards that end, she rolled up her sleeves and enrolled in law school.

29 years is a long time, and life changed for Father Goicochea as well.  The political tensions in Spain had eased and as he approached retirement he was finally able to safely return to his beloved homeland.

In 2016 Andrea’s law school presented an opportunity for education abroad, and she didn’t hesitate.  Her destination: Spain.  

Upon hearing of her visit, Father Goicochea graciously offered his services as guide to the sites of Basque country.   Her journey was well documented through photographic essay, and as often happens with modern friendships, much of it wound up on my phone with little commentary.  

There was one photograph, though, that really struck me.  The weathered tower, centered in a charming, rain moistened street seemed to beg for a watercolor rendition.  Unfortunately, the technical skills required were beyond me at the time, so the photo was saved and the project shelved for 7 years, until recently…

Andrea’s original photograph.

Coincidentally, I finished the painting on Andrea’s birthday.  “The Spain spire is exactly like the corner,” she said.  “I remember standing there… [but] …I don’t know if that was in Segovia or Madrid or Barcelona?”   Well I certainly had no idea.

Time for a little digital sleuthing.  Luckily, I still had the original photo, and embedded in the metadata was the original GPS coordinates. After a virtual stroll via Google maps, I found the building, labeled “Andre Mariaren Jasokundearen Eliza,” which I later learned was commonly called the Basilica of Santa Maria. 

“Omg, it’s in the Basque Country,” she said.  “Yeah that’s father Goicochea’s church!!!  Wow!!!! …. That’s incredible…”

It turns out that after his return to Spain, Father Goicochea held  mass at the Santa Maria Basilica for many years. It is an icon in Lekeitio, and one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in the area.  For all these years, I had no idea of the personal and cultural significance of the source photo.

Today, Father Goicochea suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease and tragically his own history is lost to him.  While we cannot undo the ravages of Alzheimer’s, perhaps in reading this story you are helping to preserve his memory in some small way.

Google street view image similar to the source photo. Click to explore.

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