1915 - 1943
He was born on 22 April 1915 at the Iturbe Basque traditional house, in the parish of San Pedro de Barinaga, belonging to the municipality of Markina (Bizkaia). His father's name was José Luis; his mother was Tomasa. He was the eldest of four children. He had a sister, María, and two brothers, Francisco and Jesús. He began to go to school, adjoining the parish church and funded by local residents, when he was four.
At 12, in 1927, he joined the Castillo Elejabeitia Lower Seminary. He wanted to learn Latin and take courses in Cultural Studies. Four years later, in 1931, he joined the Conciliar Seminary of Vitoria, which had just been established. There he studied Philosophy and Theology. In the holiday of 1936, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War brought his studies to a halt.
During the war, he continued with his studies at the seminary, first in Bilbao, which he combined with his tasks as a gudari (soldier) in the Basque newspaper Eguna. He was 21 years old, and signed his articles with the nickname 'Arretxinaga'.
Then he moved to Burgos, as a member of the artillery battalion, where he continued studying in Bergara, since the Vitoria Seminary had been converted to a field hospital. He was ordained as a priest on 21 December 1940, a year later than expected as a result of the Civil War. On 1 January 1941, less than 13 years after joining the Lower Seminary, he held Mass for the first time. It was at the San Pedro de Barinaga Church. He was 25 years old. Then he became coadjutor of the Parish Church of San Juan Bautista in Mondragón – his first and only office in his religious career. He came by train and headed for the parish church. He shared the parish house with priest José Luis Iñarra, who had come at the same time. The population of Mondragón, amounting to 8,500, was under the effects of the Civil War, to which we should add a revolutionary strike that had been on since 5 October 1934. In September 1939, only six months after the end of the Spanish Civil War the threat of the World War II loomed in the horizon. Against this extremely difficult social and political background, the work done by Arizmendiarrieta verged on the heroic. With dedication, talent and kindness, he healed people's wounds and began to be accepted.
Most of his apostolic activity as Catholic Action counsellor was targeted at young people. He influenced their spiritual life and gradually oriented their actions to large-scale initiatives. The study groups at the Catholic Action Centre, the spiritual exercises, the longer hours spent at the confessional and the Sunday sermons brought in dozens of young disciples for spiritual guidance. They were only ten or twelve years younger than their counsellor. With them, Arizmendiarrieta carried out lots of Christmas activities. Bizarzuri, Olentzero, Nativity, Twelfth Night parades, theatrical performances and bertsolari competitions were among the early activities he organised.
1943 - 1962
In 1943, Arizmendiarrieta founded the Professional Schools under his well-known saying, 'Education is an investment with continuous return.' The school had 20 students back then. Meanwhile, he committed himself to the successful development of 100 affordable houses – a project aimed at alleviating overcrowding and poor living conditions.
Broadening his horizons, he brought a dozen of his closest disciples to Zaragoza with him to see if they could engage in distance learning to become industrial experts while keeping their jobs in Mondragón. They graduated in 1952. It was then time to deal with business startup. Arizmendiarrieta was interested in a business model where respect for individuals and democratic hierarchy prevailed.
In 1953, 12 years after coming to Mondragón, he conceived of a people-oriented, participatory organisation, framed within a self-sufficient environment making neither imports nor exports. The cooperative model also involved a certain degree of control of the perverse Sindicato Vertical, the only legal trade union during Franco's dictatorship. There was a shortage of raw materials, and the permissions required to set up companies were a long succession of complicated procedures. Luckily enough, an old firm in Vitoria was ready to sell its dilapidated small plant, manufacturing home appliances. They sold it for 400,000 pesetas. Arizmendiarrieta got the support of a pharmacist and a painter for this.
He wanted to manufacture goods that were unavailable from the Spanish industry back then. On 4 August 1956, he held a dinner at the Professional School that led to an agreement signed in Vitoria on the following day. By virtue of this agreement, the first selenium semiconductors would be produced in Spain. With all the relevant permissions, the plant acquired in Vitoria, expanded under the business name Ulgor, S.C.I. in October 1956, was now in full swing in Mondragón.
Arizmendiarrieta influenced the early decisions made at the company and guided his workers into applying the Christian doctrine to the running of business: advance payments on a level with workers' wages in the area, full capitalised returns, extension to other municipalities in Alto Deba... Meanwhile, he kept his office as counsellor, trying to keep all business agreements in line with his ideas and the future he projected for his organisation.
1962 - 1976
In 1962, he took one step further. His commitment to education and his bold imagination bore fruit in the form of a technical university. A 40,000m2 area in Iturripe, Mondragón, was chosen to develop M.E.D.U.O., the school community of the University of Oñate. In Arizmendiarrieta's words, 'Gipuzkoa can have a university scattered in its villages sprawling in the shade of leafy meadows yet well-connected.' in 1997, his dream came true with the establishment by the Basque Parliament of Mondragon Unibertsitatea (MU), with schools in Mondragón, Eskoriatza, Oñati, Irún, Aretxabaleta and Ordizia.
Likewise, in 1959, foreseeing a more competitive future and anticipating meagre returns for cooperatives, he founded Caja Laboral Popular against the advice of his collaborators. This popular savings bank included a special social security system devised by Arizmendiarrieta himself, and called by him 'Lagun-Aro'.
Indefatigable and inexhaustible, after 18 years nurturing the cooperatives with European, American and Japanese technologies, Arizmendiarrieta championed the creation of Ikerlan, the last testimony of his keen vision of the future. The centre opened in 1977, six months after his death at 61 in late November 1976. He had spent 60% of his life as coadjutor in the parish church of Mondragón.
It has been 55 years since the takeover of the humble stove plant in Vitoria. The grain of sand has grown to become a high dune thanks to Arizmendiarrieta's model of people-oriented business.
Before finishing this portrait sketch of the 'Apostle of Cooperation', let's cite the 1987 words of Joaquín Goikoetxeandia, his teacher and spiritual mentor: 'I have no doubts that José María deserves a place in altarpieces, given his human and divine dimension. He needs to be an example to be followed by all men and, above all, by all priests.'