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Maria de Jesus de Agreda

Born: 1602

Maria de Jesus de Agreda
by Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint

In 1602, in the small town of Ágreda on the northeastern edge of the Kingdom of Castile in Spain, a remarkable little girl was born, María Fernández Coronel y Arana. From a very young age, she was extraordinarily passionate in her devotion to the Catholic Church. She became well known for ecstatic trances, during which she would become completely rigid. Her mother, Catalina de Arana, converted the family home into the Franciscan convent of the Immaculate Conception in Ágreda. In the beginning, the convent housed only María, her mother, and her sister. Her father went to live in a nearby Franciscan friary.

Professing as a cloistered nun of the Poor Clares, she took the name María de Jesús. By the time she was 25, sor María became mother superior of the convent. Years before, though, while still in her late teens, María de Jesús began a series of seemingly miraculous experiences involving Indians of New Mexico, whom she was never to meet in the flesh. Between 1620 and 1623, and continuing thereafter with less frequency, she was, as she herself said, "transported by the aid of the angels" to settlements of people called Jumanos. This she did without ever physically leaving Ágreda or even the convent. In a later interview, she told of having been in "another and different region and climate," where she preached to Indians who "understood her as if [her language] were their own."

As a result of these "flights," sor María had vivid memories of peoples and places that compared favorably with actual landscapes and inhabitants of the Spanish province of New Mexico. She herself did not profess to know the names of the places she had visited through "bilocation." But Franciscan friars of New Mexico concluded from her descriptions that she had "visited" Indians there.

Reports of sor María's visions seemed all the more miraculous when compared to statements made by Jumano Indians to friars in New Mexico. For several years running at the end of the 1620s, groups of Jumanos had appeared at the eastern outpost missions of the Tompiro pueblos and had spoken with fray Juan de Salas, the missionary visiting there from Isleta Pueblo. The Jumanos had repeatedly asked that he go to live among them and preach to them. They told about having been visited by a beautiful young woman dressed in blue robes, who instructed them to travel to the missions and ask that friars be sent to them.

Fray Juan dutifully relayed the Jumanos' request to the custos, or Franciscan superior, at the custodial headquarters at Santo Domingo Pueblo, fray Alonso de Benavides. Each year, though, fray Alonso would regretfully deny the request because there were not any friars in New Mexico who could be spared for a mission to the Jumanos, far out on the plains, hundreds of miles from the colonial settlements along the Rio Grande.

Then, similar requests came from Indians of Quivira, even farther away on the plains, also prompted by a visit from the "lady in blue." But the answer was always the same. No new friars were expected in New Mexico until at least the next mission supply caravan, which was not due until 1629, if it even arrived then.

When the caravan did arrive in 1629, it brought a new custos, fray Esteban de Perea, and a dozen additional missionaries. Perea also brought with him a letter of inquiry from the archbishop in Mexico City, who, in turn, was responding to a letter from sor María's confessor in Spain, Sebastián Marcilla. Padre Marcilla sought to learn whether the friars of New Mexico were aware of any evidence that would confirm sor María's visitations to Indians of their region. The archbishop directed the Franciscans of New Mexico to conduct an inquiry into this matter and report back. The friars were electrified by the seeming correspondence between the nun's stories and the reports from Jumanos of the "lady in blue."

With an enlarged cadre of Franciscans now in the province, it was possible to dispatch fray Juan, along with fray Diego López, to minister to the plains nomads. They left as soon as possible, traveling more than a hundred leagues (about 260 miles) to the east, which would place them somewhere in the Texas Panhandle or South Plains, according to the modern map. As they approached the Jumanos' settlements, the friars were greeted by natives of those settlements, coming toward them bearing crosses. They had been instructed, they said, by yet another visitation from the beautiful young lady. The friars remained among the Jumanos, ministering to the sick and baptizing, by their own claim, 10,000 people of all ages. Impressed by the magnitude of the mission work ahead of them, fray Juan and fray Diego returned to the Rio Grande to recruit more friars.

Meanwhile, another pair of clerics, led by fray Pedro de Ortega, the resident priest at Pecos Pueblo, made a parallel trip to Quivira. They reported having come within sight of that place, but without entering had also returned for ecclesiastical "reinforcements." Two years were to elapse before Ortega and Fray Juan set out again for the plains. But they did return, this time building a log church. Once again, fray Juan soon returned to the Rio Grande, while fray Pedro stayed on among the Jumanos. It was not long, though, before the natives became disaffected with the friar. One day they simply all packed up and moved away, leaving the friar and his log building alone. Fray Pedro either died of natural causes or was poisoned by members of the Jumano community; the surviving documents differ.

Years before this unfortunate end of the mission to the Jumanos, fray Alonso de Benavides had left New Mexico with the southbound supply caravan in 1630. At the time Benavides departed, the first two pairs of friars had just embarked for the plains, full of optimism. Thus, when the former custos arrived in Mexico City, he had astounding news to report: the work of the Franciscans of the custody of the Conversion of St. Paul in New Mexico was being divinely aided and supported through the miraculous intervention of the "lady in blue." Because of her, many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Indian people were begging for conversion.

So inspiring were Benavides and his message that the provincial, or administrative head, of the order in New Spain decided to send him on to the Spanish royal court, with the hope of prompting additional financial support for missionary work from the king. Felipe IV and his councilors were amazed by fray Alonso's report of such astounding conversion success in New Mexico, as well as the seemingly manifest evidence of divine favor, in the person of the blue nun. As a result, authorization was made for support of 20 more friars for New Mexico. Furthermore, 400 copies of Benavides's formal, written report, or memorial, were printed at royal expense. That printing was soon exhausted, so that a second press run was authorized.

Anxious to confer in person with sor María, six months after his arrival in Spain, fray Alonso journeyed to Ágreda. With him he carried an order from the Franciscan general in Spain enjoining the young abbess to answer thoroughly Benavides's questions. Present at the interview in the convent, in addition to fray Alonso and sor María, was padre Marcilla, her devoted confessor. Already persuaded of the authenticity of the nun's miraculous visitations to New Mexico, Benavides's questions to her often assumed that she was, in fact, the "lady in blue." It is difficult today to read the queries and responses as an investigation of a possible miracle. Rather, they seem to serve as elucidation of an already established fact.

Fray Alonso later wrote: sor María "told me all we know that has happened to our brothers and fathers, fray Juan de Salas and fray Diego López, in the journeys to the Jumanas." María de Jesús mentioned other tribal names as well, but only that of the Jumanos matched names the New Mexican friar was familiar with. Nor have modern historians and anthropologists been able to identify those additional groups or even to confirm whether they ever existed. At the time, though, Benavides was thoroughly convinced that he was, indeed, speaking with the "lady in blue."

Her descriptions of landscapes bore remarkable similarity to what fray Alonso himself had seen during his tenure in New Mexico. "She brought them back to my mind," he wrote. Sor María also explained that although as a Poor Clare (affiliated with the Franciscans), she often wore their traditional gray habit during her bilocations to New Mexico; sometimes she also wore the blue cloth of Conceptionists. She was an adherent of the Conceptionist wing of her order. That is, she believed in the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary, then a contentious concept within the Catholic Church.

After their interview, both sor María and fray Alonso sent letters to the Franciscan friars of New Mexico exhorting them to further work among the Indians of the plains. Three years later, in 1634, Benavides presented to Pope Urban VIII in Rome a handwritten, revised and expanded version of his memorial about New Mexico. In it, he included a summary of the 1631 interview at Ágreda. As it had elsewhere, sor María's story created a sensation in Rome, although not without some skepticism also.

Ever alert to religious charlatans and counterfeit miracles, the Holy Office of the Inquisition had suspicions about María de Jesús and her stories of bilocation to New Mexico. The Holy Office conducted an investigation, questioning both sor María and others with opinions about the case. In the end, nothing was found to impugn her story. Her exoneration by the Inquisition only increased the abbess' already considerable renown in both Spain and North America.

In 1643, Felipe IV traveled to Ágreda to speak with the now 40-year-old nun. As a result, the two initiated a regular correspondence by letter that was to last for 22 years, until they both died in 1665. During that period, the king visited sor María in person several more times. Her ecstatic trances continued. During them, she wrote a long treatise known as the Mystical City of God, which she said was dictated to her by the Virgin Mary herself. The book purported to be the autobiography of the mother of Christ, and it confirmed her own birth through the immaculate conception of her mother Saint Ann.

In the 1650s, sor María disavowed both the book and the stories of her earlier bilocations to New Mexico. She burned the manuscript of the Mystical City of God and announced that fray Alonso de Benavides and padre Marcilla had pressured her into confirming their version of events that she had envisioned while in trances. Reversing herself again, she rewrote the autobiography of the Virgin from memory. Five years after her death, it was published and became a very popular, though sometimes controversial, mystical text. María de Jesús never did reassert the truth of miraculous preaching to Indians in New Mexico. She remained steadfast that it had never happened and that her visions had been misinterpreted.

A century after her death, in 1765, Pope Clemente X initiated the process for beatification of sor María. That process has never been carried to completion. Clemente bestowed the honorific title of "venerable" to sor María. She is known today as the Venerable sor María de Jesús de Ágreda.

Sources Used:

Ayer, Mrs. Edward E., tr. and ed. The Memorial of Fray Alonso de Benavides, 1630. Chicago: 1916; reprint, Albuquerque: Horn and Wallace Publishers, 1965.

Hickerson, Nancy Parrott. The Jumanos, Hunters and Traders of the South Plains. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.

Hodge, Frederick W., George P. Hammond, and Agapito Rey, trs. and eds. Fray Alonso de Benavides' Revised Memorial of 1634. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1945.

Kessell, John L. Spain in the Southwest, a Narrative History of Colonial New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.

Morrow, Baker H., tr. and ed. A Harvest of Reluctant Souls: The Memorial of Fray Alonso de Benavides, 1630. Niwot, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 1996.