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TRADICION REVISTA December 2005 Volume X, No.3

The Mystical "Lady in Blue" of the American Southwest
Apparitions of Sor Maria de Jesus de Agreda in colonial New Mexico, Texas and Arizona
by Marilyn H. Fedewa

 

Maria de Agreda - a cloistered 17th century abbess who never set foot outside her birthplace of Agreda, Spain - will soon be featured in Grolier Encyclopedia's upcoming biography series on 1,000 influential Hispanic Americans, alongside Joan Baez, Carlos E. Castaqeda, and Cisar Chavez. At the same time, historians at the Smithsonian Institution describe Mara de Agreda as a "key cultural phenomenon in the American Southwest," and have explored the acquisition of a life-sized portrait of her to exhibit in one of its galleries.

How does a Spanish nun who never physically visited the New World earn such acclaim? The answer lies in her legendary appearances between 1620 - 1631 as the "Lady in Blue," through which she mystically "bilocated" to New Mexico, Texas and Arizona, to preach Christianity to Jumano Native Americans. At the same time, nuns in her convent testified that she never physically left the premises, while Jumano Indians described her in detail and petitioned for baptism at the Isleta mission outside Albuquerque, following her instructions.

Sor Maria of Agreda, Age 36

Padre Alonso de Benavides, head of the Inquisition and missions in the New Mexico territory, documented his investigation of the incidents. Born Maria Coronel y Arana in 1602, the beautiful young nun had taken the name of Sor Maria de Jesus in 1618, when she donned the veil of the Catholic order of the Conceptionists.

There her fellow nuns witnessed her levitating in ecstatic prayer, as had St. Teresa de Avila. Sor Maria also told her confessors that beginning in 1620 she experienced traveling to another country while in prayer at the convent. The unusual phenomena soon became common knowledge around the village and beyond. Suddenly the nun who thought she had entered the quiet isolated life of the cloister became a cause cilhbre throughout the land. In later years she explained the progression of these events.

Sor Maria told of a play she saw at age seven, based on "The New World Unveiled by Christopher Columbus," by playwright Lope de Vega. From then on, she felt a great missionary zeal to journey to the New World to preach. As a girl, however, she was not permitted to travel. Instead, she decided to devote her life to Christ as a nun. Bishop Don Diego de Yepes - Teresa de Avila's first biographer and last confessor - advised Maria's parents to set aside a private oratory for her, where they encouraged her to engage in contemplative prayer.

"It was like placing a little girl at the start of an exceedingly straight road and path," she wrote in 1650, "and saying to me, "Here you are to walk without deviating or turning aside. . . . Ever since . . . I found that when I focused my attention within, I would enter a state of exceedingly quiet prayer."

In these states of quiet prayer, Maria de Agreda's long-standing missionary zeal emerged in an unusual way. Inexplicably, she found herself in another land, encountering the very people she had longed to visit and evangelize, noting specific details of the terrain, weather, and a people she identified as the Jumanos. She said there was no language barrier between her and the Jumanos, and described a particular Jumano named Capitan Tuerto, a fearsome chieftain, so named because he was "one-eyed," from the Spanish word "tuerto."

In 1622 the Franciscan Minister General met her during a visit to Agreda. She impressed him with her detailed descriptions of the New World and its people, and her sincerity and spiritual acumen. With the Minister Generals blessing, Padre Sebastian Marcillaone of Sor Marias confessorswrote in 1626 to the Archbishop of Mexico, Don Francisco de Manso y Zuniga.

"It is very probable," he wrote, "that in the course of the discovery of New Mexico and the conversion of those souls, [including] the Chillescas, Jumanos and Carbucos, there will soon be found a kingdom . . . more than four hundred leagues from the city of Mexico to the west and north, between New Mexico and la Quivira. . . . It will be of assistance to [learn if] there is any knowledge of our holy faith, and in what manner our Lord has manifested it."

Archbishop Manso had followed the stories of the explorations of the Southwest, since Coronados expedition in the early 1540s. Of the three Native American groups Marcilla mentioned, he was familiar only with the Jumanos. He also knew that many explorers had searched for a legendary place of riches Coronado had called "Quivira."* As Manso had heard it reported, Quivira's distance from Mexico City was about 400 leagues to the northwest, the same approximate location the Spanish nun identified to her confessor.

Manso was keen to investigate this. In 1628, he appointed Padre Esteban de Perea to head the New Mexico mission work, a post most recently filled by Alonso de Benavides. Archbishop Manso prepared a letter of inquiry to Benavides, dated May 18, 1628.

In it, Manso ordered Benavides and the missionaries to inquire among the natives from Texas, which Sor Maria had pronounced as "Tixtlas," to see if they showed previous knowledge of the faith, and if so, to research these claims. He must ask, Manso wrote, how they acquired such knowledge, and then inform him of the results, for the "great spiritual and temporal advancement to the glory and service of our Lord."

Perea hand-carried this letter to Benavides in New Mexico, in the supply caravan of 1628-1629. The caravan, including 30 priests, military escort, and 36 oxcarts of provisions, left Mexico City on September 4, 1628 and arrived at Isleta on June 3, 1629. Upon arrival, the new recruits would help the 16 surviving priests and three lay brothers working out of Isleta with Benavides. Perea would take over as head of the New Mexico missions, and present the letter of inquiry to Benavides.

St. Augustine Mission Church, Isleta, New Mexico

Ironically, Benavides was familiar with the Jumanos from the Plains to the east. Each year he had been in Isleta, they had presented themselves at St. Anthony's mission - rebuilt in later years as St. Augustine's - requesting baptism and the establishment of a mission at their encampment many days' journey away.

"I didn't have enough clerics, and so I continued to put off the Jumanos . . . until God should send me more workers," Benavides reported later to his superiors.

On July 22, 1629, a band of fifty Jumanos arrived at the mission, to again make their request. Although Benavides had not yet left, Perea - as the new custodian - received them this time. Informed by the archbishop's inquiry, he was now very intent on knowing what had prompted their repeated attempts. Why had they come, and at whose instruction? Perea asked them, in a combination of Spanish and sign language. For baptism, they replied similarly, at the urging of a woman in religious dress.

No doubt awash with excitement, Perea immediately sent for Benavides, and the two continued to engage the Jumanos. Capitan Tuerto led the Jumano delegation, along with eleven other Indian captains representing neighboring tribes and allies.

"We called them [in]to the convent," Benavides wrote. "Gazing at a portrait of Mother Luisa, Capitan Tuerto said, 'A woman in similar garb wanders among us . . . preaching'."

The priests pointed to the same picture of the famous elderly nun wearing the blue cape of the Conceptionist nuns, and asked the Jumanos if that was the same woman. The Jumanos shook their heads and said their Lady in Blue was much younger and far more beautiful. When the priests asked why the Jumanos had not mentioned this before, they replied that they were not asked, and that they thought she was known at the mission.

"Immediately we decided to send . . . priests," Benavides wrote. "With these same Indians as guides, they departed on their apostolic mission. After traveling more than one hundred leagues . . . to the east, they reached the Jumano nation, who came out to receive them in procession, carrying a large cross and garlands of flowers. They learned from the Indians that the same nun had instructed them as to how they should come out in procession to receive them, and she had helped them to decorate the cross."

Conservative estimates peg the congregation of Jumanos at about two thousand, while Benavides points to ten thousand, with the neighboring tribes in attendance. All this and more, Benavides described in his landmark document entitled the Memorial of 1630. In it, he recorded detailed new observations about the people, terrain, and resources of the Southwest. The 111-page document described over 60,000 Christianized Native Americans residing in 90 pueblos, divided into 25 mission districts. In it, he also included the story of the Lady in Blue, and her miraculous conversion of the Jumano Native Americans. The report was written to church officials, for ultimate delivery to the king of Spain.

Archbishop Manso was so taken with the report, that he soon dispatched Benavides in person to Madrid "to inform his Majesty . . . and our father general" of the "notable and unusual things that were happening in their holy custodia." The report, featuring new information on Native American tribal affiliations and invaluable geographic data, was immediately translated into Latin, French, Dutch, and German and reprinted to meet popular demand. To this day, Benavides' report provides historians with valuable population statistics and classifications within New Mexico at the time, although many scholars suggest that his numbers were inflated.

When the Franciscan Minister General met with Benavides, he informed him that the Lady in Blue was undoubtedly an abbess in northeastern Spain. In the spring of 1631, Benavides visited Maria de Jesus in Agreda and identified her, both from the Jumanos' description of her, and hers of them. As a result, he updated his report in 1634, describing Madre Maria de Jesus as "handsome of face, very fair in color, with a slight rosy tinge and large black eyes." He described the white habit she wore over the brown Franciscan robe, and the blue outercape and black veil of the Conceptionists.

"She knows Capitan Tuerto very well," Benavides added, "giving a detailed description of him, and of the others." As a result, Maria de Agreda inspired every new missionary called to serve in Spains territory in the New World, and her name became linked in perpetuity with the historical record of the colonization of the Southwest.

The Spanish Inquisition began tracking Maria de Agreda soon after Benavides' revised report was published. In 1635 they held their first inquiry, with four witnesses staffed by one of the abbess' loyal confessors. The bilocations were made light of by her proponents - strategically - with the intent of clearing her. While temporarily effective, an on-going investigation had been opened. She endeavored, to little avail, to maintain a low profile, embarking on a lengthy biography of Mary, mother of Jesus, entitled Mystical City of God.

Official seal of the Spanish Inquisition in Mexico

King Felipe IV of Spain learned of the amazing author, and arranged to meet her on his way to battle at the Spanish frontier. Their ensuing friendship is documented in over 600 letters between them over a 22-year period, in which she advised him - at his request - both politically and spiritually. Many historians claim her as a wise and steadying influence on the beleaguered king.

Royal connections notwithstanding, the Inquisition sprang a surprise interrogation of the pious nun, arriving in Agreda in secret on January 18, 1650. They questioned her for 11 days with 80 questions prepared in advance, covering the gamut of her New World apparitions, her writings, and also erroneous implications that she had been instrumental in a plot against the king. The potential punishment for convicted offenders was serious, including death or banishment from the church.

Ultimately, the Inquisitors dismissed the case in Maria de Agreda's favor, praising her great virtue, charity, and intelligence, and expressing admiration for all that she had accomplished through prayer. In the remaining years of her life, she continued advising the king, helped to accomplish the Peace of the Pyrenees between France and Spain, and completed her manuscript of Mystical City of God. While accolades and miraculous healing cures are attributed to her after her death, her path to sainthood within the Catholic Church has been stormy.

Five years after her death, Mystical City of God was published in Madrid. In 1673, Maria de Agreda was named a "Venerable" of the church - for her "heroic life of virtue" - a first step in the church's process of declaring saints. Meanwhile in America, the legend of the Lady in Blue multiplied.

In 1699 elder Indians at Gia River, New Mexico, recalled for Captain Juan Mateo Mange and Padre Eusebio Kino the story of a beautiful white woman dressed in blue with a black covering on her head, who had spoken to them and went off through the air. They heard similar accounts of Maria de Agreda's apparitions from Indians in Sonoita, Arizona.

Between 1710-1740, Indians near present day Nacogdoches, Texas, asked the French explorer Louis St. Denise for blue cloth to bury their dead. When asked why, they said it was in memory of the Lady in Blue who came to them years ago, teaching baptism and the Christian ways.

On August 18, 1772, Padre Junipero Serra wrote to his biographer - Francisco Palou - that Sor Maria's missionary work in the New World would be fulfilled in California. As founder of the California missions, he was an avid reader of Mystical City of God, bringing only that and one other book with him to California - the Bible.

Yet unlike her countrywoman, Teresa de Avila, Maria de Agreda has not yet been named a saint. As a part of that cause, Mystical City of God has proven controversial, at first shocking French theologians who reviewed a faulty translation that temporarily earmarked the book for the church's draconian Index of Forbidden Books, then selling over 210,000 copies in the U.S. alone since 1978. Paradoxically, her cause for sainthood is most currently stalled following a 1990s ruling that her biography of Mary is too much in contrast with the Mariology of Vatican II. That, however, has not hindered popular opinion.

Radiotelevision Espanole in 1995 named her as one of the nine most influential women in Spanish history. Over 12,000 pilgrims flocked to her grave in 2002, in honor of the 400th anniversary of her birth. Mel Gibson read Mystical City of God in preparation for making his 2004 blockbuster film Passion of the Christ. Then late 2006 marked the publication date of Groliers' new encyclopedia set on influential Hispanic Americans, in which Sor Maria was highlighted for her missionary work among the Jumano Native Americans and for her influence on colonial missionaries in Texas, New Mexico, and California.

Perhaps Maria de Agreda's mystical journey into the minds and hearts of devotees everywhere has just begun.


Marilyn H. Fedewa is a published author and communications consultant residing in Lansing, Michigan. She serves as the American Correspondent for the Convent of the Conception in Agreda, Spain. Visit her website at www.cambridgeconnections.net/Maria.html for information on her upcoming biography of Maria de Agreda.




Primary ReferencesAgreda, Sor Maria de, Mistica Ciudad de Dios y Biografma de su Autora, Vol. V. Heredos de Juan Gili, Editores: Barcelona, 1914; Reimpresion: Madrid, 1985 [pp. 15-77].

Bancroft, Hubert Howe, History of the Pacific States of North America (AZ, NM 1530-1888), Volume XII. History Co. Pub: San Francisco, 1888 [pp. 159-163].

Castaqeda, Carlos, E., Our Catholic Heritage in Texas, 1519-1936, Vol. I. Von Boeckmann-Jones Co: Austin, 1936 [pp. 103, 195-215; 341-342].

Colahan, Clark A., The Visions of Sor Maria de Agreda: Writing Knowledge and Power. Univ. of Arizona Press: Tuscon & London, 1994 [pp. 102-103, 108, 115-116].

Hickerson, Nancy Parrott, The Jumanos: Hunters and Traders of the South Plains. Univ. of Texas Press: Austin, 1994 [pp. 21-22, 24, 90-97, 101].

Hodge, Frederick Webb, The Jumano Indians (for the American Antiquarian Soc.). The Davis Press: Worcester, MA., 1910 [pp. 4-10]. Also: Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, Part I. Pageant Books, Inc.: NY, 1959 [p. 636].

Morrow, Baker H. A Harvest of Reluctant Souls: The Memorial of Fray Alonso de Benavides, 1630. (Univ. Press of Colorado: Niwot, CO, 1996) [pp. xxiv, 79-83].



Please note that two post-publication-date errors have been corrected from the original article as published in Tradicion Revista. The earlier version projected the actual unveiling of a portrait of Sor Maria at the Smithsonian in July 2006, based upon information that was accurate at the time. It is still possible that something might come to pass in this regard, but the circumstances have changed, and there are no updated projections as of yet.

Copyright 2005 Marilyn H. Fedewa

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