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The story of Mama Antula, who was canonized on 11 February

Argentina’s first saint

 La prima santa argentina  DCM-002
03 February 2024

On the horizon of Argentine history, in the colonial era, looms the figure of a lay woman who decided to devote her life to keeping the flame of the Society of Jesus burning. In fact, on a dark night in 1767, the Jesuits were brutally expelled from South America, from the missions of Santiago del Estero and Cordoba, in the viceroyalty of Peru, chained up like evildoers and driven into exile on rickety carts. Oral tradition has it that Maria Antonia de Paz y Figueroa witnessed that violent arrest, carried out by soldiers of the Spanish crown on the orders of King Charles III. A Jesuit priest at that dramatic moment gave Maria Antonia his black cape, the emblem of the Ignatian Order. This symbolic gesture of investiture defined the future of this aristocratic woman.

Maria Antonia was born in 1730 in Villa Silípica, in the province of Santiago del Estero. The daughter of an encomendero, an important landowner to whom the Spanish viceroyalty had granted territories with the task of administering them, evangelisation and protecting the local population, composed of Indians and African slaves who belonged to him. From an early age Maria Antonia saw the mistreatment that Indians and slaves received in the encomienda and, as time went by, these people’s pain became unbearable for her. At 15, she decided to leave the comforts of the family, much to the disappointment of her father who had envisaged a future for her as the wife of a rich settler or the monastery. She broke with the family and entered as a beghina (consecrated laywoman) in the Jesuit beaterio in Santiago del Estero, a community of women who served the most needy. In the beaterio she took care of orphans, women “deposited” i.e. put in custody by their families to avoid scandal due to their licentious behaviour or illegitimate pregnancies; female criminals and prostitutes also stayed there under custody. In solitude, she took vows of chastity and poverty.

Maria Antonia’s stay in the Jesuit beaterium lasted twenty-two years. During this time she was able to receive a significant education thanks to the missionaries’ teachings. She also received a great gift: the priests taught her how to organize the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, the treasure of the Society of Jesus.

The expulsion of the Jesuits from the Americas left an unbridgeable void; the missions had been a point of reference for the local population. The only comfort left was Maria Antonia, who has since been called Mama Antonia, Mama Antula in the Quechua language of the Indians.

The word Jesuit was prohibited, and any activity related to the Society was forbidden. After a year of reflection and discernment, Mama Antula decided to disobey King Charles III and Pope Clement XIV’s orders; instead, she reintroduced the Spiritual Exercises to keep the work of the Jesuit fathers alive. The risk for her life was very significant. She found a complicite bishop who granted her permission to organize the retreats. It was here that her activity as foundress took on meaning. She brought together a group of beguines and together they undertook this illegal activity. In the vicinity of Santiago del Estero she founded small houses for the Exercises, and meticulously organised the practice, which involved an eight-day stay, with food and accommodation, supported by alms, for which she had also asked permission.  In a short time, the Exercises spread beyond Mama Antula’s native area. The activity of the “re-foundress” of the Jesuit order was relentless, really quite unstoppable. More and more people wanted to participate, so Mama Antula made an ambitious decision: she would head for Cordoba and then Buenos Aires, the capital of the new viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata. In the porteña city she would establish a house for the Spiritual Exercises that would remain over time, awaiting the return of the Jesuit fathers. She prayed for the return of the Society of Jesus, in particular invoking St Joseph, by offering him a mass every 19th of the month. As she was so devoted to the putative father of Jesus, she decided to call herself Maria Antonia of St Joseph.

She stayed in Cordoba for two years and formed strong friendships, one of which with the politician Ambrosio Funes, who allowed her to resume contact with the Jesuit Gaspar Suarez, her countryman, who had been exiled to Faenza in the Vatican territories. This meeting marks a key point in the reconstruction of Mama Antula’s story, thanks to the correspondence between the three friends.

Mama Antula accompanied by her companions walked barefoot for 4,000 kilometers, through the salt flats, the thorny forests, the hills of the Pampas, the endless plains, until she reached Buenos Aires. When she entered the city, her clothes were torn, she was barefoot, wearing a large cross and a black cape full of brambles. People looked at her with contempt, someone even railed against her, and threw stones and mud. With her companions, she took frightened refuge in the first church they encountered, the modest parish of La Piedad. Here Mama Antula felt at peace and asked for protection from the Mother of Calvary. She immediately felt a special affection for that place and in her will she decided that her remains would rest there.  After just three days she appeared before Bishop Malvar y Pinto to ask permission to give the Ignatian Exercises in Buenos Aires. She did not give the prelate a good impression: she was dismissed without receiving permission. Despite this, Mama Antula was not discouraged and after nine months she was able to set up the first house: it was small, insufficient for the large number of participants, for which she always invoked the Abbess, as she called the Virgen de los Dolores, and also Manuelito, the Infant Jesus.  Later she established a bigger house and was also able to welcome seminarians, politicians, and even the Viceregina of Peru. At that time, the rich and the poor never met in retreats, but Mama Antula mixed the social classes harmoniously. This was her innovation, her seal. Nobel ladies served food to the slave girls, and everyone slept in cots or mattresses on the floor.

Maria Antonia had gifts that are usually granted to saints, such as bilocation, premonition, and a multiplication of substances like candle wax, food, and water. In 1795, she laid the foundation stone of the Holy House of Spiritual Exercises. Until then it had welcomed 70,000 participants in Buenos Aires, among them the fathers of the Argentine homeland, who in her house conceived the revolutionary ideas that led in 1810 to the emancipation from the Spanish empire and the construction of the federal republic. Thus, like the founders, Mama Antula is considered the spiritual mother of the homeland. She also founded the devotion to Saint Gaetano, the saint of peace, bread and work, currently the most venerated in Argentina.

She died 7 March 1799, aged 69. The congregation of the Sisters of the Divine Savior was born after her death, but Mama Antula can be considered its spiritual founder. 

Pope Francis has stated this woman was worth her weight in gold and allowed her story not to be forgotten, reopening her cause for canonisation that began in 1905. In 2016 she was beatified. On 24 October 2023, the Pontiff then announced the approval of the miracle that gives Argentina its first saint, lay, indomitable and with a Jesuit spirit. On February 11, 2024, her canonisation took place.

by Nunzia Locatelli
Author of the book “Mama Antula”, ed. Lev