BUENOS AIRES – Argentina’s Maria Antonia de Paz y Figueroa, better known as Mama Antula and who will be beatified this Saturday in her native land, was a woman of “passionate faith” who dared to keep Ignatian spirituality alive after the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767, when she organized and executed an immense amount of religious and social work.
The beatification ceremony will be held in the northern province of Santiago del Estero where Maria Antonia was born in 1730, a territory ruled at the time by the Viceroyalty of Peru.
She is, however, also strongly associated with Buenos Aires, the final destination of her pilgrimage and her mission.
“She was a courageous woman. The ‘strongwoman,’ as the Jesuits of Europe called her when they wrote the first book about her,” Sister Zulema Zayas told EFE in an interview at the House of Spiritual Exercises, founded by Mama Antula and where she spent her last years.
She made her vows of poverty and chastity in Santiago del Estero when she was only 15, took the name of Maria Antonia de San Jose and, together with like-minded young women, dedicated herself to helping the Jesuits in their pastoral and social work, particularly with the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.
Maria Antonia was never a nun but formed a religious community with other women.
She became known for her work in keeping Ignatian teachings alive following the 1767 decree of Spain’s King Charles III expelling the Jesuits from his territories, which led her to organize spiritual exercises in several provinces of northern Argentina and also in the Uruguayan cities of Colonia and Montevideo.
“When the Jesuits were expelled from the territories of the Spanish crown, she took over their spiritual work. In fact, we know she had a powerful Ignatian spirituality. She then launched a mission to promote the Jesuits’ spiritual exercises,” said Sister Zayas, superior general of the Daughters of the Divine Savior, a congregation created in 1878 by those who continued the work of Maria Antonia.
In 1779 she walked barefoot to Buenos Aires where at first she was welcomed neither by religious nor political authorities.
“She was not well received because they treated her like a crazy person, they said she was a Jesuit in disguise,” Zayas said.
But she persevered and her exercises were a success, first in rented quarters and then at the House of Spiritual Exercises, which she founded in 1795 and is today one of Argentina’s historic monuments.
It is estimated that some 150,000 souls came to do their devotions during the lifetime of Maria Antonia, who promoted the spiritual exercises combined with social integration, as was seen, for example, when ladies of high society and their maids prayed together.
The miracle that enabled the Vatican to approve her beatification was the cure, in 1904, of a nun of the Daughters of the Divine Savior, whom doctors declared terminally ill but who recovered miraculously a few days after being entrusted to the intercession of Mama Antula.