Nine Catholic Women of Spain
By Barbara Monzon-Puleo
If the history of Catholic civilization is today reported in a negative, highly-biased light, it is true that the footprints of Catholic women in our history are often downright erased.
A few highly-visible female rulers aside, the stories of real women in the home, the field, the convent, the theater and myriad other places are often relegated to the secret drawers of the historical record. There they lie, neglected by historians due to their prejudices or simple indifference.
This is a tragedy. In the deeply Catholic society of the Iberian peninsula, the history of the hidden lives of women shows an incredible richness and vibrancy — from crucial leadership roles to cultural heroines to martyrs for the Faith.
Queen Gaudiosa of Asturias
The famous Battle of Covadonga around the year 722 is where we meet Gaudiosa. Her husband Pelayo and his Christian army were positioned readily in the mountains of Covadonga while the Muslim armies maintained their northerly assault in their attempt to reach France. The army of Al-Andalus was thoroughly defeated by Don Pelayo and his men in a geographical encirclement, a barrage of stones and amidst a vision of the Virgin Mary and the Cross. However, Pelayo had left his wife Gaudiosa in the town of Liébana. Not one to sit back and wait for her husband’s return from war, she organized the population for resistance against the Muslims. As the Muslim army was defeated in Covadonga, the fleeing Muslims headed in their direction. The townspeople routed them and they fell victim to a landslide, probably provoked by Gaudiosa and her band. The skirmish gave rise to the name of the area as Campos de La Reina, ‘the fields of the Queen.’ It is in this act that Gaudiosa joined her husband as one of the figures responsible for the beginning of the Reconquista on the peninsula. Pelayo died in 737. Gaudiosa then became a nun at the Church of Santa Cruz founded by her son in Cangas de Onís, and succumbed to the plague shortly thereafter. Both are buried in the sanctuary in Covadonga.
Queen Urraca of Zamora (1033-1101)
Urraca inherited her rule of the city of Zamora in 1065 from her father, King Ferdinand, who divided his ruling lands among his five children. The story of her rule against the encroachments of her brother Sancho are told in a few chapters of El Cid. Some romances of later centuries suggested that Queen Urraca had been in love with El Cid. She has recently been remembered for the chalice she donated to the Basilica of St Isidore in the city of Leon. This chalice, sent to her father from the Holy Land, and decorated in gold and in Urraca’s own jewels, is believed to be the Holy Grail.
Blessed Juana of Aza (1135-c.1205)
Juana Garcés-García was born into a noble Castilian family. One of her uncles was the Blessed Pedro from the monastery of Uclés and founder of the Military Order of St. James of the Sword. Juana’s family founded and supported many religious houses. She was married to a local nobleman, Felix Nuñez de Guzmán, who was warden of the town of Caleruega named. All three sons entered the religious life: Antonio (a priest later declared Venerable), the future Blessed Manés, and the youngest, Dominic, who would become the founder of the Order of Preachers, known as Dominicans. Juana’s religious devotion was as well known as her charity and miracles. Immediately upon her death, a religious cult arose around her person. The towns of Peñafiel and Caleruega often invoked her assistance during droughts and during the anti-clerical attacks following the 1868 revolution. Shortly after her death, chapels and novenas were dedicated to her veneration. King Ferdinand VII was particularly devoted to her. She was beatified in 1828 by Pope Leo XII but, at her tomb, she has been described as saint by popular usage since the XV century.
St Mary of the Head (Santa Maria de la Cabeza) (c.1095-1175)
St Mary of the Head (Santa Maria de la Cabeza) was the wife of St Isidore the Worker and the mother of St Illan. The young Mary Torribia was born probably to a converso or Mozarabic family near Uceda, not far from Madrid, which was under Muslim occupation and in the throes of advancing Christian armies. She was for a time in domestic service in the town of Torrelaguna. Mary would eventually inherit a small farm there, begin to work in the sacristy of the local church, and wed a devout farm laborer fleeing the reconquest upheavals of Madrid. After her marriage to St Isidore, they worked side by side in the fields. The couple developed a reputation for their their charity. They shared their income with the town, even establishing a benefit for the yearly distribution of wine, cheese and bread on the feast of the Assumption. After they finished raising their son Illan, the couple lived separately. Mary retired as a hermit and lived at a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The inhabitants of Uceda would help her maintain the shrine. She would beg the town for the oil to keep the lamps burning at the hermitage. By then, her holy reputation had already been established. It is said that the Virgin Mary frequently appeared to her. Despite her holy reputation, she was accused of adultery, an accusation that forced her husband Isidore to return home. He witnessed the miracle of her walking on the mantle of the Blessed Virgin as she crossed the river. Her visions were not limited to the Virgin Mary. In 1171, an angel appeared to her to inform her that Isidore was dying in Madrid. Following her death, a cult of veneration quickly spread throughout Madrid, its environs and the peninsula. She was beatified in 1697 and canonized in 1752 by Benedict XIV. Her remains are buried with the incorrupt St Isidore under the main altar of the Real Colegiata de San Isidro church in Madrid. She was chosen as one of the patron saints for World Youth Day in Madrid in 2011.
Sister Marcela de San Felix (1605-1687)
As the child of the playwright Lope de Vega, Marcela was exposed to her father’s brilliant writings, to his circle of friends, both literary and aristocratic, his chaotic love life, and to his struggles to support 15 children at various points of his life.
Marcela herself was illegitimate, the result of a liaison with an actress. She and her younger brother would join their father’s household upon the death of his wife. Once in his household, Marcela witnessed her father’s struggles with his addiction to women and his tormented Catholic faith, especially after taking Holy Orders. This atmosphere engendered in Marcela a profound religious vocation and writing talent.
In 1620, Marcela entered the Convent of the Discalced Trinitarians in Madrid, a convent with a profound literary tradition, which housed the bones of Miguel De Cervantes. Her father composed special verses for her Profession day and invited numerous dignitaries. With a strong Faith and conviction, Marcela performed her religious duties well, rising to become Mother Superior several times. She wrote numerous poems, romances, devotional works- influenced by her father’s style and the spirituality of St. Augustine and St Theresa of Avila. Unfortunately, most of her works were lost. A common practice during this period led to their destruction: in obedience to her confessor, Marcela burned them. Her surviving works include 22 romances, devotionals, and poems exploring topics such as loneliness and obedience.
Venerable Maria de Ágreda (1602-1665)
Maria de Agreda’s historical and religious importance rests principally on three important achievements: her mystical-prophetic writings, her extensive correspondence with King Philip IV, and her ability to bilocate in dreams to Christianize the Apache Indians of the American Southwest.
Maria wrote, among others, two important works: the 4 volume Mystical City of God and the Divine History of the Virgin Mother of God. The works are believed to be direct revelations to Maria from the Virgin Mary. The subjects cover the lives of Christ and the Virgin Mary in addition to the creation of the world and battles against the Devil. Ultimately, these works of revelation and prophecy, written twice by Sor Maria, called the attention of the Inquisition as they included heated theological topics, among them the controversial dogmas of the Immaculate Conception (not declared until 1854) and papal infallibility. Sor Maria influenced King Philip IV to write to the Pope regarding the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, leading to Pope Alexander VII’s decree of 1661 which paved the way for the 1854 Bull by Pope Pius IX.
Blessed Maria de los Ángeles Ginard, martyr
Born in Mallorca, Angela Ginard Marti joined the Sisters Adorers of the Eucharist at the age of 28. By all accounts, she was devoted to the Blessed Sacrament and the daily Recitation of the Rosary from an early age. Upon entering the convent, she worked in Mallorca, Barcelona and lastly, Madrid. She witnessed the increasingly anti-clerical persecutions of the period of the Second Republic. When the Civil War broke out in July 1936, Sister Maria de los Angeles was in the convent in Madrid. Warned of the approaching republican forces, the Sisters were forced to flee in street clothes. Sister Maria de los Angeles took refuge with a nearby family and witnessed the sacking of the convent. Unfortunately, the doorman of the building was a Republican sympathizer and quickly denounced her. When the republican forces arrived at the dwelling, they arrested her and one of the women who had sheltered her. She quickly confessed to be the only nun there. She was able to give this woman her apron, where she hid the convent’s money . Sister Maria was shot in the head, execution-style, on 26 August 1936, one of the earliest martyrs of the Spanish Civil War. There were hundreds of such Catholic religious women and also priests who were executed between 1936 and 1939. She was beatified in 2005.
Lola Fisac Serna (1910-2005)
Lola Fisac is known as the first female numerary (celibate member) of Opus Dei. Since the Civil War, she worked with St Josemaría Escriva’s mother and sister in helping organize and take care of the domestic needs of the residences and centers of Opus Dei, established in 1928. She was particularly instrumental in the establishment of the first female residence in 1941. (Photo credit: OpusDei.es)
Dora del Hoyo (1914-2004)
Born into an agricultural family, Dora arrived in Madrid at age 26 and entered the domestic service. In 1946, a Madrid domestic service agency run by the Church sent her to Josemaría Escriva to work in the newly opened student residence of Opus Dei.
Deeply impressed by the spirituality, she immediately asked for admission as a numerary into Opus Dei. Her work at the Madrid residence was exemplary and she developed a reputation for her piety and strength. Devoted to her vocation in Opus Dei, she insisted her work served as a way of sanctification, an important example to all who came in contact with Opus Dei through her. This sanctification through work was the center of the spirituality of St Josemaría and Opus Dei.
St Josemaría transferred her to supervise the center of Opus Dei in Rome. There, her reputation for sanctity grew. She died there and is buried near him and Blessed Alvaro del Portillo. Numerous intercessions are attributed to her and the cause for her canonization was opened in 2012.