Mama Antula, the Jesuit who didn’t want to marry or be a nun, will be Argentina’s first female saint

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — A Catholic laywoman who lived in 18th-century Argentina and joined the Jesuits in their evangelical mission throughout the South American country will become the first female saint from the home country of Pope Francis on Sunday.

María Antonia de Paz y Figueroa, more commonly known by her Quechua name of “Mama Antula,” was born in 1730 into a wealthy family in Santiago del Estero, a province north of Buenos Aires. At the age of 15, she left the comfortable life of her home and the privileges of her family to join the Jesuits — at a time when women’s options were limited to marriage or joining a convent.

“She was a rebel, just like Jesus,” Cintia Suárez, co-author of the biography “Mama Antula, the first female saint of Argentina,” told The Associated Press. “She confronted her father saying ‘I’m not going to get married or become a nun.’ She just didn’t want to follow orders.”

Mama Antula collaborated in the performance of spiritual exercises based on the writings of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Company of Jesus in 1534, according to her biographer.

When the Spanish crown expelled the Jesuits from America in 1767, considering them a threat to its interests, Mama Antula decided to take up the mantle and continue her work, even at the risk of being imprisoned.

She was a very astute woman who, against the prejudices of the time, had the ability to persuade parish priests and bishops to continue the spiritual exercises of the Jesuits despite the prohibition.

“Patience is good, but perseverance is better,” is a phrase that is attributed to her in historical texts collected in Suárez’s biography.

At a time when slavery still prevailed, masters and slaves, rich and poor were welcome in her spiritual exercises. It was within that space of reflection that she helped to erase social differences.

“Mama Antula’s charity, above all in the service to the neediest, is today very much in evidence in the midst of a society that runs the risk of forgetting that radical individualism is the most difficult virus to overcome,” Francis told a group of Argentine pilgrims Friday who are in town for this weekend’s canonization.

Despite her outstanding work, Mama Antula was not widely recognized due to her status as a lay woman until 2013, when Francis, also a native of Argentina, was elected pope and brought her back to the public eye.

Francis first authorized her beatification in 2016, after the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints recognized a miracle linked to Mama Antula. It was the inexplicable healing in 1905 of a seriously ill nun belonging to the religious order in charge of the House of spiritual exercises founded by Mama Antula in Buenos Aires.

The second miracle that opened the door to her canonization came in 2017, when a former Jesuit seminarian was left on the verge of death from a stroke. A friend brought a picture of Mama Antula to the hospital and stuck it on the vital signs monitor. The man improved and left intensive care.

The canonization of Mama Antula in a ceremony to be presided over by Francis at St. Peter’s Basilica marks not only the first time a female from Argentina will become a saint, but will bring together two antagonistic figures: Francis and the newly elected president of Argentina, Javier Milei, who once called the pope an “imbecile” for defending social justice and “the representative of malignance on Earth.”

Francis, who had a long conversation with Milei after he was elected, has indicated he has forgiven him for the campaign rhetoric and even suggested he is considering visiting his native country this year.

María Antonia de Paz y Figueroa, or “Mama Antula,” died on March 7, 1799, aged 69.

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