Madre Maria Antonia of Jesus, OCD 1700–60

Sister Heidi Cooper scl on the life of the Foundress of the Carmel of Santiago de Compostela

I first met M. Antonia through the book of her autobiography so kindly sent to me by Mother Monica of the Cross OCD. I had been reading the biographies of other great Spanish Carmelites; St Teresa, Blessed Ann of Bartholomew, Blessed Maria Sagrario and St Maravillas, and I wanted to know even more about the Spanish Carmels. I am accustomed to reading the saintly biographies of younger women who entered Carmel in their youth and who went on to become Saints.

The biography of M. Antonia offered someone a little different. This was a woman who had lived a full life, having had a limited education, suffering abuse from her father, being sent away from home, experiencing difficulties of compatibility in her marriage, raising a family single handed... the kind of issues that many women living in the twenty-first century here in the UK have to deal with. Yet despite the odds being stacked against her she was able to become a holy nun and mother founder of the Carmel of Santiago de Compostela, in one of the most famous places of pilgrimage in Europe.

Family difficulties

It is a sad fact of life that many marriages and families today break up, families are divided and children are obliged to stay with one or other parent. M. Antonia experienced family difficulties and brutality from her father as a child, causing her to be sent to stay with her aunt. Later in her married life she encountered problems again, but of a different kind. Husband and wife would find themselves incompatible and split up so that each partner could follow their own aims. M. Antonia continued to cope on her own with her family, giving them a worthy example of motherhood and Catholic faith. The fact that the two sons followed her into the religious life as Dominicans says something of the quality of her parenting and how she successfully imparted the faith to them.

Practical obstacles

For some time M. Antonia was on her own in her pursuit of founding a Carmel. Being a woman living alone without a husband, even in these modern times, can have its social limitations and practical difficulties. She would have had to go through intense periods of doubt and darkness, even questioning her own sanity and sanctity, especially after her parish priest was ordered by the Bishop not to confess her! To have pledged herself openly to live as a consecrated person and to wear a habit, in her case, as a third order Carmelite, left her open to misunderstanding and ridicule on the one hand and exalted expectations on the other. It has been said that there is a fine line between insanity and sanctity. M. Antonia was chosen by God to follow the path of sanctity.

For M. Antonia to travel to Madrid and Coimbra in order to put her case for founding before the ecclesiastical hierarchy was almost an insurmountable challenge, not only physically in terms of getting there, but in the fact that she had virtually no resources for achieving her aim. Women have more of a voice in our modern world; they have access to educational resources; they travel and communicate on a worldwide level in a way that we now take for granted.

Late vocation

M. Antonia also provides encouragement for those considering a ‘late vocation’. It is becoming increasingly common for people in their forties and fifties to find that they are being called to some form of religious life, maybe after having had a previous vocation to marriage or some other profession. M. Antonia proves that it is possible to begin living the religious life as a mature candidate, and that it can be an advantage to have had a wide variety of experience which can be brought to the life. M. Antonia bridged an historical gap in my reading, between our holy Mother St Teresa of Jesus like other holy Carmelite women, was a pioneer and visionary, a formidable character, who was charismatically gifted and aided by God in her difficulties.

Trust and sacrifice

We see that God in his mercy achieved his aim through M. Antonia’s continuing trust and hope in the Lord’s divine will, despite the odds against her. If God has decided to do a mighty deed it will happen despite the weakness of the chosen instrument. M. Antonia surrendered herself into the hands of God, trusting in his mercy and abandoning her vision of founding the Carmel of Santiago. She had to completely lay aside her vision and submit to life as an ordinary member of a Carmelite convent, becoming a ‘nobody’ who may well have been viewed with some scepticism by the authorities on account of some of the mysterious happenings surrounding her vocation to Carmel. We have to remember that these events took place not so many decades after the years of the Inquisition and memories still abounded.

M. Antonia can still speak with a prophetic voice in our twenty-first-century world, to women who are doing their best to raise children on their own, to married couples facing marriage difficulties, to young people and mature adults who are exploring the religious life, to people who consider themselves inadequate due to lack of formal education and position in society, and she will continue to speak as a Mother and companion to the many Carmelites who have come after her, to those who read her story and are inspired by it. ND

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