Sister María de Ágreda was born María Fernández Coronel on April 2, 1602. Her birthplace, Ágreda, Spain, is located north of Madrid between the capital city and Pamplona.
On Feb. 2, 1620, taking the name María de Jesús, she became a Conceptionist nun. The religious order is based mostly in Spain and Belgium. It began in the late 1400s as a cloistered community of 12 women following the Cistercian rule, but through the influence of Ximnenes de Cisneros, Archbishop of Toledo, the Conceptionists were subordinated to the Franciscans.
The Conceptionists adopted the rules of the Order of St. Clare in 1501. Their distinctive habit is white with a blue cloak.
Lady in Blue
The mysterious "Lady in Blue" has been associated in Texas religious history with María de Ágreda since 1629 when Jumano Indians went to the Friary of San Antonio in Isleta (New Mexico, south of present-day Albuquerque) to seek out Christian missionaries.
The Jumanos said a woman dressed in blue had appeared in their midst and, speaking in their own language, had taught them about the Christian faith and told them to ask for further instruction and baptism from the Franciscan missionaries.
Fray Alonso de Benavides, custodian of the Franciscans in New Mexico from 1626-29, returned to Spain immediately after this incident and composed for the Spanish court his 1630 memorial (or report), which included this story.
He also visited the abbess in Ágreda in 1631 and interviewed her.
Fray Benavides wrote about her story of bilocation to the tribes of the Southwest:
"The first time she went was in the year 1620. She had continued ever since ... She gave me all their signs and [declared] she had been with them. She knows Captain Tuerto (the one-eye captain) very well, having given me his personal characteristics and that of all the others. She herself sent the messengers from Quivira [the Jumano village on the Plains] to call the missionaries."
Figure of the Southwest
Carlos E. Castañeda quotes this report in his Our Catholic Heritage of Texas (1936) and goes on to say, "These and many other details, the modest and saintly abbess communicated to Father Benavides, constrained by the request of Father General [of the Franciscans] who commanded her under oath of obedience to tell the former custodio all she knew of those lands and their people whom she had visited."
Other historians of the Southwest have had to deal with this Spanish mystic as a central character in the unfolding of the religious history.
The New Handbook of Texas includes reference in the article on Fray Juan de Salas by Robert Bruce Blake that the Jumanos asked for religious instruction "at the request of the 'Woman in Blue,' María de Jesús de Ágreda."
And, Donald E. Chipman gives a more extensive account in the Handbook's article on the nun herself: "Her alleged miraculous bilocations took her to eastern New Mexico and western Texas, where she contacted several Indian cultures."
Nancy Parrott Hickerson, in her book, The Jumanos (1994), gives a skeptic's account of the miracle story. She questions the Indians' motives, suggesting they may have wanted Spanish protection from other tribes.
She says also that their elementary foreknowledge of Christianity could have been acquired over decades of contacts with the Spanish. And, she sees leading questions and a flawed investigation.
But, whether believer or skeptic, all agree on certain points, beginning with the fact that the Indians requested instruction, and that the same tale was told on both sides of the Atlantic.
María de Jesús was not only a character on the stage of Texas history. She became well-known in Spain in her own time and, from 1643 until her death, she was a frequent correspondent with King Philip IV.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica notes that her best-known work is The Mystical City of God (1670), "a life of the Virgin Mary ostensibly based on divine revelations granted to Maria."
The Spanish Inquisition approved the book after 14 years of study, but the work got her into trouble with the Roman Inquisition and was prohibited from circulation by the Vatican. The ban was lifted in 1747.
There have been at least two instances when she was considered for canonization as a saint.
Her body — exhumed in 1909 and found incorrupt — remains on display in a glass-lidded coffin in Ágreda, in the convent where she served as abbess until her death in 1665.
— writtern by Robert Plocheck, associate editor, for the Texas Almanac 2004–2005.