One of the most important figures in Texas’ religious history never set foot in Texas at all. She never in her life traveled beyond her tiny village in Spain, yet she stirred religious fervor from the Concho River to the headwaters of the Rio Grande.
Our story begins in 1602 when Maria was born in the pueblito de Ágreda. She was a lovely child born to Catholic parents of noble rank. Barely beyond her toddler years, Maria showed an unusual devotion to a life of prayer and piety.
When she was ten, she already wanted to join a convent. When she was 12, her parents finally blessed her wish to join the Discalced Carmelite Nuns of Tarazona. Before that could be arranged, though, Maria’s mother had a vision in which God instructed her to convert their mansion into a convent. She and her daughter would both become nuns. Her father would join a local monastery, following in the footsteps of his sons who were already friars. In four years, this all came to pass.
At 18, Maria took her vows and became Maria de Jesus – Mary of Jesus de Ágreda. The habit of her order was a dark cobalt blue. Now a nun, she spent more time than ever alone in prayer. Maria’s religious devotions intensified. Her sisters worried about her frequent fasting, frail health, and life of extreme deprivation. Yet for her it was a glorious time: she said God had given her a divine gift. It was the gift of bilocation. She could be in two places at once. Through meditation she could appear to God’s children in faraway lands and teach them about Jesus. She said she first appeared to the Jumano tribes of present day Texas in the 1620s. She did this for about ten years, from the time she was 18, to 29. And according to legend, the Jumano Indians of the time confirmed that the Woman in Blue, as they called her, had come among them.
The first proof is offered in the story of 50 Jumano Indians appearing on their own at the San Antonio de la Isleta Mission near present-day Albuquerque, asking the Franciscan priests to teach them about Jesus. When asked how they knew of him, the men said that the Lady in Blue had come to them and taught them the gospel. She had instructed them to go west to find holy men who could teach them more about the faith and baptize them. They, as the legend goes, pointed to a painting of a nun in the mission and said, “She is like her, but younger.”
The priests were stunned because they had no missions or missionaries in that part of what is today West Texas. They certainly knew of no nuns who had attempted missionary work there. How could this be? The head cleric in New Mexico, Esteban de Perea, asked two priests to go home with the Jumanos to verify these claims about the Lady in Blue. They traveled to the region that is today San Angelo and found that many of the Jumano said she had indeed come to them many times over the years. The priests immediately baptized 2,000 Jumanos, they say, because of Maria de Ágredas.
Historians Donald Chipman and Denise Joseph wrote that the Jumanos said Maria came to them “like light at sunset… she was a kind and gentle person who spoke ‘sweet’ words to them that they could understand…”
The respected religious historian Carlos E. Castaneda – not to be confused with the one who wrote about the Teachings of Don Juan – said that Maria preached in Spanish but the Jumanos understood her in their tongue, and when they spoke in their tongue, she understood them in Spanish.
Such claims resulted in the custodian of the Franciscans in New Mexico, Father Alonso de Benavides, traveling all the way to Ágreda in Spain to interview Maria to verify her authenticity. According to him, she told him of things in Texas and about the world of the Jumanos that only one who had been there could have known. Her bilocation claims were considered credible then, and even now, the Vatican seems to agree and is considering her for canonization.
Chapman and Joseph tell us that, according to Jumano legend, “when she last appeared, she blessed [the Jumanos] and slowly went away into the hills. The next morning the area was covered with a blanket of strange flowers that were a deep blue” – blue like her habit. These were, they said, the first bluebonnets. And perhaps the Jumanos found comfort when these flowers returned each year, adorned in their blue habits, assuring them that the Lady in Blue was always with them.
For a more complete history of the Lady in Blue, see “Notable Men and Women of Spanish Texas” by Donald E. Chipman and Harriett Denise Joseph, published by UT-Press, 1999.
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Stories From Texas, UTRGV Digital Library, The University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley. Accessed via https://scholarworks.utrgv.edu/storiesfromtexas/