Maria del Refugio Aguilar was born in San Miguel the youngest of eight children in 1866. When Maria was 20 she married and moved to Toluca. Following the birth of her children, Angelito and Teresa, her husband died. Destitute Maria moved back to her parents’ home on the corner of Mesones and Hidalgo and while still a toddler, her son died of pneumonia.
As is often the case with single mothers, Maria focused on her remaining child and saw Teresa graduate from teachers’ college before turning her attentions to her own desires. Mainly that of becoming a nun. Not just any nun, but after praying to an image of Guadalupe while visiting her daughter in Morelia, Maria founded an order to an image of Mary known as our Lady of Mercy. Our Lady of Mercy is whom your pals called Mercedes are named for. The order was named The Sisters of the Holy Sacrament devoted to educating children.
Maria’s daughter later joined the order and despite the order being active at the time when the Church was no longer in power in Mexico, the order survived and thrived. Today the order has schools in 12 countries in Europe, Africa, the US and Central and South America with over 600 nuns.
The Catholic school along the creek in Colonia Guadalupe is run by Maria’s order. Recently I spent Mother’s Day there watching the various grades perform for their families. The little kids are, of course, adorable. Kindergarteners do a skit where a wild bull comes to San Miguel and no one – kings, farmers ,politicians, even Satan himself, etc. – cannot get him to leave until the bull’s Mom comes along and everyone has to do what their mother tells them to.
The High School kids danced so provocatively that had any of my fellow students at Bishop McDevitt High had talent like that we’d have been pulled off stage for both confession and pregnancy tests. Apparently Maria’s order has more artistic respect than the puritan sisters of St. Joseph that taught me.
Maria, the foundress of the order and namesake school, died in 1937 of pneumonia just like her son had.
Today Maria’s order has over one thousand likes on FaceBook. The order bought the house on the corner of Hidalgo and Mesones Maria’s parents once owned in 1960. There has long been talk of opening a museum to Maria as the order owns her baby shoes, some adult clothing, combs, mirrors, her bridal bouquet and flogging essentials.
Since 1982 there has been a push to canonize Maria to official sainthood by the Church which would make her San Miguel de Allende’s first saint. Personally, I don’t think that is likely to happen. Pope John Paul II canonized many Mexicans during the 1990s. Maria, like the Canal family’s daughter that started the cloistered orders of nuns still active here in San Miguel, did not make the cut. Often, their personal belief that pain and suffering bring you closer to God is simply too out of step with a view of a caring and loving God. (Personally, I’d downplay the self-flagellation paraphernalia.)
Also saints come by the title quickly. Pope John Paul II and Mother Theresa were made saints almost immediately following their deaths. Other less popular saints are normally canonized within a century of their death. A century is quick by the Church’s calendar. Remember it was only recently the Church admitted Galileo was correct and the earth really does revolve around the sun, a fact denied for over 350 years.
If I were a betting man, I wouldn’t bet on Maria’s one time home soon becoming a pilgrimage site. Luckily her school and order are still active and we’ve plenty of other faith-based sites and events to draw both pilgrims and tourists to town for!
Joseph Toone is the Historical Society’s short-story award winning author of the SMA Secrets book series. All books in the series are Amazon bestsellers in Mexican Travel and Holidays. Toone is SMA’s expert and TripAdvisor’s top ranked historical tour guide telling the stories behind what we do in today’s SMA. Visit HistoryAndCultureWalkin