In the Beginning...
In March, 1896, a priest organized for the first time in the town a retreat for ladies, which was attended by widow and mother, Maria del Refugio Aguilar de Cancino. It was a course in spiritual exercises as first introduced by St. Ignatius of Loyola. Maria experienced a profound renewal deep inside her and it is now that she realizes that man was created to worship and serve God.
As a catechist; a Eucharist person who felt the desire and need to love and serve others; and a mother, Maria del Refugio felt that Our Lord had entrusted her with the salvation of children and young people and therefore it was her duty to work for this salvation through example.
On one of her visits to see her daughter, she went into a cathedral and while praying there before the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, she had the idea of founding a religious institute devoted to spreading love for the Blessed Sacrament and to make reparation for the sins of the world. It would be an institute which would set up educational establishments, centers of religious teaching and libraries for the purpose of proclaiming the Gospel and inspiring and disseminating love for the Blessed Sacrament. She conveyed this idea to her priest, and on March 25, 1910, the Apostalate of the Blessed Sacrament was founded.
To read the inspiring and fascinating story of the founding of the Mercedarian Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and how Mother Foundress Maria del Refugio, unselfishly and without regard for her own life, protected the Blessed Sacrament and the children she taught from religious persecution from the Mexican government, click here. With the centennial celebration of the Mercedarian Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament being held this year, we offer some insight into Maria del Refugio Aguilar y Torres, the Mother Foundress.
The Call To Holiness
St. Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises are without doubt the method of spiritual improvement which has exerted most influence on the modern history of Christianity. In March 1896, Father Jose Sanchez Primo, superior of the Friars Minor in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, organized for the first time in the town a retreat for ladies consisting of a course of spiritual exercises. One of those who attended these was a young widow named Maria del Refugio Aguilar de Cancino, who a few months earlier had entered the Secular Franciscan Order. Born in San Miguel de Allende on September 21, 1866, the eldest of eight children, she stayed at home to learn to read and write and acquire the attributes befitting a housekeeper of the day. In November 1886 she married Angel Cancino, a tax collector and man of liberal ideas, whose friendship with a number of prominent politicians positioned him for a successful career in public service. They had a son Angel, and when they had been married for two years, they moved to Toluca, where they had a daughter, Refugio Teresa. Some weeks later, Cancino died from a severe bout of pneumonia. So, at the age of 22 Maria del Refugio was now a widow with the responsibility of raising two children.Since she had staked everything on her husband's political career, Maria found herself destitute and moved back to her parents' home. In March, 1891 she suffered even more sorrow when her son fell ill and eventually died. Now, five years later, in the spiritual retreat, she experiences a profound renewal deep inside her. It is now that she realizes that man was created to worship and serve God.
Transformed by the Eucharist
One of the characteristic missions of the Franciscan tertiaries at that time was to teach the catechism in preparation for First Holy Communion. As a catechist, Maria del Refugio realized that, in order to be able to instill effectively in children the truths of the Catholic faith, particularly those relating to the Eucharist, she should make these teachings her own if she wished to find a means of capturing something of the grandeur of the Mystery. If the sacrament of the Eucharist is the sacrament of love, symbolizing the union of Christ with the Church, it was natural for Maria del Refugio, who was a truly Eucharistic person, to feel the desire, impetus and need to love and serve others and devote herself to compassionate works. Her happiness was clouded by what she saw as the absence of God in society and as a result, she carried out an intense ministry on behalf of the most needy. She eventually became director and mistress of novices in the Secular Franciscan Order, heralding a period which for some people marked the great flourishing of the Third Order.
Housewife & Mother
Although a second marriage could have been an option for Maria del Refugio, once she made the commitment to a new life through the spiritual exercises, her overriding desire was to become a nun. Nevertheless, she did have a daughter and had to seek perfection of her maternal capacity. As a mother she was strict, demanding and ever watchful; however, she was able to respect her daughter's vocation and to bring her up to respond freely to whatever destiny God intended for her. After completing elementary studies in Mexico City, Refugio Teresa graduated college as a schoolmistress in 1907. In her experience both as a mother and in carrying out her apostolate, Maria del Refugio felt that Our Lord had entrusted her with the salvation of children and young people and therefore it was her duty to work for this salvation through example and prayer.
On one of her visits to Morelia to see her daughter, she went into the cathedral and while praying there before the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, she had the idea of founding a religious institute devoted to spreading love for the Blessed Sacrament and to make reparation for the sins of the world, as well as acting as a vehicle which would allow her apostolic activity to exert more far reaching influence. It would be an institute which would set up educational establishments, centers of religious teaching and libraries for the purpose of proclaiming the Gospel and inspiring and disseminating love for the Blessed Sacrament. She conveyed this idea to Father Vicente Zaragoza and on March 25, 1910, the Apostolate of the Blessed Sacrament was founded and on April 16 the Archbishop of Mexico, Jose Mora y del Rio formally opened the Colegio del Santisimo Sacramento.
Christ, Font of All Knowledge
The basis of her educational program was that at the center of all knowledge lay God and that truly Christian life was not possible without the presence of the Eucharist and the protection of Mary. Her schools would offer a comprehensive, structured and practical education and include the latest methods of instilling good habits in the pupils and teaching them to control their passions by means of will power and leading orderly lives. The teaching of morality would be based on seeking the remedy for everything in God's law, in prayer and in the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist. The nuns and teachers practiced precautionary vigilance because they were aware that they were responsible before God for the children's purity and so should steer them away from any opportunities for sinning.
The Mexican Revolution
The foundation of the Institute coincided with the fall of President Porfirio Diaz's government. He was a ruler who refused to loosen his grip on power and together with the state of oppression and poverty, in which the greater part of the population lived, combined to provide the trigger for a revolution. At this same time, the Church would be subjected to cruel persecution, its ministers imprisoned or exiled, its property confiscated and its charitable establishments closed down, while the whole country was awash with the blood of martyrs. During the period of fighting Maria del Refugio set up an improvised first aid post from which, assisted by her companions and two doctor friends, she treated the wounded. She also organized collections of food and clothing to distribute among poor families. In 1917, a new Constitution was declared denying the Church a legal status and stripping priests of their civic rights, withdrawing recognition of religious communities and vows, outlawing denominational education and banning public worship outside churches, as well as decreeing that all ecclesiastical property should pass into the ownership of the state. At that time, the Colegio del Santisimo Sacramento moved to a very small neighborhood and the work began to extend and improve the building that would now become the school. The Sisters were destined to spend several years surrounded by bricklayers, plumbers and carpenters, while struggling with the recurring weekly problem of how to pay the wages, for there were days when they did not have a cent and had to trust in Providence alone to see them through.
The Strengthening of the Institute
Maria del Refugio was friendly with some bishops, including the Bishop of Tulancingo, Jose Juan de Jesus Herrera y Pina, who had been taking an interest in the community since 1914, visiting it often and offering advice. It was he who suggested they ask Archbishop Mora y del Rio to appoint a director to give them canonical framework and offer them guidance. Towards the end of 1918 the Mercedarian Father Alfredo Scotti turned up with instructions to check up on how the community was being run. Until then the life of the community had been organized on an informal basis and what was still needed was a constitution. Maria del Refugio drew up some rough drafts in which she defined her ideas on religious life. The Apostolate of the Blessed Sacrament had only three members when it was founded; by January 1919 there were fifteen and one year later twenty-seven. Among the young girls who entered the community at that time was Maria's daughter, Refugio Cancino, who until then had led an ordinary life as a laywoman. In August 1920, she decided to enter the Institute founded by her mother and on October 12th she took the habit, assuming the religious name of Maria Teresa. Many sister houses were opened in 1919 and some of these foundations suffered extreme poverty and food shortages. However, Maria del Refugio was happy to put up with the precarious conditions, reminding herself of St. Teresa's maxim that "all principles are painful", and remaining true to her conviction that once one had started something, one should persevere with it no matter what difficulties might arise, if it was the will of God and the Superiors.
Under the Patronage of Our Lady of Mercy
In view of the number of houses and the well organized footing of the Order, the Archbishop put the Apostolate's application for diocesan approval in the hands of Father Scotti, together with letters of recommendation from several bishops for him to take personally to Rome. On June 15, 1922 the Congregation of Religious, finding that all was in order, granted permission for the canonical foundation. The community was gradually taking on a Mercedarian character. Out of gratitude to Our Lady of Mercy, Maria del Refugio requested the latter's incorporation into the Order of Mercy, this being granted on June 11, 1925, so that they would now be known as Mercedarian Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
The Government's attacks on the Church became increasingly frequent. In February 1925 the President evoked discourse with the aim of establishing a religion which was answerable to the civil authorities. That same week most Catholic schools were closed down. The bishops ordered headmasters of Catholic schools to sign declarations in which they undertook to observe Article 3 of the Constitution which stipulated: "Religious corporations, ministers of religion, societies which exclusively or mainly carry out educational activities, and associations or societies concerned with the dissemination of any religious creed, will not involve themselves in any way in establishments which provide primary or secondary education, teacher training, or classes for workers or peasants". They all signed except Father Carranza and the Mercedarian Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Maria del Refugio could not in all conscience comply with a law which constituted an attack on God and the freedom of man. A few weeks later two agents from the Ministry of the Interior turned up at the Colegio del Santisimo Sacramento with orders to search the premises. They found the Sisters wearing their habits. Pistols in hand they went over the whole house, even looking under the beds, saying that they had orders to shoot "any priests they found there". In order to avoid any desecration, Maria del Refugio carried the Blessed Sacrament under her cloak as she accompanied them around the house talking to them forcefully and with considerable courage, and replying to their questions in the following vein: "I am not afraid of you closing my oratories, as you say you could, because you will never be able to close the oratory which I carry in my heart".
Spreading the Love of the Blessed Sacrament
Seeing the religious question in Mexico becoming ever more difficult, Maria del Refugio had been intending for some time to establish houses in Spain and Italy as a means of preserving the vocational calling of her nuns and keeping the life of the Institute going. The Superior General and her counselors would remain in Mexico City but would leave their convent for the time being to take refuge in the cellars of a neighboring house from which they would continue running the Institute. Because of the religious persecution, the Congregation had set about expanding abroad. In 1929 the training center for the Sisters in Oklahoma was operational, as well as two schools in Cuba, one in El Salvador, one in Chile, one in Spain, one in Columbia and another in Italy. The house in Chapultepec had been denounced to the authorities as a Catholic school and even though it had not operated as a school since 1926, it continued to be raided by government agents, whose inspections finally confirmed the existence of a religious community. In September, 1930 the Mercedarians were dispossessed of the only property they owned, and which they had acquired by virtue of so much effort and sacrifice. Maria del Refugio conveyed the news to the Sisters in the following words: "Recently the Lord has seen fit to let us be dispossessed of our headquarters, which we had acquired at the cost of so many sacrifices and in which we had invested so many hopes. Blessed be the Lord in His gifts and may His divine will be done!"
Her Last Illness and Death
In September 1936, Maria del Refugio moved into the last house she lived in in Mexico City. A few weeks later while she was fervently praying in the room which she had converted into a chapel, she came down with pneumonia. After several complications, she was in a state of total debilitation, unable to move and in great pain, which became agonizing when attempts were made to move her; she bore her suffering with supreme patience and resignation. On April 24, 1937 she died quite peacefully.
The memory of a woman of exemplary virtue who was devoted to the Blessed Sacrament and anxious to share that devotion wherever she went, and indeed with the whole world, was a source of comfort to her religious daughters, friends and acquaintances and filled them with hope. It was not long before they were to begin to experience the fruits of her intercessions on their behalf in heaven. During the course of the following years, the Institute of the Mercedarian Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament was to undergo a remarkable development. Within ten years the number of houses and personnel had doubled, and on July 22, 1948 Pope Pius XII granted it a laudatory decree. The Foundress' saintly reputation would continue to grow as more and more people witnessed a change in their way of life after becoming acquainted with the life and works of Maria del Refugio Aguilar y Torres.
She is a model Christian because, having acknowledged her human weakness in the spiritual exercises of 1896, she sought ways of redemption through the Eucharist; as a model mother because she encouraged her children to aspire to saintly ideals; as a model Franciscan tertiary because she saw the value of that form of organized apostolate and did everything possible to further its development; as a model catechist because her catechizing was aimed at teaching people to love and respond to the Eucharist; as a model teacher because she sought to turn her teaching to an experience which would lead to the discovery of God; as an exemplary sister because she was faithful and magnanimous living according to her vows and because she was meticulous in observing the rules; an exemplary Mercedarian because she made her life and her Flag of the 12th Country apostolate into a work of redemption. On account of all these attributes it was proposed that she be elevated to the honor of the altars, and the cause for her canonization was formally opened in 1982. Maria del Refugio, far from being forgotten, stands out as a model of Eucharistic living for the new millennium.
Today, the Mercedarian Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament are teaching and sharing their love of God in 12 countries with a membership of over 600 Sisters. Mozambique, who's flag is pictured to the right, is the most recent of the 12 countries.