This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
A Franciscan priest, who made the long and dangerous trip from the New World in search of the mysterious “Lady in Blue,” arrived at a Spanish abbey on Apr. 21, 1631.
The padre was determined to find out for himself if the mother superior really was the phantom visitor that brought biblical teachings to the Indians of the American Southwest.
Known today as astral projection and in the seventeenth century as bilocation, out-of-body travel has always been an incredible concept that defies the laws of nature. The case of the Spanish nun, who claimed to have preached the gospel in the wilds of Texas, remains the most baffling example of this bizarre phenomenon.
The Catholic Church gained a foothold in New Mexico in 1613 with the establishment of a mission at the village of Isleta. Few Europeans at that time had laid eyes on the vast expanse that someday would be called Texas.
Every year starting in 1622, a delegation of Jumano Indians walked the 300 miles from their tribal grounds near present-day San Angelo to plead for their own priests. The answer was invariably the same because the short-handed followers of Saint Francis did not have enough fathers to go around and could only suggest that the petitioners come back later.
The arrival of a new crop of clergy in July 1629 coincided with a strange inquiry from the archbishop of Mexico City. Did the savage inhabitants east of Isleta exhibit any understanding of Christianity? The archbishop’s letter was prompted by the fantastic assertion of a nun in faraway Spain that for years she had saved the souls of New World aborigines without leaving the confines of her convent.
When the Jumanos returned a few days later on their annual pilgrimage, the Franciscans subjected them to a rigorous cross-examination. How had the ignorant Indians discovered God?
The Jumanos explained that a beautiful young woman, dressed in blue from head to toe, had singlehandedly converted them to Christianity. Before taking her leave, the lovely lady instructed her flock to request missionaries at Isleta.
Escorted by several soldiers, a pair of puzzled priests followed the red men back to Texas, where the caravan was met on the trail by a dozen chiefs. How did the tribal elders know to expect the holy messengers? The blue-clad woman told them the Spaniards were coming!
To their amazement the priests found the Jumanos so well versed in the intricacies of Church doctrine that they baptized the entire tribe of 10,000. During an all-night healing session following the ceremony, hundreds of the sick and lame reportedly experienced miraculous cures.
Determined to solve the riddle, Father Fray Alonso de Benavides went to the alleged source — the Spanish sister who said she was the heavenly guide of the Texas Indians. Wearing a coarse blue cloak, the habit of her order, Maria de Jesus welcomed the weary caller in April 1631.
At the age of 18, Maria began slipping into trances which lasted for hours and consistently ended with vivid images of an alien world populated by painted savages. The young mystic soon became passionately persuaded that her astonishingly detailed recollections were not dreams but spiritual journeys to the American Southwest.
The dumfounded Father Benavides listened in reverent silence as Sister Maria reeled off a list of tribes encountered on her estimated 500 “visits” to Texas between 1620 and 1631. Although he had never heard of one clan, the Tejas, the interview convinced the skeptical priest that she was the genuine article.
The practical upshot of the Benavides investigation was the Franciscans’ insistence upon a “divine mandate” to proselytize pagan Texas. Their religious lobbying eventually forced the Spanish authorities to sit up and take notice of the long ignored territory.
Maria de Jesus also made a believer out of her monarch, and King Philip IV of Spain often sought her advice. But a subsequent claim strained to the breaking point the faith of even her most devoted admirers and brought the nun into serious conflict with the Church.
During a private audience with God, she swore that He asked her to write the authorized biography of the Virgin Mary. To aid the nun in the endeavor, eight angels were assigned to assist her.
Not until 1689, a generation after the death of Maria de Jesus, did a Spanish explorer stumble upon the Tejas in their East Texas domain. According to Alonzo de Leon, the Indians treasured the memory of a European woman, who materialized out of thin air and taught them to worship a single deity.
The observant explorer also noticed that the Tejas were curiously fond of the color blue, which the tribe inexplicably identified with the enigmatic visitor from long ago.