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ARGENTINA | 09-02-2024 15:44

'Mama Antula': Human rights pioneer and Argentina's first female saint

Blessed 'Mama Antula,' soon to be consecrated a saint, is considered the first defender of human rights in Argentina during the Spanish colonial viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata.

Blessed 'Mama Antula,' soon to be consecrated a saint by the Catholic Church, is considered the first defender of human rights in Argentina during the Spanish colonial viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata, according to her biographers.

“She had a lifetime commitment to the excluded, the natives, slaves, mulattos and peasants,” said Cintia Suárez, co-author of her biography together with Italian journalist Nunzia Locatelli.

The canonisation ceremony will be precisely headed by his compatriot, Pope Francis, on Sunday February 11 at St Peter’s Basilica, in the presence of Argentina's President Javier Milei.

From a street in Buenos Aires, Suárez pointed out the monumental neoclassic basilica Our Lady of La Piedad and stated: “That’s where the woman who pioneered the defence the human rights of the needy."

In one of the side naves sits the mausoleum. A statue depicts her draped in a Jesuit cape, a cross on her shoulder and a prayerbook in her hand.

“She was committed to people who were considered objects during colonial times. She lived between 1730 and 1799,” Suárez said inside the temple, in the central area of Congreso, where Milei’s far-right reforms are being debated fiercely and with social tension.

The biographer, journalist and social anthropologist explained that “Mama Antula’s message was very strong for her time and inspires women to this day. It gained traction through Jorge Bergoglio [today Pope Francis] who disseminated it with devotion."

At the basilica, the parish priest of La Piedad, Raúl Laurencena, stated that visits to the mausoleum "have grown during this difficult time. People pray for bread, work and peace, for our homeland who needs it so badly,” he specified.

Mama Antula was a laywoman linked since she was a teenager to the Jesuits, the Society of Jesus where Francis also comes from.

“After walking over 4,000 km for her spiritual exercises across northern provinces, she had arrived in Buenos Aires barefoot, with her sandals destroyed and her cape, given to her by a Jesuit, nearly in tatters, carrying a wooden cross,” said Suárez.

Oral and written tradition agrees that she was mistaken for “a witch or a mad woman,” according to the historian.

“A few young men threw stones at her, and in her despair, she took shelter here, in a small chapel,” she said. 

The basílica was built a century later.

The historian said she became more popular and influential every day: “She achieved a harmony between the classes at her house of exercise. It was unthinkable, for instance, for the viceroy’s wife to serve food to a slave."

The house she founded is still there today in the neighbourhood of Constitución.

She was called María Antonia de Paz y Figueroa. She was born to a wealthy family in Villa Silípica, 40 km away from Santiago del Estero. 'Antula' means Antonia in Quechua, the language the settlers in northern Argentina spoke.

What form did her rebelliousness and influence take? Suárez said that “at 15 years old, when women either entered a convent as nuns or got married, she decided on a third option: to be a consecrated laywoman."

Mama Antula left her family home. “She was attracted to the intelectual world and the progress Jesuits had brought over from Europe. She took care of orphan girls,” she added.

In 1767, the monarchy and papacy expelled and banned Jesuits. “She found a spiritual and social void in natives integrated to Jesuit missions. They felt hopeless. She was moved," said the author.

“She reopened her house of spiritual exercises and travelled around provinces. She knew it was a risky activity,” she explained.

In Buenos Aires, she earned her respect by the bishop and the viceroy, who at first refused to see her. One day the bishop granter her a permit to open her spiritual house and she answered defiantly: I’ll think about it.

By then, no priest was ordained without his say-so. “She was very courageous and rebellious in a good way. They called her a strong woman. She used her feminine wiles in a context of prohibition,” she highlighted.

The two miracles expertly examined by the Vatican were unexplainable healings. Through her intervention, “sister Vanina Rosa, suffering from a widespread infection, recuperated in 1905,” Suárez explained.

“In 2017, we found out about the case of Claudio Perusini, an Argentine recovering from a stroke. The doctors said there was nothing else to be done,” she said.

Suárez supported her findings with over 300 handwritten letters found in the State Archives of Rome.

 

– TIMES/AFP

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