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"The Lady in Bluebonnets"

  In 1630, the western Tejas and New Mexico desert was dangerous and rugged Apache country.  The Jumanos tribes of Indians were coming to the Franciscan Missions on the northern frontier pleading for priests to come and baptize their people.  When asked by the friars why they were coming with such insistence, the Indians told them that they were being sent by a mysterious white woman they called the “Lady in Blue.”  Seeing a portrait of another Franciscan sister from Spain in the monastery, they said, “A woman in similar garb wanders among us there, preaching to us in our own tongue.  But her face is not old like this, but young and she comes to us from the sky.” 

Being profound spiritual animists like other hunting and gathering tribes, they saw nothing strange in a mystical experience.  In fact, they seemed perfectly comfortable with their visitor arriving through a celestial medium.  

And it was this woman who had insisted that they ask the missionaries to be baptized, and told them where they could find them.  They said that, at times, the “Lady in Blue” was hidden from them, and they didn’t know where she went, or how to find her.

The priests disregarded their story.  They didn’t have any priests that far north, and they knew the Church would never send a young nun into the wilderness alone to minister to the Indians.  But here they were, showing up and describing in detail about a woman in blue that was instructing them about the true God and His holy law.

At her birth, on April 2, 1602 in Ágreda Spain, Maria’s mother called her a "special blessing" because the labor and delivery had caused relatively little discomfort.  As María grew into childhood, her parents watched her development with increasing anxiety.  

By the time she was two, they suspected that she might be endowed with some strange gift because she had an uncommon ability to reason.  When she was six, they worried about her preoccupation with spirituality and her obsessive compassion for the poor.  But when she was ten years old, María announced to her parents that she wished to enter a monastery.  

She became Sister María a Jesus de Ágreda.  Sometime during this period, she became profoundly concerned for the native peoples of New Mexico and the Southwest, their ignorance of God and the Church, and the eternal loss of their souls.  "My heart seemed to be bursting out of my chest," she would say three decades later, " and pining and exhausted, I would go to the most out-of-the-way areas of the house to hide and pour out my feelings..."  Worried for Maria’s health, the Mother Superior summoned the Fray Anthorn de Villacre, to hold an ecclesiastical examination. He questioned Sister María at great length, and he concluded at the end of the interview that Sister María was neither foolish nor mad, but in fact, she had attained true sanctity, a transcendent state of spirituality.  She then became Señora María Jesus de Ágreda.Almost daily, as she prayed she saw visions. She told the sisters of her convent that her mystical journeys carried her into the presence of God Himself, and as if in answer to her prayers, He commanded her to take His message to the native peoples of New Mexico, including the deserts of the Southwest.  Soon afterward, as she knelt in prayer at the foot of a Cross, she entered a trance.  Spiritually, she saw darkness melt into daylight. She felt the temperature of the air change.  She saw bronze-skinned men and women in the vast wilderness of the Southwestern United States.  They used the jawbones and teeth of animals to fashion weapons. "Their foods were primitive," she said in later years, "and for light they used wooden torches." She realized that these people, who included both nomadic hunters and gatherers and sedentary villagers and farmers, were those to whom she was to bring the word of God.  She had ministered to tribes she called the "Titlas" and the "Jumanos."  She knew that she had been transported there by a process the Church calls "bi-location."

Over the next decade, María paid more than 500 spiritual visits to the Indians, sometimes two or three a day, she said. She instructed them in the fundamentals of the Faith, speaking to them in their own language.  She won converts, and she urged them to contact Franciscan friars at the missions.  If necessary, she would “give her life,” she said, “to save a single Indian soul.”

Hearing about Maria’s trances, the Franciscan Minister General visited with her in the monastery, where she spoke candidly to him about these marvels.  Eight years later, as he was reading reports from the missionaries in New Mexico, he realized that there was a strange similarity in one of the reports to what Maria had described to him years earlier.  The Friars had included details about the Jumano Indian visits and their story about a mysterious nun that was visiting them.  He had the archbishop draft a letter to the missionaries in New Mexico, directing them to investigate Señora María's tales.  “Report back to me,” he said, “any tribes in the wilderness who have learned of the Catholic faith from some source other than the missionaries themselves.” He dispatched the letter that would eventually reach Fray Benavides, Superior of the Franciscan Missions of New Mexico since 1622.

He sent two missionaries and three soldiers on the journey to visit the Jumano Indian tribe.  After traveling several hundred miles east through the dangerous Apache territory, the weary expedition was met by a dozen Jumano Indians.  They told the priests that the “Lady in Blue” had sent them out to locate and lead their group back to their village.  She had instructed them in which direction they should go to look for the missionaries, and then she was elevated in the air until she disappeared. The next day blue flowers (bluebonnets) were found growing where she had been.  They believed that they appeared where she had trailed her cloak on the ground.  As the friars drew near the Jumano camp, they saw in amazement a procession of men, women and children coming to meet them.  At its head were Indians carrying two crosses decorated with garlands of flowers.  With great respect the Indians kissed the crucifixes the Franciscans wore around their necks.  “They learned from the Indians that the same nun had instructed them as to how they should come out in procession to receive them, and she had helped them to decorate the crosses," Fr. Benavides wrote.  The missionaries found that the Indians were already instructed in the Faith and eager to learn more. They were also amazed when messengers from neighboring Indian tribes arrived and pleaded for the priests to come to them also. They said that the same lady in blue had visited them and told them to seek out the missionaries for baptism.

Upon returning to Spain, Fray Benavides was given a meeting with Maria in order to ascertain if she was actually the “Lady in Blue” who had brought the Gospel of Christ over the oceans to the Indians.  She obediently told him all about her visits, which began in 1620, and then returning from her trance, she would find herself in the same place where it overtook her.  She described that she was not always received well.  Several times, she suffered torture and was left for dead at the hands of Indians who had been provoked to violence by the shamans, or medicine men, who were threatened by her presence.  To the astonishment of the Indians, she would return, and this persuaded them that she was preaching the truth.  Fray Benavides sat in astonishment as he listened to her story.  “She told me many particularities of that land that even I had forgotten and she brought them to my memory,” he noted.  “She also described the features and individual traits of the missionaries and various Indians, with details that only a person who had been in New Mexico could know.”  She told him details about the friars on their journey to the Jumanos.  She gave detailed descriptions of them, as well as the Jumano chief.  He concluded, “She has preached in person our Holy Catholic Faith in every nation, particularly in our New Mexico. “  When she was questioned whether she was carried away bodily or in spirit, she said “I do not know.”  All she knew was that she saw these lands and different tribes; she felt the change in climate and temperature; she experienced pain when the Indians turned on her and persecuted her.  Fr. Benavides became convinced that she was the “Lady in Blue” who had traveled to America to teach the Indians.

In 1690, a quarter of a century after Señora María's death, a Tejas Indian Chief in eastern Texas asked a Franciscan missionary for a piece of blue baize in which to bury his mother. He specified blue, the missionary said, "Because in times past they had been visited frequently by a very beautiful woman, who used to come down from the heights, dressed in blue garments, and they wished to be like that woman."  
And during the same year, a visit by the missionaries to the Pima, Yuma and other villages in Arizona, the Indians told them about, "A beautiful white woman carrying a cross came to their lands.  She was dressed in white, gray, and blue... She spoke to them, shouted, and harangued them...  The tribes of the Río Colorado shot her with arrows and twice left her for dead.  But coming to life, she left by air.”

Today, more than three centuries after her death, Señora María's body lies in a small crypt at her convent in Ágreda.

Watercolor Painting, Texas Bluebonnets by Jonell Richardson- Fine Art.
Header silver ambrotype by Tom Cavness