By Dixie Boyle
Study the history of any state in the U.S., and you are likely to encounter not only factual anecdotes but also colorful tales that push the boundaries of belief. New Mexico is no exception. Just a little bit of digging will reward you with stories as bizarre as they are fascinating: buried treasure haunted by the ghosts of Spanish soldiers; La Llorna wailing for her missing children by our state’s rivers, creeks, and ditches; numerous assertions of UFO and alien encounters; and witches casting spells by throwing fireballs into the night sky.
One story, about a mystical apparition known as the Blue Nun or Lady in Blue, has persisted here in the Southwest for nearly 400 years. Born Maria Fernandez Coronel, the Blue Nun spent her entire life in Agreda, Spain, north of Madrid, between the years of her birth in 1602 and her death in 1665.
Or did she? According to legend, the Blue Nun was able to bilocate from Spain to the New World, her spirit teleported by astral projection across the ocean, where she ministered to Native American tribes.
Maria became extremely devout and spiritual at a young age. When she was only 17 years old, she took the vow in the Franciscan order known as the Poor Clares, where she agreed to a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience. A year later, Sister Maria became a cloistered nun at the Agreda Monastery. It was during this time she took the name Maria de Jesus de Agreda. By becoming a cloistered nun she would serve the Agreda Monastery for the rest of her life, which meant never leaving the compound.
Soon after entering the monastery in 1620, Sister Maria began to have mystical experiences. She would often fall into a deep trance for hours and even days at a time, and when she woke would tell of how she was transported with the help of angels to a strange land far away in order to minister to the people there. She claimed to have crossed the ocean more than 500 times in the 1620s, and she shared countless details that would have been impossible for her to know unless she had traveled to the faraway land. The Spanish were only beginning to explore what would become the Southwestern United States, and little had been written describing the geography or those who lived there. Those Franciscans ministering to the Native Americans decades later were surprised at Sister Maria’s accurate descriptions of the land, villages, and people.
According to Franciscan records, several Native American tribes reported that a lady wearing blue robes would suddenly appear in the sky over their pueblos, then she would descend and begin interacting and ministering to the people. Most of her visitations were said to be to the Jumanos of Texas, but the Tompiro at Gran Quivira and the Piro near Socorro have passed down similar stories to their ancestors. These people welcomed the Lady in Blue and were not frightened by her arrival from the sky and the stories she told them, namely to seek out the missionaries that would be coming, to be kind to them, and to ask to be baptized.
Descriptions of the Lady in Blue heard by the first Franciscans arriving in the country convinced them that the apparition was that of a Franciscan nun, as her gray robe and blue cloak were worn by nuns of that order. Due to the number of rumors, the Franciscans began an investigation into these sightings, interviewing members of various Native American tribes that had reportedly come into contact with Sister Maria. One Jumano chief, referred to as Captain Tuerto, told of the countless times the Lady in Blue arrived in his village and ministered to the people about the Christian God. He relayed how she would suddenly appear out of the air, but they did not question her methods. The Jumanos were interested in her teachings and enjoyed her companionship. After three years, she began preparing them for a time when she would not be able to return, urging them to seek baptism from the missionary fathers that would soon arrive to convert them. She also requested that the Jumanos build a large cross and altar. She taught the natives many rituals of the Catholic faith, including how to make a rosary and pray. According to Tuerto, he and his people understood her, and she them, although they spoke in different languages. His band completely accepted the Blue Nun and her teachings.
Alonso de Benavides, a respected Franciscan missionary, also investigated Sister Maria’s story. He sent a number of other priests to interview the Jumanos, Tompiro, and Piro, many of whom greeted them with handmade stick crosses and asked to be baptized. Benavides also traveled to Spain in 1630 to interview Sister Maria herself. By the end of his interview he was convinced she was telling the truth.
To many of the Franciscans arriving in New Mexico, the story of the Blue Nun was inspirational and motivating. They were convinced that the purpose of her divine intervention was to help them with their missionary work. While there were hints that the Spanish Inquisition might bring charges of heresy against Maria, in the end she was lauded for her mystical ministry. She became the abbess, or Mother Superior, of the Agreda Monastery in 1627, when she was only 25 years old, not a common age to be elevated to the position.
Mother Maria had a long and distinguished ministry. She wrote 14 books, including The Mystical City of Gold, a biography of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The book also recounts Maria’s own visions and her mystical ministry. In her later years, she became a spiritual and political advisor to King Felipe IV of Spain.
Sister Maria’s ministry was fully accepted during her lifetime—after all, a strong belief in mysticism and the ability to teleport were hallmarks of 17th-century European spirituality. Even more interesting, her claims have never been discounted by the Franciscan order, are well documented in both secular and church documents, and to this day believers still make annual pilgrimages to Gran Quivira and other sites where she is reported to have ministered. It seems that even 400 years later, many of us still want to believe in miracles.
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