Maria de Agreda de Jesus, a 17th-century Spanish nun, had visions that she visited the confluence of the Concho River and talked to Jumano Indians.
You probably don’t believe in paranormal phenomena, such as astral projection or bilocation.
Neither did a beautiful young nun named Maria de Agreda de Jesus. She believed in her Lord’s miracles, but she couldn’t understand what brought her to the banks of the Concho River — while cloistered at a Renaissance convent in Spain.
Her mystery, which has intrigued secular historians, Catholic scholars, feminists and students of the occult for four centuries, has inspired a San Angelo woman to ask anew: Is it legend? Is it true? Is it a miracle?
Cindy Jordan, a professional musician who came to San Angelo in 2006, has composed a pageant based on Maria’s life. She hopes to stage it here in 2008. If it succeeds, she envisions the pageant becoming an annual community event like Albany’s celebrated “Fandango,” Canyon’s popular “Texas” and Hemet, Calif.’s tragic “Ramona,” which has drawn more than 20,000 fans a year since the 1970s.
“It’s a great story,” said the blonde grandmother, describing her musical pageant titled “The Lady in Blue.”
“My main goal in this production is for us to take the story and connect with our own spirituality,” she continued. “We can see how she did it. Just look at the story and apply it to your own life. Take what you need from it.”
Pamela Miller, director of San Angelo’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, said she would like to see Jordan’s historical pageant succeed as a cultural attraction.
“It sounds like a great thing,” she said. “I hope it happens. When she’s ready, we’ll help her.”
The “Lady in Blue” has no bigger booster than the Most Rev. Michael D. Pfeifer, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of San Angelo. Two paintings of her image are on display in the Christ the King Retreat Center. One is by Amber Alexander, a San Angelo artist. The other came from a mural found in 1937 in Beaumont.
“Her fame is coming back about her influence on bringing Christianity into West Texas, all the way to New Mexico and Arizona,” Pfeifer said, adding that Maria is venerated. She is two steps from becoming a saint, and support is building to elevate her.
Born in 1602, Maria became a cloistered nun at a convent in her home village of Agreda, Spain. Her habit was blue.
Between 1620 and 1631, she experienced cataleptic trances that she later described as strange dreams.
She said she was carried to a wild land — including a place where three rivers came together — and taught the gospel to strange people.
In 1629, about 50 Jumano Indians arrived at the Spanish mission of Isleta, near present-day Albuquerque, N.M. Jumanos, also known as Flatheads, tattooed rings around their arms and legs.
According to meticulous documents preserved in Spanish archives, the Jumanos asked Franciscan priests to return with them to their home at present-day San Angelo. The natives wanted a Christian mission so everyone in the band could become believers.
Missionaries were mystified how these Indians learned about Christianity. The Jumanos claimed they were sent by a “Lady in Blue,” who appeared to them as if by magic.
Wearing a blue cloak, she would come from distant hills and instruct the Indians in her faith, then she told them to find priests to build a mission for them.
When Franciscans heard the Jumano stories, they relayed them to Fray Alonso de Benavides, the religions superior of New Mexico, and Fray Juan Salas, president of the largest and most successful mission, Isleta.
In early 1629 — a year before Boston’s founding — Salas, Fray Diego López, three Spanish soldiers and the Jumano band headed across West Texas. Their route is uncertain, but their destination is known: the confluence of the Concho River, probably near today’s Bell Street crossing, where a historic marker commemorates their arrival.
The missionaries reported more than 2,000 Jumanos greeted them. Some Indians carried crude crosses and fell to their knees when the priests displayed a portrait of the infant Jesus. After Salas described his faith, the Jumanos “rose up as one” and asked to be baptized. They became the first native-born Texans to become Christians and to receive sacraments of the Catholic Church.
When Benavides returned to Spain in 1630, the Franciscan Superior General interrogated him about the Indian stories. He sent Benavides to Agreda with instructions to interview Mother María de Jesús, now abbess of the Convent of the Immaculate Conception.
Describing her terrifying visions, she recounted how she prayed for the Indians of the New World, then went into a spiritual rapture that transported her to a dry, primitive land where rivers came together. Flat-headed, tattooed Indians came to her.
María spoke Spanish. The Indians understood. When the Indians spoke in their tongue, María understood. She instructed them in the faith and urged them to seek priests. As unpredictably as the rapture began, María was back in the convent in Agreda.
The experiences deeply disturbed the young nun, who feared she had been possessed by something evil. María related her fears to her confessor.
The 1620s gave religious bigots license to torture people with views at variance with those of the church. The Holy Inquisition burned women they deemed to be witches.
If María were possessed, the ecstasies must stop.
But if María were doing God’s work, how would heaven judge those who opposed her?
Franciscans believed in the possibility of bilocation — the power to be physically in one place and spiritually in another. This miracle was attributed to their founder, St. Francis of Assisi.
After interviewing Maria on April 30, 1631, Benavides wrote: “The first time she went was in the year 1620. She has continued ever since. She told me she had commanded the Jumanos to call us and she had instructed them during all this time. She gave me all their signs and declared she had been with them. She knows Captain Tuerto (the one-eyed captain) very well, having given me his personal characteristics and that of all the others. She herself sent the messengers from Quivira to call the missionaries.”
In spite of her knowledge about San Angelo’s Jumanos, María had been confined inside the walls of the convent in Agreda throughout her raptures.
After Benavides’ visit, María reported no more ecstasies.
In later years, María became one of Spain’s most powerful women. She remained abbess of the convent until her death in 1665 and enjoyed the friendship of King Philip 4th, who visited her convent and corresponded with her by mail.
During the last half of her life, María wrote a massive work, “The Mystical City of God,” a biography of the Virgin Mary considered a classic of Christian mysticism. Mel Gibson used it as one of only two non-scriptural sources for his movie “The Passion of the Christ.”
“The Mystical City of God” has been translated into English and remains in print today.
“The Lady in Blue” still awaits the Vatican’s judgment to elevate her to St. Maria de Agreda de Jesus.
Historians and students of metaphysics remain fascinated with a mystery that defies science and reason to explain.
Gus Clemens’ book “Concho Country” contributed to this report.