Argentina will get first home-grown female saint when 'Mama Antula' is canonized

(OSV News) -- Argentina will get its first home-grown female saint in early 2024 with the canonization of Blessed María Antonia de San José.

The Vatican announced Oct. 24 that San José, born as María Antonia de Paz Figueroa, but known throughout Argentina simply as Mama Antula, would be elevated to sainthood as the pope authorized the promulgation of the decree on the miracle attributed to her intercession.

The decision means a lot for Argentina, its native Pope Francis and his Jesuit order. When canonized, she will be the fifth saint associated with Argentina of whom four were elevated to sainthood by Pope Francis but is the first female of Argentina to be canonized.

"Mama Antula is considered the mother of the nation. She was a strong, brave woman who believed in Argentina. She was committed to the country and that knowing Christ would transform society," Bishop Santiago Olivera told OSV News.

Olivera has a double role in the Argentine Episcopal Conference, heading the military diocese and the commission for the cause of saints.

Mama Antula's path to sainthood began more than a century ago. In general, two miracles need to be accepted by the church as having occurred through the intercession of the sainthood candidate, one for beatification and one for canonization. The first miracle attributed to her came in 1904, more than a century after her death in 1799 and 112 years before her beatification by Pope Francis in 2016.

Born in 1730 into a wealthy family, the future saint left home at 15 to avoid an arranged marriage. Her family expected her to enter a convent, but that was not her calling. Bishop Olivera said nuns in the 18th century were cloistered and Mama Antula, after meeting Jesuit priests, decided to dedicate her life to working with them and spreading the Word.

This turned out to be providential -- when the Jesuits were expelled from Spain and its colonies in the Americas in 1767, Bishop Olivera said that Mama Antula kept the Jesuits' work going, spending long years walking throughout Argentina and teaching about the church in Quechua, the language from her home province of Santiago de Estero in the north of the country, and Spanish, Argentina’s official language.

Mama Antula is believed to have walked over 3,000 miles throughout Argentina before ending up in Buenos Aires, the capital, where she founded a spiritual center and charity programs for women and children.

Careful not to offend the Spanish viceroys, she nevertheless promoted the idea of an independent Argentina, which would not happen until 1816, more than a decade after her death.

She continued to work with the Jesuits until the end of her life, with a stream of letters crossing the Atlantic between her in Argentina and the priests in Europe. The letters were eventually gathered into a book, reflecting Mama Antula's importance in keeping the Jesuit tradition alive in Argentina.

"It is impressive that after all these years she will be canonized and it will be a Jesuit who makes her a saint," said Bishop Olivera.

Her work remains evident today, with the spiritual center still standing in Buenos Aires and her tomb in the Our Lady of Mercy Basilica has become an increasingly important pilgrimage site. Her resting spot was declared a National Historic Tomb in 2014 by then-President Cristina Fernández.

Mama Antula will become the country's second saint to be born and die in Argentina. The first, José Gabriel Brochero, was canonized in 2016 by Pope Francis.

The first saint with ties to Argentina, Héctor Valdivielso Sáez, was born in Argentina, but died in Spain. He was canonized in 1999 by Pope John Paul II.

The other two, Nazaria Ignacia March (born in Spain, canonized in 2018) and Artémides Zatti (born in Italy, canonized in 2022), died in Argentina, but were not natives.

Bishop Olivera said his office is waiting on word from the Vatican on two more causes, among 16, that he expects will see important movement in the coming months: Cardinal Eduardo Pironio, who died in 1998, and was declared venerable by Pope Francis in 2022 and Enrique Shaw, a layman, naval officer turned businessman, who was declared venerable in 2021.

Bishop Olivera said 2024 would not only be important for the causes of sainthood in the country, but could see Pope Francis make a long-awaited homecoming. Unlike his two predecessors, Francis has not visited his home country more than 10 years into his papacy.

- - - Lucien Chauvin writes for OSV News from Montevideo, Uruguay.