Nursing order foundress becomes Mexico's second female saint

Earlier this month, Mexico gained its second female saint. On May 12, Pope Francis canonized María Guadalupe García Zavala (1878-1963), foundress of the Congregation of the Handmaids of St. Margaret Mary and the Poor. She joins St. María de Jesús Sacramentado Venegas, who was canonized in 2000.

María was born in Zapopan, in the state of Jalisco. Over the centuries, the city’s shrine to Our Lady of Zapopan has drawn millions of pilgrims, including, in 1979, Blessed Pope John Paul II. Maria’s father, Fortino, operated a religious goods shop directly across from the basilica.

In service to the poor

At age 23, María was engaged to be married, but as the wedding day approached she felt a deep longing to enter the religious life. Uncertain what to do, she called on her spiritual director, Father Cipriano Iniguez. He told María that he had been contemplating a new religious order that would serve the sick poor. The priest’s admission inspired María to devote her life to the service of the needy. She broke off her engagement, and opened a small hospital with Father Iniguez that would be staffed by the sisters of St. Margaret Mary and the Poor.

The community was formally established in October 1901, and María was elected superior. She took the name Mother María Guadalupe, but became known as “Mother Lupita.” Initially the community was so poor that the nuns were reduced to begging in the streets in order to cover living expenses and the expense of operating the hospital.

Anti-Church hostilities

María and her sisters had barely become financially stable when a fresh, far more serious challenge arose. Beginning in 1911, the government of Mexico became increasingly hostile to the Church. Between 1911 and 1936 the government enacted a series of laws designed to curb and eventually eliminate Catholicism in Mexico. The government seized Church property, took control of Church affairs, made it a crime for priests to wear clerical garb outside of church. Members of religious orders were expelled from the country, and in an effort to control the number of active priests in the country, no cleric was permitted to celebrate Mass, administer the sacraments or perform any other sacred function unless he had obtained a government license. Priests who refused to apply for a license ministered to Mexico’s Catholics in secret; they were hunted down as criminals.

To continue her community’s work, Mother María and her sisters put aside their religious habits and dressed as laywomen. They were subjected to frequent, sudden raids by government troops, nonetheless, in spite of the danger to themselves, the sisters concealed several fugitive priests in their hospital, as well as one of the most hunted men in Mexico — Francisco Orozco y Jimenez, archbishop of Guadalajara.

After the sisters nursed several wounded government soldiers, their situation improved: the local garrison became the self-appointed protectors of the sisters and their hospital.

Tireless care

After 1936, when the tensions between the Church and Mexican government began to ease, Mother María and her sisters returned to wearing their religious habit. And they founded new hospitals elsewhere in Mexico. Mother María emphasized tireless, compassionate care for their patients, and complete simplicity of life in their convents. She told her sisters, “Be poor with the poor.”

At the time of Mother María’s death, her community operated 11 hospitals across Mexico. Today the Handmaids of St. Margaret Mary and the Poor have doubled that number, with hospitals in Peru, Italy, Iceland and Greece.

After Mother María’s death in 1963, patients began to report that she had appeared at their bedside to comfort or even heal them. One of those patients, Abraham Arceo Higaresa, suffered from pancreatitis. While he was being cared for in one of the Handmaid’s hospitals, be began to pray to Mother María for her intercession. He reported that while he prayed he smelled a sweet fragrance and then felt perfectly well. The determination that his healing was inexplicable to medical science will result in Mother Maria’s canonization. 

Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of “Patron Saints” (OSV, $14.95).