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The heroic virtue of María Antonia of Saint Joseph

Born in Argentina as María Antonia de Paz y Figueroa, and colloquially known as “Mama Antula,” Blessed María Antonia was a beata: a consecrated woman who made private vows and lived in a beaterio (convent) whose direction was entrusted to priests of the Society of Jesus. 

A 19th-century rendering of María Antonia de Paz y Figueroa (1730-1799) (Image: Wikipedia)

On December 16, the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints announced that Pope Francis will canonize Blessed María Antonia of Saint Joseph (1730-1799) on February 11.

Born near Santiago del Estero, Argentina, as María Antonia de Paz y Figueroa, and colloquially known as “Mama Antula,” Blessed María Antonia was a beata: a consecrated woman who made private vows and lived in a beaterio (convent) whose direction was entrusted to priests of the Society of Jesus. 

In 1767, King Charles III of Spain expelled the Jesuits from his empire. Acting with permission from ecclesiastical and civil authorities, María Antonia spent the remaining decades of her life continuing the Jesuit apostolate of spiritual exercises (retreats). Walking thousands of miles across Argentina and Uruguay, she organized retreats that were preached by non-Jesuit priests; a retreat for one hundred people would last for ten days. She also begged for alms to ensure that retreatants could always make their spiritual exercises without cost.

Mama Antula eventually settled in Buenos Aires, 650 miles from her hometown, and raised funds for a house of spiritual exercises there that stands to this day. There, she founded a community of consecrated women now known as the Hijas del Divino Salvador (Daughters of the Divine Savior). Mama Antula will be the first female canonized Argentine saint, as well as the first saint canonized since October 2022.

On July 1, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI approved the promulgation of a decree on the heroic virtues of María Antonia of Saint Joseph. The decree, translated below, was published in Acta Apostolicae Sedis a year after its promulgation (vol. CIII, n. 9, September 2, 2011, pp. 609-612).

On March 3, 2016, Pope Francis approved a decree on a miracle attributed to Mama Antula’s intercession: “the rapid, complete and lasting healing of a thirty-one-year-old professed religious of the Daughters of the Divine Savior, from acute lithiasic cholecystitis with septic complications, during the final months of 1904.” This approval paved the way for Mama Antula’s beatification on August 27, 2016.

“Yesterday, in Santiago del Estero, in Argentina, Sr. María Antonia de San José was beatified; the people call her Mama Antula,” Pope Francis said the following day. “May her exemplary Christian witness, especially her apostolate in promoting the spiritual exercises, inspire the desire to adhere ever more to Christ and the Gospel.”

On October 24, 2023, Pope Francis approved a decree on another miracle attributed to her intercession: “the rapid, complete and lasting healing of a sixty-year-old father of a family, from ischemic stroke with hemorrhagic infarction in several areas, sepsis, deep coma, and resistant septic shock with multiple organ failure, in July 2017.” This second miracle paved the way for her canonization.

In December, Msgr. Lucio Ruiz, secretary of the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications, revealed that this sixty-year-old father, Claudio P., was once a seventeen-year-old seminarian who was advised by the future Pope Francis, then the Argentine Jesuit provincial, to “look for another vocational path, promising him that he would bless his wife and children.”

“How nice to see that Francis will be the one who will canonize the person who interceded for the miracle that allowed him to continue living,” Ruiz said.

What follows is an unofficial translation of the decree on Mama Antula’s virtues. (The Vatican typically does not release translations of these decrees.)


Cause of the Beatification and Canonization of the Servant of God María Antonia of Saint Joseph (in the world: María Antonia de Paz y Figueroa), Foundress of the House of Spiritual Exercises of Buenos Aires (1730-1799)


“Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16-18).

This Pauline exhortation expresses briefly and efficaciously the work of the Servant of God María Antonia of Saint Joseph. This woman was endowed with the gift of living the beauty of faith and diffusing it through the exercise of prayer: her apostolate was marked by constant zeal for converting sinners and saving souls through the practice of spiritual exercises.

María Antonia of Saint Joseph, in the world María Antonia de Paz y Figueroa, was born of a noble family, enriched in resources, in the year 1730, in the town of Silipica, from the urban region of Santiago del Estero, then extending to the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata in the present Republic of Argentina. 

From there, from infancy, she was instructed according to Christian values and principles, soon coming into contact with Ignatian spiritual teaching. In the year 1745, making private vows, she took the habit from the Society of Jesus as a beata; and withdrawing into a place called a beaterio, she began to carry out a community life together with other consecrated women.

In the year 1767, when the members of the Society of Jesus were expelled from the Kingdom of Spain, María Antonia devised a plan of carrying out an apostolate of the spiritual exercises, an apostolate that was considered a remarkable gift for persons of every social order. For beginning such a plan, she obtained the full consent both of her confessor and of the bishop of the city of Santiago del Estero, where she established a house for spiritual exercises.

The Servant of God, as much as possible, employed a simple way of acting. For she herself, as she became accustomed to arrive in any city or district already designated as a center of exercises, immediately approached various public authorities, that she might obtain licenses for each place. With admonitions, she strove to invite a fervent and suitable priest to convene the spiritual exercises and to seek a place appropriate and large enough that it could accommodate about a hundred participants for around ten days. On these occasions, she was always able to find all things that seemed necessary for the gratuitous sustenance of participants, and also for addressing inconveniences that arose.

The Servant of God was able to gather the copious fruits that appeared as the purpose of, and at the conclusion of, each course: and indeed, occurrences were manifest in which morals were reformed, life inwardly changed, vices rooted out, many sinners converted, the vanities of the world left behind, the priestly state renewed, and also the consecrated life of men and women. 

In the presence of innumerable participants in so many spiritual exercises, María Antonia stood out for her example of humane and spontaneous simplicity, which through her devotion and prudence she applied for the good of all. 

With the time filled up in which, for preparing exercises, she had visited the cities of Jujuy, Salta, Tucumán, Catamarca, La Rioja, and Córdoba — indeed walking three thousand kilometers by foot — the Servant of God in 1779 placed a residence in Buenos Aires, where, also traversing around 1,500 kilometers, she continually earned the esteem and trust of the bishop, who granted her varied and ample resources. She promoted the cult of St. Cajetan, which at present is widely diffused throughout all Argentina.

Sustained by solid faith, extraordinary hope, and enormous charity toward God and neighbor, María Antonia became an authentic instrument in the hands of the Lord, and through her own refulgent apostolate, she imprinted in those regions a deep trace of Christian life. This genuine and lively woman encountered with the support of faith all the vicissitudes in her life, especially those that caused her more grief. She gave herself to prayer, sacrifice, and penance to such a degree that she was seen customarily to walk in bare feet, as well as to wear a cilice

Moreover, she gained esteem for herself because of her unusual prudence, which she particularly manifested in seeking counsel from learned persons and from religious authorities before she would make decisions. Because of her kindness, she, rich in fraternal affection, was able to associate with the poor; nor did she show any annoyance to anyone. This kindness garnered for her the esteem of many benefactors who sustained her work.

Between the years 1790 and 1792, she also went to the regions of Uruguay, in order to promote and be able to spread her apostolate.  Returning to Buenos Aires, she devoted attention to constructing a larger building, where she could extend her activity, establishing a spiritual retreat house that is also rendered useful to this day. Her apostolate was entrusted to a certain group of beatas, who were eventually formed into the Institute of the Daughters of the Divine Savior.

At the beginning of the month of March in the year 1799, the Servant of God became gravely ill, and on the seventh day of the same month and year, having calmly and completely surrendered her soul into the hands of the Lord, she breathed her last. Her remains were buried in every manner of poverty at the cemetery near the church of Our Lady of Piety in Buenos Aires. They were later moved to within the church itself, which innumerable pilgrims visit, even to our time.

With her reputation for holiness preserved, the informative process was prepared from October 23, 1905, to September 29, 1906, at the curia of Buenos Aires, which afterwards, in the ensuing years, was followed by the publishing of the decree of the introduction of the cause, a process de non cultu in which her writings were examined. Then, from May 3 to July 8, 1999, following recent norms, a diocesan investigation was carried out. The juridical validity of these processes was approved by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints through a decree published on December 3, 1999. 

With the positio prepared, it was discussed, according to established practice, whether the Servant of God exercised the virtues in a heroic degree. On January 17, 2006, a session of historical consultors was conducted, and on October 6, 2009, the theological consultors were gathered in a special meeting. Their positive votes were confirmed by the cardinals and bishops at the ordinary session of July 8, 2010. After the report of the Ponens (Relator) of the cause, Bishop Raffaello Martinelli of Frascati, they declared that the Servant of God had arrived at a heroic degree in exercising the theological and cardinal virtues and the virtues connected to them.

Finally, after an accurate report about all these things was made to the Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI by the undersigned Archbishop Perfect, His Holiness, welcoming the wishes of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, and regarding them approved, declared today: that there is certainty about the theological virtues Faith, Hope, and Charity, both toward God and toward neighbor, and in addition about the cardinal virtues Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude, along with the virtues connected to them, in a heroic degree, of the Servant of God María Antonia of Saint Joseph (in the world: María Antonia de Paz y Figueroa), foundress of House of Spiritual Exercises of Buenos Aires, in the cause and for the effect under discussion.

Moreover, the Supreme Pontiff ordered that this decree be made a matter of public authority and that it be recorded in the Acts of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints.

Given at Rome, on July 1, in the year of the Lord 2010.

+ Angelo Amato, S.D.B.
Titular Archbishop of Sila, Prefect

+Michele Di Ruberto
Titular Archbishop of Biccari, Secretary

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About J. J. Ziegler 61 Articles
J. J. Ziegler, who holds degrees in classics and sacred theology, writes from North Carolina.

1 Comment

  1. May the intercession of Saint Mama Antula lead all of the Jesuits and all Catholics of the world to renew and live in fiery faithfulness the uncompromising values of the Gospel of Jesus-God that too many Jesuits and too many of us have abandoned for the seductive false gospel of sin-blessing of Satan.

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