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Cloistered Nun Wields a Quiet Power
18th Century Statue of Maria de Agreda December 2004 marks the 150th anniversary of the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and a unique opportunity to appreciate our Hispanic heritage.
by Marilyn H. Fedewa

Behind cloistered convent walls in 17th century Agreda, in northeastern Spain, Sor Maria de Agreda exuded a quiet saintly power that reverberated all the way to the king's court in Madrid, and even across the ocean to the New World in America. She was a woman of the cloth in a man's world, and even a suspect - temporarily - of the Spanish Inquisition.

Nevertheless, she authored many books, most notably Mystical City of God, a lengthy biography of Mary's life which popular film icon Mel Gibson consulted before writing his script for Passion of the Christ. In Mystical City of God, Maria de Agreda wrote over 100 pages about Mary's Immaculate Conception, at the beginning of her 2,700-page chronicle on the life of Mary.

The topic was not without controversy, in Spain and worldwide. "It is contrary to our need for Christ's redemption," argued some. "It is an important sign of God's presence within us," said others.

"There was quite an animated participation about it among the people in 17th century Spain," according to Rev. Thomas A. Thompson, SM, PhD, director of the Marian Library, and faculty member at the International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton in Ohio. "Maculists" and "Immaculists," he explained, churned out over 12,000 pamphlets on every aspect of the issue surrounding Mary's sinlessness from the instant her parents conceived her, not to be confused with the Virgin birth of Christ.

Add to this mix the writing of mystic and visionary Maria de Agreda, known also for her spiritual ecstasies and visions, and the doctrine was bound to ignite.

According to Maria de Agreda, Mary dictated much of Mystical City of God to her in visions. These provided a source she considered incontrovertible, and which the Church relegates to "private revelations," regarded as more inspirational than dogmatic.

Too, other nuns in her convent saw Maria de Agreda levitating in the air while praying - like St. Teresa of Avila - even as reports spread throughout New Mexico and Texas that Agreda had supernaturally appeared to the Native Americans there, to preach Christianity to them. Many expert historians on Colonial America have noted the legend of her appearances in countless historical texts, quoting documents of the era and Native Americans claiming to have seen her.

It is no small wonder that when King Felipe IV of Spain heard of this extraordinary woman, he determined to journey to her convent to meet her, on his way to battle at the Spanish frontier. An unlikely friendship followed, one that is documented in over 600 letters between them and endured for 22 years, until their deaths in 1665.

After the king read Mystical City of God, Maria de Agreda urged him to approach Pope Alexander VII on behalf of the Immaculate Conception. The king formed a special council headed by a prestigious Spanish bishop whom he named as ambassador to the Holy See.

"The king made it an affair of state," said Thompson. "He kept sending emissaries to Rome about it."

To this day, Marian scholars credit Maria de Agreda and King Felipe IV with favorably influencing Pope Alexander VII on the doctrine. According to Thompson, Alexander VII's 1661 decree is considered the turning point in the evolution of the Immaculate Conception. Many consider it the definitive statement on the doctrine until it was fully established by Pope Pius IX in 1854.

Centuries later, the Spanish Plaza in Rome is still a must-see each year in December. There, prominently displayed atop the center column is a statue of Mary as the Immaculate Conception. Each December it is beautifully decorated with flowers, a celebrated reminder of the Immaculate Mary's loyal Spanish advocates.

"Even the Pope goes to the Spanish Plaza on December 8," said Thompson. "I saw it on his calendar."

Throughout the United States, too, celebrations abound, most notably at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC, where they are quick to credit the First Council of Baltimore in 1846.

"That is when American bishops put the country under the protection of the Immaculate Conception," said Dr. Geraldine M. Rohling, archivist for the national shrine in DC.

Soon after the council in Baltimore, Pope Pius IX officially decreed the doctrine in 1854 that we honor today. In it, he describes how Mary, from the instant of her "animation" or conception, was fully infused with grace before sin of any kind, including original sin, could occur within her soul'a fitting state of sanctity for the mother of Christ.

Now, as devotees throughout the world celebrate the 150th anniversary of the doctrine honoring Mary, Maria de Agreda would have been thrilled to learn that the Immaculate Conception is the patron saint of the United States, a country she loved from afar.

Marilyn H. Fedewa has published articles on Maria de Agreda in Spain and the United States, and is currently completing a biography on Agreda's life and works. For more information on Marma de Agreda, visit the author's website at

Copyright 2004 Marilyn H. Fedewa

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