María del Refugio felt that Our Lord had entrusted her with the salvation of children and young people and therefore it was her duty to work for this salvation through example, exhortation and prayer. She also developed a conviction that she could transform the world by promoting Christian values and by educating citizens to fulfill their duties and respect the rights of others, while striving for better working conditions, being supportive to their fellows and making good use of the material benefits at their disposal. 

On one of her visits to Morelia, she went into the cathedral and while praying there before the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, she had the idea of founding a religious institute devoted to spreading love for the Blessed Sacrament and to make reparation for the sins of the world, as well as acting as a vehicle which would allow her apostolic activity to exert more far reaching influence. It would be an institute not aimed exclusively at serving any particular class, but one which would set up educational establishments, centers of religious teaching and libraries for the purpose of proclaiming the Gospel and inspiring and disseminating love for the Blessed Sacrament by working from the basis of the true reality and culture of the people. She conveyed the idea to a priest she knew called Vicente Zaragoza, and together they began to examine how they could put it into practice.

On the 25th of March 1910, the Apostolate of the Blessed Sacrament was founded, and on the 16th of April of that year the Archbishop of Mexico, José Mora y del Río formally opened the Colegio del Santísimo Sacramento. María del Refugio’s whole life would thenceforth revolve around the community and the school, as she nourished her spirit through daily Communion and the worship of the Lord, and bestowed her charity on those around her, looking after the spiritual and moral well being of the pupils and their families, giving free tuition to those who could not afford to pay, offering a welcoming home to waifs and orphans, comforting the afflicted, giving shelter to the persecuted and feeding and clothing the poor.

The basis of her educational program was that at the center of all knowledge lay God and that truly Christian life was not possible without the presence of the Eucharist and the protection of Mary. In other words, we had to go beyond the purely academic and turn the learning process into a mystical experience which would help us to appreciate and enjoy the presence and majesty of God.

Her schools would offer a comprehensive, structured and practical education in accordance with the official curricula. The latest educational methods would be used at all times, instilling good habits in the pupils and teaching them to control their passions by means of will power and to lead orderly lives, following the path of righteousness with the help of the grace received at holy communion. They would train the intellect by encouraging the development of all the faculties and fostering in their pupils a liking for work. The teaching of morality would be based on seeking the remedy for everything in God’s law, in prayer and in the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist. In addition, they would teach pupils the social graces, the use of pure and elegant language and the social customs befitting educated people, thus facilitating their access to civilized society. As a break from academic work, they would do physical exercises, eat nutritious food, take frequent baths and go on walks and outings. Precautionary vigilance was another feature, the nuns and teachers being made aware that they were responsible before God for the children’s purity and so should steer them away from any opportunities for sinning.

In August 1920 her own daughter decided to enter the Institute, and on the 12th October she took the habit, assuming the religious name of María Teresa. The increase in personnel was the signal for the community to start to expand. The first sister house was in Popotla where a school was opened on the 2nd February 1919. Five months later a second one opened in San Luis de la Paz, and in December another in Real del Monte. Others followed in Xalapa, Sayula, San Luis Potosí, Monterrey, Saltillo, Toluca and Tacubaya. Some of these foundations suffered extreme poverty and even food shortages. However, María del Refugio was happy to put up with the precarious conditions, reminding herself of St Teresa’s maxim that “all principles are painful”, and remaining true to her conviction that once one had started something, one should persevere with it no matter what difficulties might arise, if it was the will of God and the Superiors.

On 15th June 1922 the Congregation of Religious, finding that all was in order, granted permission for the canonical foundation. Its constitutions underwent some modifications which, while not changing the Institute’s essential character, did broaden its spiritual compass. They would still be motivated by the same aim which had brought them together and on the basis of which they had been approved and founded: the sanctification of their members by means of evangelical counsels and the reaching out of the kingdom of Jesus in the Eucharist to all social classes, using the Christian education of children and young people to spread the word that the Blessed Sacrament lies at the heart of all knowledge. New patron saints were adopted: the community was dedicated to Our Lady of Ransom (also known as Our Lady of Mercy) in addition to the Virgin of Guadalupe, while the patron saints St Joseph, St Michael the Archangel, St Pascual Baylón and St Teresa of Jesus were joined by St Raymond Nonnatus, the Mercedarian saint of the Eucharist.

The community was gradually taking on a Mercedarian character. Out of gratitude to Our Lady of Ransom, María del Refugio requested the latter’s incorporation into the Order of Mercy, this being granted on 11th June 1925, so that they were thenceforth known as Mercedarian Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.

On the 30th of November 1924, Plutarco Elías Calles was sworn in as President of the Republic of Mexico, and in February 1925 he provoked a schism with the aim of establishing a religion which was answerable to the civil authorities. The Government’s attacks on the Church became increasingly frequent.  In February 1926 Monsignor Mora y del Río was reported in the press to have made statements against the Constitution, and these were used as a pretext for unleashing the brutal religious persecution which followed. That same week most Catholic schools were closed down. As a condition of their reopening, the Government demanded compliance with Article 3 of the Constitution which stipulates: “Religious corporations, ministers of religion, societies which exclusively or mainly carry out educational activities, and associations or societies concerned with the dissemination of any religious creed, will not involve themselves in any way in establishments which provide primary or secondary education, teacher training, or classes for workers or peasants”. The bishops ordered headmasters of Catholic schools to sign declarations in which they undertook to observe Article 3 of the Constitution to the letter. They all signed except Father Carranza and the Mercedarian Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. María del Refugio could not in all conscience comply with a law which constituted an attack on God and the freedom of man. She consulted Monsignor Crespi, Secretary to the Apostolic Delegation, who was of the opinion that the Holy See would prefer them to abandon the schools rather than yield to the demands of the civil authorities. However, the Vicar General of the Archbishopric, Maximino Ruiz y Flores, advised her that she should not rebel against orders from above. This helped to dispel her doubts so she reluctantly gave way, though she did arrange for a laywoman to sign on her behalf. Classes resumed on Tuesday 27th April, but the crucifix and religious images remained on the walls of the classrooms in the Colegio del Santísimo Sacramento, for María del Refugio regarded the symbols of the faith as an essential part of the ambience which should prevail in her establishments.

A few weeks later two agents from the Ministry of the Interior turned up at the Colegio del Santísimo Sacramento with orders to search the premises. They found the Sisters wearing their habits. Pistols in hand they went over the whole house, even looking under the beds, saying that they had orders to shoot “any priests they found there”. In order to avoid any desecration, María del Refugio carried the Blessed Sacrament under her cloak as she accompanied them round the house talking to them forcefully and with considerable courage, and replying to their questions in the following vein: “I am not afraid of you closing my oratories, as you say you could, because you will never be able to close the oratory which I carry in my heart”. Similar scenes were to be constantly repeated over the coming years.

On the 2nd July 1926, the President of the Republic promulgated a law to regulate the practicing of religion, placing all spiritual ministry under the control of the civil authorities. The so called “Calles Law” included provisions for the expulsion of foreign priests, the outlawing of the Catholic press and the censorship of correspondence, and even made the practicing of religion in private punishable by law. It also provided for the closure of denominational schools, diocesan seminaries and charitable institutions run by nuns. The Episcopate’s response was to send out a collective letter announcing their decision to suspend public worship in all churches in the country from the 30th July. The closure of all the Blessed Sacrament Schools was now inevitable. The last day of classes in Chapultepec was the 15th July, although some of the Sisters continued to teach groups of girls clandestinely in family homes.

Seeing the religious question in Mexico becoming ever more difficult, María del Refugio had been intending for some time to establish houses in Spain and Italy as a means of preserving the vocational calling of her nuns and keeping the life of the Institute going. The first step towards this end was the opening of a foundation in Placetas, Cuba, in September 1925, which was intended to act as a stopping‑off place for those Sisters on their way to establishments overseas. She then negotiated for a foundation to be opened in El Salvador and for the transfer of the novitiate to Oklahoma in the United States.

Because of the religious persecution, the Congregation had set about expanding abroad. 1929 saw the novitiate in Oklahoma in operation, as well as two schools in Cuba, one in El Salvador, one in Chile, one in Spain, one in Colombia and another in Italy, although all of them labored under difficulties and hardship. In Mexico the general headquarters remained, together with the schools in the Colonia Roma and Coyoacán in Mexico City, and another in San Luis Potosí.

The Government’s policy was aimed at manipulating all teaching with a view to indoctrinating the new generations. President Abelardo Rodríguez reformed the Constitution in order to make socialist education compulsory throughout the country, a measure which his successor General Lázaro Cárdenas was clearly determined to enforce.

Teachers in state and private schools would be obliged, not only to support the aims of socialist education and introduce it into the schools, but to disseminate the very tenets and principles of socialism as promoted by the national government, with the commitment to combat Catholicism figuring prominently amongst these.

Of course María del Refugio was deeply upset by the atheism and immoral content of the compulsory syllabuses laid down by the government, but she found the acquiescent attitude of the Catholic educators to the government’s demands equally repugnant. She tried to make amends to God by offering education and a family life to seven orphan girls, one for each of the seven sorrows of Our Lady. She wrote to the various houses to tell them of her idea and, as a result, two girls were sent from Cuba, two from Spain and another from Mexico. She would not live long enough to reach the full complement of seven, but she acted as a true mother to these five. She died in the early hours of 24th April 1937.

During the course of the following years, the Institute of the Mercedarian Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament was to undergo a remarkable development. Within ten years the number of houses and personnel had doubled, and on the 22nd July 1948 Pope Pius XII granted it a laudatory decree. The Foundress’ saintly reputation would continue to grow as more and more people witnessed a change in their way of life after becoming acquainted with the life and works of María del Refugio Aguilar y Torres, and there were more and more reports of graces and favors obtained through her intercession.

She is regarded by many as a model Christian because, having acknowledged her human weakness in the spiritual exercises of 1896, she sought ways of redemption through the Eucharist; as a model mother because she encouraged her children to aspire to saintly ideals; as a model Franciscan tertiary because she saw the value of that form of organized apostolate and did everything possible to further its development; as a model catechist because her catechizing was aimed at teaching people to love and respond to the Eucharist; as a model teacher because she sought to turn her teaching into an experience which would lead to the discovery of God; as an exemplary sister because she was faithful and magnanimous living according to her vows and because she was punctilious in observing the rules; an exemplary Mercedarian because she made her life and her apostolate into a work of redemption. On account of all these attributes it was proposed that she be elevated to the honor of the altars, and the cause for her canonization was formally opened in 1982. María del Refugio, far from being forgotten, stands out as a model of Eucharistic living for the new millennium.