Maria del Refugio was born in San Miguel de Allende on September 21, 1866. The eldest of eight children, she stayed at home to learn to read and write and acquire the attributes befitting a housekeeper of the day. In November 1886 she married Angel Cancino, a tax collector and man of liberal ideas, whose friendship with a number of prominent politicians positioned him for a successful career in public service. They had a son Angel, and when they had been married for two years, they moved to Toluca, where they had a daughter, Refugio Teresa. Some weeks later, Cancino died from a severe bout of pneumonia. So, at the age of 22 Maria del Refugio was now a widow with the responsibility of raising two children.Since she had staked everything on her husband’s political career, Maria found herself destitute and moved back to her parents’ home. In March, 1891 she suffered even more sorrow when her son fell ill and eventually died.
Five years later, in March of 1896, Father Jose Sanchez Primo, superior of the Friars Minor in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, organized for the first time, a retreat for ladies according to the Spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Maria del Refugio Aguilar de Cancino who a few months earlier, had become a Third Order Franciscan also attended this retreat. On this spiritual retreat, she experiences a profound renewal deep within her person.
Some time after her conversion, 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 making reparation for the sins of the world. It would be an institute 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. She conveyed this idea to her priest, and on March 25, 1910, the Apostolate of the Blessed Sacrament was founded.
THE MEXICAN REVOLUTION
The foundation of the Institute coincided with the fall of President Porfirio Diaz’s government. He was a ruler who refused to loosen his grip on power and together with the state of oppression and poverty, in which the greater part of the population lived, combined to provide the trigger for a revolution. At this same time, the Church was subjected to cruel persecution, its ministers imprisoned or exiled, its property confiscated and its charitable establishments closed down, while the whole country was awash with the blood of martyrs. During the period of fighting Maria del Refugio set up an improvised first aid post from which, assisted by her companions and two doctor friends, she treated the wounded. She also organized collections of food and clothing to distribute among poor families. In 1917, a new Constitution was declared denying the Church a legal status and stripping priests of their civic rights, withdrawing recognition of religious communities and vows, outlawing denominational education and banning public worship outside churches, as well as decreeing that all ecclesiastical property should pass into the ownership of the state. At that time, the Colegio del Santisimo Sacramento moved to a very small neighborhood and the work began to extend and improve the building that would now become the school. The Sisters were destined to spend several years surrounded by bricklayers, plumbers and carpenters, while struggling with the recurring weekly problem of how to pay the wages, for there were days when they did not have a cent and had to trust in Providence alone to see them through.
UNDER THE PATRONAGE OF OUR LADY OF MERCY
In view of the number of houses and the well organized footing of the Order, the Archbishop put the Apostolate’s application for diocesan approval in the hands of Father Scotti, O.de.M, together with letters of recommendation from several bishops for him to take personally to Rome. On June 15, 1922 the Congregation of Religious, finding that all was in order, granted permission for the canonical foundation. The community was gradually taking on a Mercedarian character. Out of gratitude to Our Lady of Mercy, Maria del Refugio requested the latter’s aggregation to the Order of Mercy, this being granted on June 11, 1925, so that they would now be known as Mercedarian Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
The Government’s attacks on the Church became increasingly frequent. In February 1925 the President evoked discourse with the aim of establishing a religion which was answerable to the civil authorities. That same week most Catholic schools were closed down. The bishops ordered headmasters of Catholic schools to sign declarations in which they undertook to observe Article 3 of the Constitution which stipulated: “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”. They all signed except Father Carranza and the Mercedarian Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Maria del Refugio could not in all conscience comply with a law which constituted an attack on God and the freedom of man. A few weeks later two agents from the Ministry of the Interior turned up at the Colegio del Santisimo 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, Maria del Refugio carried the Blessed Sacrament under her cloak as she accompanied them around 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”.
TRANSFORMED BY THE EUCHARIST
One of the characteristic missions of the Franciscan tertiaries at that time was to teach the catechism in preparation for First Holy Communion. As a catechist, Maria del Refugio realized that, in order to be able to instill effectively in children the truths of the Catholic faith, particularly those relating to the Eucharist, she should make these teachings her own if she wished to find a means of capturing something of the grandeur of the Mystery.
If the sacrament of the Eucharist is the sacrament of love, symbolizing the union of Christ with the Church, it was natural for Maria del Refugio, who was a truly Eucharistic person, to feel the desire, impetus and need to love and serve others and devote herself to compassionate works. Her happiness was clouded by what she saw as the absence of God in society and as a result, she carried out an intense ministry on behalf of the most needy.
She eventually became director and mistress of novices in the Secular Franciscan Order, heralding a period which for some people marked the great flourishing of the Third Order.
A CALL TO HOLINESS…
Although a second marriage could have been an option for Maria del Refugio, once she made the commitment to a new life through the spiritual exercises, her overriding desire was to become a nun. Nevertheless, she did have a daughter and had to seek perfection of her maternal capacity. As a mother she was strict, demanding and ever watchful; however, she was able to respect her daughter’s vocation and to bring her up to respond freely to whatever destiny God intended for her.
After completing elementary studies in Mexico City, Refugio Teresa graduated college as schoolmistress in 1907. In her experience both as a mother and in carrying out her apostolate, Maria 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 and prayer.
Special Announcement from Pope Francis!
On July 16, 2015 the Holy Father authorized the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to promulgate a decree announcing the heroic virtue of our Foundress, María del Refugio. Please spread the word. And please ask for her intercession so that we can obtain a miracle that will move her towards beatification and canonization. Read the full article from the Vatican News website.
María del Refugio, intercede for us!
María del Refugio, ¡intercede por nosotros!
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