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  • A Potential Saint Thwarted:The Politics of Religion and Sanctity in Late Eighteenth-Century New Spain
  • Karen Melvin (bio)

Early in 1784, the Office of the Inquisition in Mexico City received word that two Discalced Carmelite friars in the nearby city of Toluca had acted suspiciously at a young woman's deathbed. According to the denunciation, the Carmelites had knelt before the corpse of María Josepha de la Piña, kissed its feet, and ordered everyone present, including the young woman's parents, to do the same. The friars then crawled on their knees to the place where María Josepha had done her spiritual exercises and "with great effusion of tears" prostrated themselves many times. Finally, they collected her things and distributed them as if they were relics. All this was done, concluded the complaint, in the presence of lay persons, who, because of their "vulgar mode of thinking", might be persuaded to think of María Josepha as a holy person. The inquisitors were indeed concerned, and, after collecting preliminary statements, ordered the two Carmelites removed from Toluca. The inquisitors also commissioned their local agents to "recoger las insinuadas reliquias, atajar la injusta, e infundada fama de extraordinaria virtud y Santidad; y averiguar el espíritu de la Dirección de los expresados religiosos con dicha difunta."1

The inquisitors' investigations into the incident produced, in good bureaucratic fashion, a thick file of reports, interviews, and letters related to María Josepha's life and the post-mortem struggles to determine her legacy. I consider these subjects as a way of exploring how religion was lived, [End Page 169] practiced, and perceived in late eighteenth-century New Spain and, in particular, how rivalries and politics of religion shaped the fate of a potential saint. María Josepha, with the encouragement of the two Carmelite friars, had followed models of piety steeped in mystic traditions, and like many Catholic women of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, she fashioned her spiritual life after Saint Teresa of Avila. Such practices, long a subject of concern within the church hierarchy, had become especially troublesome by the late eighteenth century when reformist clergy sought to instill a more austere and moderate piety among the faithful. Reformers' efforts to curtail mystic practices often revealed gaps between their goals and local practices. From this perspective, the case involving María Josepha may seem a fairly straightforward instance of local tradition butting up against the ideas of Mexico City's elite church hierarchy. The reason María Josepha's spreading fame came to the Inquisitors' attention had little to do with reformism or disapproval of mystical piety, however. Instead, the Carmelites' major rivals in Toluca, the Franciscans, had denounced the two Carmelite friars and had done so as part of an effort to protect the Franciscans' position as Toluca's most important order. In other words, the outcome of the case had as much to do with local politics of religion as it did with more general politics of sanctity.

María Josepha's Life

According to those who knew her, sometime around the age of twenty María Josepha underwent a dramatic transformation. This daughter of honorable but not especially wealthy Spanish parents gave up a life of parties and amusements and began confessing with a Carmelite friar. Whereas before witnesses described her as having gone months at a time without receiving sacraments, she now entered a Carmelite lay organization and sought to become a Carmelite nun, even signing papers with a chosen religious name: María de la Santíssima Trinidad.2 She began practicing an affective piety, fasting and using instruments of mortification, such as a crown of thorns, a girdle, and a discipline of hooks. She dedicated a room to prayers and exercises, and her mother complained about the amount of time she spent there. Much of her piety was steeped in Carmelite traditions, and she focused on Saint Teresa, the Spanish nun who founded the Discalced Carmelites in the sixteenth century, as a model, wearing a vellum image of the saint, referring to Teresa as her "holy mother", and reading and copying Teresa's writings. María Josepha also...


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