St. Teresa de Los Andes

(1900-1920)

Hitherto Chile has had no canonized saint to boast of. Pope John Paul II remedied that on March 21, 1993, when he proclaimed the sainthood of a young Chilean Carmelite, Teresa of Los Andes.

Teresa was not a figure from Chile’s colonial past. She was fully a twentieth-century person. As the Holy Father would point out, her significance was precisely an example of one old in wisdom but contemporary in age.

Teresa was born in Santiago, Chile, on July 13, 1900. Her parents Miguel and Lucia Fernandez had her baptized two days later, with the Christian name Juana (Joan or Jane); but her family and friends always called her Juanita. The Fernandezes were able to afford her education in a convent school conducted by the nuns of the Society of the Sacred Heart.

From her earliest years, Juanita showed herself a devout child. She was especially attracted to Our Lady, and when still very young she made a promise to recite the rosary daily – a promise that she always kept faithfully. Juanita also showed a precocious thoughtfulness for the elderly and the poor. Once when she discovered that a certain child was in need, she donated her own watch to be raffled off for the benefit of the youngster.

Charitable tendencies, however minor, were signs of a deepening spirituality. Juana, although a lively young woman, showed increasing interest in the stories of women saints. The Carmelite mystics St. Therese of Lisieux and Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity had a special influence on her. A religious vocation was in the making.

Towards the end of secondary school, in 1917, Juanita began corresponding with the prioress of the convent of Los Andes, a monastery of Discalced Carmelite nuns. Her request to be received into the order was accepted, and on May 7, 1919, she was clothed with the habit, taking the same name as that of the great Spanish foundress of the Barefoot Carmelites, St. Teresa of Avila: “Teresa of Jesus”.

“Big” St. Teresa of Jesus had had a fairly long life, dying at 67. This “little” Teresa of Jesus was a nun for less than a year. The details of her spiritual career are not yet widely known, but it must have been one of intensive maturation.

Preaching at the Mass of her canonization, the Holy Father pointed out the young nun’s deep sense of her calling to offer up in silence her prayers and pains for the redemption of sinners. “We are co-redeemers of the world,” she once wrote, “and the redemption of souls is not obtained without the cross.” Her own cross was a heavy one. On April 2, 1920, she became gravely ill with typhus. Receiving the last sacraments, she was also allowed to make her religious profession on her deathbed, a month before her novitiate would have been complete. She died on April 12.

Holiness will out, even if the holy one lives a cloistered life. Devotion to this modern Teresa of Jesus grew apace after her death, and her cause of canonization was introduced as early as 1947. John Paul II saw in her a sign of contrast to today’s “Me Generation”. In an epoch in which the word “love” is “too often profaned,” St. Teresa of the Andes proves, said the Pope, “the perennial youth of the Gospel”. The teen-aged nun understood that true love consists not in self-seeking but in self-giving. Thus her radiant example proclaims to the whole world “the beauty and happiness that come from a pure heart.” She was “a daughter of light.”

-Father Robert F. McNamara

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