Young working women, especially those who earn their living in today’s large cities, are subject to many temptations regarding faith and morals. Saint Vincentia Maria Lopez y Vicuna of Madrid dedicated her life to mothering such working girls. In fact, she found the work a complete delight, and declared herself ready to suffer anything, even death, rather than abandon this apostolate.
Vincentia was thus a social activist on behalf of women workers, even as her contemporary, Bl. Adolf Kolping, was a social activist on behalf of working men. Both dealt with people exposed to those trials of the marketplace that became acute during the Industrial Revolution.
This “foster mother” was a Spaniard, born at Cascante, in Navarre, to devout middle-class parents. In 1854 the Lopezes sent their daughter to Madrid for schooling, and from that time on she became a Madrilena. She lived with her aunt, Eulalia de Vicuna, and this admirable women set her an example that shaped her whole adult life and her growth in holiness.
Eulalia had already established a hospice for jobless young servant girls. Vincentia was attracted by this sort of charity. Realizing its necessity, she worried what would become of the hospice if anything happened to her aunt. At 19, increasingly convinced that she herself was called to the religious life in its “active” rather than contemplative form, she took a private vow not to marry.
Senor and Senora Lopez, despite their piety, were not pleased with their daughter’s trend. They wanted her either to marry or to join the Visitation nuns, a cloistered order. When Vincentia refused their proposal, they ordered her to come back to Cascante. Apparently they thought that the only remaining alternative was for her to live at home as a spinster.
She did return home. When she fell ill, however, her parents became concerned and rather ashamed of themselves, so they eventually allowed her to go back to Madrid. Now Vincentia’s plans began to mature. In 1871 she and her aunt and a few other women on the hospice staff began to lead a community religious life. Then in 1876, with the assistance of a Jesuit, Father Hidalgo y Soba, they drew up a rule of life that would commit them to conduct homes for working girls, and teach them domestic arts. Thus was founded the Daughters of Mary Immaculate for Domestic Service. Vincentia and three others received the veil from the bishop of Seville that year. They pronounced their vows as sisters two years later.
Since the hospice was already flourishing, the Daughters had merely to continue and expand their efforts. Further homes, hostels, technical schools, canteens, and other institutes were established as needed, and the work spread through Spain to other European countries, and even into South America. After her death, Africa would welcome the Sisters. Aunt Eulalia continued to contribute her whole time and fortune. But Mother Vincentia’s general plan of financing positively excluded her sisters’ operating regular schools in order to earn support for their charitable work. She chose the harder way: begging.
Vincentia’s Daughters had a sort of motto: “Steady employment is the safeguard of virtue.” What was true of their working girls is equally true of the thousands of American youths who run away each year to the large cities and for want of occupations fall into vice. Let us not forget to help such idle youth by helping the good people who try to do for them today what Saint Vincentia tried to do in her time.
The task she undertook was not easy. Not only were finances a problem; her own health was always poor, and she was only 43 when she died. But she would not, for all the world, have chosen any other role. “I count myself happier in the service of these my sisters,” she said, “than the great ones of this world in the service of their lords and kings.”
Pope Paul VI canonized this modern woman in 1975. She is an exemplar of social charity for our times.
–Father Robert F. McNamara