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The She-Apostle: Luisa de Carvajal and Mother Teresa


Glyn Redworth is a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Manchester. Closely associated with the Institute of History in Madrid, he has spent several years in Spain researching the life of Luisa de Carvajal, a Spanish aristocrat who secretly came to Protestant London in the year of Gunpowder Plot with hankerings after martyrdom. This research has become his book The She-Apostle: The Extraordinary Life and Death of Luisa de Carvajal. In this blog post, Glyn talks about some parallels between Luisa and Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Like any other needy writer on the history of centuries long past, it’s good to get reassurance that what we’ve written on could really have happened the way that we told it. More satisfying still is to discover that the themes that we’ve read about in musty tomes and retold in our own distinctive ways still happen in our own times. Writing about the interior lives of religious women in the age of reformation involved entering into, what was for me, an alien world.

Before I came across Luisa de Carvajal I had never tried to find out what the rum side of early modern Catholicism might mean for an individual person. I’m talking about practices such as mortification of the flesh, the option of poverty, living by a common rule, not to mention the glorification of martyrs. Such things as ‘the dark night of the soul’ I knew about from an academic acquaintance with the mystical poets but it had never impinged much on my historical imagination. I did my best, of course, to enter into Luisa’s mental world, and the book got published. Then I came across the paperback edition of Brian Kolodiejchuk’s remarkable book, Mother Teresa Come Be My Light. Mother Teresa of Calcutta died just nine years ago, in 1997, and her spiritual writings have been published for the first time, as part of the process to have her recognised as a saint by the Catholic Church. It was remarkable to find that so many of the topics, occasionally the same figures of speech, recurred in Mother Teresa’s 20th-century life as in Luisa’s.

Mother Teresa was an internationally-recognised figure who set up an organisation that lives on, whereas Luisa died in London before being shipped back to Spain where she was quickly forgotten. But despite the differences the two women have much in common. Both felt that there was a role for women to play in the world, outside the protective walls of the cloister or the classroom. Just after the Second World War, Mother Teresa set up the Missionaries of Charity, who gave themselves the task of ministering to the poor and dying in the slums of Calcutta. 350 years earlier, Luisa had left her uncle’s palace to live ‘on the wrong side of the tracks’ in Madrid. There she helped the pox-ridden prostitutes so much that one of her companions feared the neighbours would assume that their all-female community was just another of the many houses of ill repute in the area.

For both women, this worldly way of living a religious life involved challenging authority. Mother Teresa was already a member of an established order and so had to pester for papal permission to go out onto the streets of Calcutta. Luisa too had her run-ins with the men that ran the church. She had to fight the long shadow of another Teresa, St Teresa of Avila, who had carried the can for the idea that female religious women could only live behind the walls of an enclosed nunnery. This Teresa had toured Spain insisting that nuns, who were used to receiving guests or going out to family parties, never left their convents, and henceforth only glimpsed the outside world through an iron grille. Even towards the end of her life in London, Luisa was still being pressured to conform by accepting a cloistered life in Spain.

Perhaps the similarities between the two women are superficial – and no one for a moment would claim that Luisa has had a fraction of the influence of Mother Teresa – but for me the echoes I found in Kolodiejchuk’s book struck home. Sometimes it was sheer chance, as when Mother Teresa said that her missionaries ‘must become Indian-minded’, and dress and eat like the people around them. This reminded me of Luisa’s repeated insistence that she wanted ‘to pass for an Englishwoman’ in order to serve the capital’s Catholics. On another level both women experienced times when they felt abandoned by their God. Neither wanted to be known as a mystic, preferring to be women of action, but both were mischievously prepared to invoke a direct line to heaven in order to trump the authority of men of the cloth who stood in their way.

Most exciting was to discover words that seemed lacking in Luisa’s story. For instance, I had a devil of a time in explaining why the Jesuits allowed her to go as a lone female to England in the first place. We can’t exaggerate the unusualness of this, and one of her astonished friends simply said it was ‘the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by woman’. Whether or not Luisa was the first female missionary since ancient times, just why the Jesuits secreted her into England is hard to fathom. It’s not enough to say that they were beholden to her because, only weeks earlier, she had given away her entire fortune to them. They could still have said thank you very much and ordered her off to a nunnery. Perhaps the Jesuits were training their guns on the Treaty of London which the Catholic King of Spain and James I & VI were in the process of signing, virtually as Luisa was crossing the Channel. They may have gambled that their protegée´s presence in England would show up the fact that the Anglo-Spanish peace contained nothing about tolerating Catholicism. And God forbid, perhaps these men of the cloth genuinely believed in her calling! This was a possibility I had to leave open. I firmly believe that a book is a dialogue with the reader, and though writers should show where they stand there is an obligation to give enough information so that the reader can come up with another viewpoint.

Going back to the Jesuits, it seems that Jesuits in various countries as well as in Rome were conferring over Luisa’s journey to England but precious little documentation survives. And this was precisely where similar passages about Mother Teresa seemed eerily relevant. Her discussions with her Jesuit confessor, one Father Van Exem, echoed the tussles Luisa had with one of her own spiritual directors, who in the end grudgingly conceded he could see no reasons to prevent her from going. In Van Exem’s case he had to report to the local archbishop, who, when the go-ahead was finally given to Mother Teresa, wrote back, “Our work is at an end now. It was our business to examine whether we could allow her to go ahead. The rest is the work of God entirely and we shall come in only as instruments”. Might these or similar words have been said about Luisa?

Luisa and Mother Teresa are very different people, and we should not exaggerate what they had in common. Luisa was born into a great aristocratic family that was pulled apart when she and her brothers were split up at an early age after the sudden death of their parents, whereas Teresa of Calcutta was born into a poor but united family of Albanian extraction. One is rightly renowned the other barely remembered. But there is one more thing they have in common. Luisa called her informal group of women the company or society of the Sovereign Virgin Mary. Their work in the Barbican and around Spitalfields was well known to Mary Ward, whose aunt may have lodged with Luisa and conceivably been one of her companions. Mary Ward went onto found the IBVM – the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary – and where did Mother Teresa take her first vows? With the Loreto Sisters, nothing less than a branch of Mary Ward’s IBVM.

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  1. […] preparing an edition in English of Luisa de Carvajal’s letters, to accompany her biography, The She-Apostle, which appeared with Oxford University Press last year. I am also collaborating on a project […]

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