Saint of the Day – 8 February – Blessed Maria Esperanza de Jesus (1893-1983) Religious Nun and Founder of both the Handmaids of Merciful Love in 1930 and the Sons of Merciful Love in 1951. Born as Maria Josefa Alhama y Valera on 30 September 1893 in Santomera, Murcia, Spain and died on 8 February 1983 in Collevalenza, Perugia, Italy. She took the name of “Maria, Esperanza of Jesus” “Mary, Hope of Jesus” when she became a nun.
Maria Josefa was born in a shed, into a humble farming family of Spain. Her father, Jose Antonio, tried his best to work their poor piece of land despite the harsh sun and flooding that their area typically suffered. Maria Josefa was the first of nine siblings and she was the typical mischievous little girl. About age seven, she went to live with her parish priest and his two unmarried sisters, who raised and educated her.
At the time, children received their First Holy Communion around age twelve. Maria Josefa, however, decided she would do otherwise. Around age nine, she decided to “steal Jesus” and received him into her little body. Since then, she experienced a deep closeness with the Lord in her life . She reported at age twelve that Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus appeared to her, saying, “I come on behalf of the Good Jesus to tell you that you have to continue what I began…” Almighty God wanted Maria Josefa to spread devotion to His Merciful Love everywhere in the world.
Growing into maturity, Maria Josefa wanted to consecrate her life to Jesus. She knew that Jesus is close to the poor and needy, so she went to places where people were suffering in order to discern her vocation. On visiting a hospital once, she was disappointed and surprised by a nun who was accompanying a dying man. The nun told her, “Don’t worry; your heart will soon harden.” Maria Josefa responded, “Before letting my heart harden, I prefer to leave.”
So, she did. On the feast of Saint Teresa of Avila, twenty-one year old Maria Josefa left her hometown to join religious life. She entered the Daughters of Calvary, which was later united with the Claretian Missionaries. She received the religious name Maria Esperanza de Jesus. Throughout her first years, she experienced many hardships, including serious illnesses. Her spiritual directors attested to some mystical experiences during this time and she also received unexplained cures to her health ailments.
A turning point in Esperanza’s vocation happened at Christmas 1927. She lived in a house that belonged to an Association of Catholic Ladies. There, she prepared a meal for 400 poor and hungry people, who began filling the house. A lady from the Association approached her: “Who gave you permission to bring all of these filthy people here to dirty everything?” Esperanza responded, “Ma’am, they have not come here to dirty anything but to eat, since it’s Christmas.” But the woman said, “You would do well to not bring the poor here again. You can do that in your own house.” Deeply hurt, Esperanza brought herself to the Lord in prayer. She felt Him say, “Esperanza, wherever the poor cannot enter, neither can you. Leave this house!” She asked, “Lord, where shall I go?” She soon requested that she be released from her vows.
On Christmas night three years later, Mother Esperanza took new vows with a small group of women, founding the Handmaids of Merciful Love. Their mission was to spread the Merciful Love of God through merciful work. These women ate cabbage soup and slept on the floor, yet they opened twelve houses for children, the sick and the elderly and devoted themselves to other good works. Over the door of each house, a sign reads, “Knock poor and be helped, knock suffering and be consoled, knock sick and be assisted, knock, orphans and find that the Handmaids of Merciful Love are mothers.” Today, they exist in 11 countries. Yet, at the time, the local Bishop instructed that no-one should associate with them. They were not allowed to have the Blessed Sacrament in their houses and so walked to the local parish each day.
Mother wrote, “God is a Father of kindness who seeks by all means to give comfort, help and make his children happy. He searches for them with untiring love as if he could not be happy without them. The most perverse person, the most miserable and lost one, is loved tenderly by Jesus who is to him a Father and a tender Mother…” In her diary she wrote, “He dwells within us and seeks our love tenderly, as if He could not live without us…”
In 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out. Six years after founding the Handmaids, Mother Esperanza left her home country for Rome with her closest friend, Pilar de Arratia. The two women pleaded their cause against defamations and inflammatory language that had been directed against the Handmaids of Merciful Love. During this extremely frustrating and trying time, Pilar was Esperanza’s dearest confidant and supporter.
Then, World War II began. Amid the violence, the Handmaids continued and spread. They received children, hid fugitives without concern for their ideology, aided and stitched up the wounded, fed thousands and consoled countless. People ran to the Handmaids when alarms sounded. In 1944, Pilar died, a terrible blow for Esperanza.
Yet, she pressed on. In 1951, she founded the Sons of Merciful Love, whose mission is to proclaim God’s Merciful Love by holiness of life and dedicating themselves with attention to Diocesan Priests. The Brothers promote diocesan priests’ continued growth in spiritual life, attend to sick and elderly priests and collaborate with them in ministry.
Mother Esperanza relocated to the small town of Collevalenza, devoting herself to a worthy goal – that one day, the Sons of Merciful Love would include priests. Her efforts bore fruit with Diocesan approval in 1968. There are now religious Priests devoted to the Congregation, as well as Diocesan Priests who take vows according to the Family of Merciful Love, while remaining obedient to their own Diocese. They serve in 11 countries.
During her time in Collevalenza, Mother Esperanza became convinced that Jesus wished her to build a sanctuary Shrine for today’s world, devoted to God’s Merciful Love. She worked with an artist to create a crucifix which is the centre of the Sanctuary – A living Jesus, upright, eyes full of serenity and looking tenderly toward the Father to remind Him of his chosen and effective offering, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” Over his head, the sign in three languages says, “Jesus Nazarene King of the Jews.” On His neck, a scar from the rope. The Latin word Caritas appears over His heart. A great white Host in the background reminds us that Jesus’ sacrifice is perpetuated in the Eucharist. In Spanish: “The Merciful Love” is written at the foot of the Cross. The Cross itself is raised on top of a globe (the world), which carries a royal crown and an open book, the Gospel. On the book there is written: “Love one another as I loved you” and on the cushion under the crown there is the following sentence: “O Christ, you are the King of Glory” – demonstrating that Jesus Merciful Love wants to rule the world and bring His love into it.
As Mother’s life waned with old age, she said that she felt like a flute diffusing the melody of mercy, like a handkerchief for tears, or like the doorkeeper of the Good God, who opens His arms to draw all to His fatherly heart. She received thousands of visitors and lived at the Sanctuary of Merciful Love. An Italian writer said that Mother received visitors with the nobility of a Spanish woman – always standing, attentively listening, raising spirits and encouraging visitors to pray to Jesus Merciful Love, promising that she would do the same. She spent several hours each night in front of the Crucifix, making good on her promises.
Outside the Sanctuary’s entrance is a fountain where pilgrims quench the thirst of their body and spirit. Its waters come from the Sanctuary well, known as the water of Merciful Love. It was dug at Mother’s request, 122 meters deep. The well fills baths for the sick, and pilgrims take water home for devotional use.
In May of 1981, St Pope John Paul II was attacked in St Peter’s Square. For his first visit outside the Vatican since the attempt on his life, John Paul II made a pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of Merciful Love in November because, he said, “we owe our health to God’s mercy.” He already knew Mother Esperanza, because he had visited with her twice while he was Bishop of Krakow.
He bowed down and kissed her on the forehead. A year earlier, he had released his encyclical on Divine Mercy, Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy). “This circumstance,” he said, “has brought me to the Sanctuary of Merciful Love. By my presence, I want to restate in a special way the message of this encyclical. […] Since the beginning of my ministry in the office of Saint Peter in Rome, I have considered this message as my particular task.” He was the Pope to officially recognise and approve the Handmaids and the Sons of Merciful Love.
Esperanza’s body and mind declined after years of service. On a snowy morning, 8 February 1983, she died peacefully at almost ninety years of age. Her body rests in the crypt of the Sanctuary of Merciful Love, which itself was declared a Basilica in 1988 by St John Paul II.
In 1999, a miracle was obtained through Mother Esperanza’s intercession. Francesco Maria, an infant living near Vigevano, Italy, was suffering from multiple protein intolerance. In June, he was hospitalised. While watching television, Francesco’s mother learned about Mother Esperanza and the water from the Sanctuary of Merciful Love. She began giving him the water to drink on 28 June. After five days, on the occasion of his first birthday party, Francesco was able to eat all food given to him. A laboratory report confirmed the termination of allergic phenomena and verified the normalisation of intestinal permeability. There was no sign that he had ever suffered the ailment.
On 31 May 2014, Pope Francis Beatified Esperanza de Jesus. The following day, he told the pilgrims at St Peter’s Square, “May her witness help the Church to proclaim everywhere, through concrete and daily actions, the infinite mercy of our Heavenly Father toward every person.”