There is a clearance in the path

Lérida: youth education (1930 – 1934)

María Félix, Margarita Vázquez and Carmen Aige

María has obtained her degree and she intends to put it to use in God’s service.

The beginning of this period coincides with a change in the political situation of Spain. At the end of 1929, the prosperity of the “happy 20´s” was collapsing. The fall of Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship in January 1930, gives way to the Second Republic. Terrorism and general strikes return again, the Government and the Courts pass anticlerical laws: lay education, withdrawal of crucifixes from schools…

María trembled with indignation at the outrages that were being carried out in this time of real religious prosecution. The burning of churches and convents, and the expulsion of the Jesuits distressed her vividly. Through these and other events, together with her encounters with the right people, God is going to prepare her to carry out His work.

 With great satisfaction from her parents, she decides to accept an appointment, offered at the Secondary School Institute of Lérida, as an assistant to her former teacher of Physics and Chemistry.

During this time she was able to witness the huge influence that the school had on the education of children and young people. Each teacher contributed in some way to mould the minds of the children. With great concern she saw how these youngsters, often unaware, were being educated to exclude God from their lives, unconsciously indoctrinated in practical atheism.

María’s response will be categorical: first of all, with her example. (On one occasion, the mother of one of her pupils, when she saw her, couldn’t help exclaiming: “Now this is a teacher!”). After that, in a more visible way, opening a small Academy or School.

When the first rumours began that the Republic was going to outlaw all schools run by religious orders, she immediately felt the need to maintain at least a stronghold where the teaching of the Christian doctrine could be preserved. This is why, after consulting her spiritual director Juan Serrat, S.I., she decides “to open an Academy for older girls”. This is how the “Academia Nueva” was born and would remain open for the next three years.

It was a time of economic hardship. Perhaps this is why her confidence in the Divine Providence stood out. Despite the lack of resources, María responds with a total abandonment, as we can see in this anecdote taken from her diary:

“Just after the opening of the Academy, before the beginning of the term, a bill from the electrician for fifty pesetas came due. That was a real fortune for me at the time, since I hadn’t had a cent to my name for a long time. But I had never seen a bill returned without payment, and I didn’t dare ask if I could delay payment. So I took the invoice and told the attendant to wait for a minute. I went to kneel down before a figure of Christ that dominated one of the lounges, and I prayed to Our Lord:

– Will You pay it for me because I can’t…

Suddenly, someone rang the doorbell again. It was the housemaid of a lady who had come to register her daughter at the school. She handed me an envelope that contained the monthly fees. Exactly fifty pesetas. I gave them to the attendant and went back to devoutly kiss the crucifixo.”

The first inner sign of “our calling” (1932)

It is during this period that God lets María feel what she called the first intimation of “our calling”.

San Ignacio de Loyola Founder of the Company of Jesus

It was July 31st, 1932, on the Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s festivity. She was attending a retreat guided by Father Serrat, S.I. at the chapel of the Holy Family School. The priest spoke about the life and work of Saint Ignatius and the Providence of God whilst rousing the foundation of the Company of Jesus just when the Church most needed it. María, as so happened every time she heard about Saint Ignatius and the Jesuits, felt an extraordinary fervour. When the talk finished she lingered for a while in the chapel, by the shrine, with the intention of meeting her friends later on. While she was there, and according to her personal notes:

“I felt transported, elated in the divine presence: as if I had been displaced from this world to another one. I sensed God and I felt submerged in light and bliss. And then, this became engraved in my soul: that I will also live the Rules and Constitutions of Saint Ignatius like the Company of Jesus does, and that there will be many girls who will follow this way of life. Our Lord assured me of that. He promised it to me. And that conveyed to me a total certainty about it, even greater than that which results from any proof.

I came out of the chapel with great calmness, with deep quietness. And what amazed me most was that I didn’t feel amazed at all. For me it was something natural, obvious, an easy thing: a Company of Jesus for women. As if I had thought this same thing all my life, as if it were a universal truth.

I didn’t see anything and didn’t hear anything with my physical senses. It was a truth that passed right in to my soul without even going through the doors of my senses, possessing it in such a way as to give up any power without a struggle.”

Although from this time onwards she was sure that she would fulfil her fully Ignatian calling, there was a long way between that and the foundation of a new Order.

It was true that some youngsters were gathering around her, but their idea wasn’t to found a new Religious Order. In fact, what María wanted was to find a Sisterhood entirely akin to the Company of Jesus.

First companion: Carmen Aige

At that time, through her spiritual director F. Serrat, she met Carmen Aige Corbella (1909 – 1989). Carmen was a young lady from a good upper class family from Lérida, who had received an expensive education corresponding to her social status at a school run by the Sisterhood of Jesus and Mary in Tarragona. Her culture was worldly, she mastered French and had made the most of her classes in drawing and painting. However, she had no plans to obtain any sort of a degree.

Despite appearances, as soon as María saw her, she became aware of the rich human qualities of Carmen’s personality. This is how María describes her in her notes:

“She was a rough diamond set in a mundane world of a jewel: serious, straight as an arrow, solid as a rock and with firm moral principles. Under her cold disguise, she was a tender, pious, vehement and passionate person, made to rule and command, and willing to sacrifice herself before giving in. Externally she was neat, elegant, a convinced servant of decorum because of her artistic temperament and personal dignity; a keeper of social status and conventions by education and calculation.”

She was her first companion. Bonded by the same ideals, María always found in her a faithful collaborator, sensible and dynamic, in whom she entirely trusted.  Both of them complemented and needed each other to do the work that our Lord wanted to carry out in His Church.

The vow of 1934

In the academic year 1933 – 1934, their Bishop gave them permission to have the Blessed Sacrament inside the Academy. During the month of July, like in previous years, María and Carmen joyfully prepare for the feast of Saint Ignatius. During the reading of His life, our Lord inspired them

“[both] to take a special vow that bonded us more to our Lord and helped us to continue the path we had started… We specified the points of our vow, although what we wanted was to tie ourselves forever to the sole and exclusive service of God our Lord, following the Company of Jesus in everything.”

They consulted with Father Serrat, who gave his approval to their wishes, and agreed to take their vows on the day of the Assumption of the Holy Virgin.

Not long after this, they felt a great joy when they discovered that that same day was the four hundred anniversary of the vow that St. Ignatius and his first companions took in Montmartre (Paris). They always considered this coincidence as a mercy of God, and a confirmation of their vocation.

They renovated this vow year after year, and later on more companions joined them: Victorina Jené, Montserrat Amigó, María Amor Sarret…

Academic preparation for apostleship (1934 – 1936)

The political situation was calmer. When María and Carmen knew that the religious schools could remain open, they realized that the Academy didn’t meet a need for an apostleship in Lérida. Their lives then revolved around one question: What did the Lord want from them?

And the answer was clear:

“He wanted us to be His, he wanted us to be Ignatian. Regarding this we had no doubt. Nor did we doubt that He wanted us to receive a good education so that we would be able to work in those environments and with people whose behaviours could influence positively or negatively the Roman Catholic Church.”

Moved by this need of a better academic qualification for apostolic work, they moved to Madrid in 1934 and joined the Central University. Carmen would study Philosophy, and María would enrol for her doctorate.

They had confession with Father Enrique Herrera Oria, S.I., and joined the Marian of the Slaves Congregation.

They remained there for only two years. In July 1936, precisely on the day before the outbreak of the Civil War, María reunites with her family in Barcelona. Following the advice of her spiritual director, Carmen had returned to Lérida some days earlier.

The Spanish Civil War  (1936 – 1939)

The Civil War serves as a forced interruption in the story of her life. During the conflict, María actively participated in helping persecuted priests, who were being harassed because of their faith.  Putting her life at risk, she distributed the Sacred Communion to those who asked for it and taught at Academy Lauria, where the Jesuits not only provided secondary school level studies to pupils of religious schools, but had also created a true operations centre. They organized a lot of apostolic activities there, despite the religious persecution, so as to guarantee that everyone could maintain their spiritual lives with the aid of the sacraments.

In those years of profanation of churches and convents, a great love for the Eucharist had been growing inside her.  An anecdote appears in her diary that helps us to better understand María’s feelings during these difficult times:

“One day the air raid sirens sounded. I was walking along the street not far from home. The bombs of the nationalist Air Force were blasting everywhere around me. My family, frightened, ran to the nearest shelter. They dragged me along with them. But as soon as I could I slipped away and ran home to look for the Holy Sacrament I kept in a jewellery-box. Under the frightful uproar of the bombs, I ran along the street, alone and anguished. When I returned to the shelter, with the Holy Sacrament hidden next to my chest, I walked along the same solitary lane, under the same deafening blasts with an infinite joy and reverence. It was not that I thought He would save me from death, nor even the feeling that I didn’t fear death with Him at my side. My satisfaction was to save my Lord from the fire, the rubble, the irreverence.”

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