The Legend of "The Lady in Blue" – The Blue Nun
In researching early New Mexico history from old Spanish and Franciscan documents, one finds an intriguing story that comes up time and again — the mystical appearance of a Franciscan nun in the 1600s. Although well documented, the “Legend of the Lady in Blue” seems to have been nearly forgotten in New Mexico history. Here is her story.
The Jumanos Indians
In 1581-1582, the Chamuscado-Rodríguez Expedition ventured into New Spain along the Rio Grande. Their first stop was the Senecú Pueblo, south of Socorro. Later at Puaray, a pueblo near present-day Bernalillo, friars Francisco López and Agustín Rodríguez elected to stay behind and minister to the Pueblo Indians.
Upon their return to Mexico, Father Bernardino Beltrán criticized the expedition for allowing the two friars to stay behind unprotected. Beltrán received permission for an expedition to rescue his brethren. Led by Don Antonio Espejo and a group of soldiers, Beltrán departed Chihuahua for New Mexico in November 1582. Traveling up the Rio Grande, they briefly visited several Piro pueblos in what is now Socorro County.
Upon reaching Puaray, they learned the two friars had been martyred (or killed because of their faith). Rather than returning to Mexico, Espejo wanted to explore the plains, poke around for some gold and see the herds of buffalo he’d heard about. Spanish officials in Mexico City authorized this expedition only for rescue, not exploration. Father Beltrán, and some followers, returned to Mexico in order to not be party to the illegal portion of the expedition that followed.
Espejo and the remaining men traveled into eastern New Mexico. To make a long story short, they basically got lost and decided to follow the Pecos River back to the Rio Grande. Somewhere along the Pecos, they encountered several villages of Indians called the Jumanos, who were previously unknown to the Spaniards. They lived in grass huts, not pueblos. The men were tattooed, which made for a distinctive appearance from the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico.
The Jumanos convinced Espejo that the Rio Grande was many days away following the Pecos; instead, they escorted the Spaniards to nearby Jumanos villages in the Big Bend country of today’s Texas. There, overlooking the Rio Grande, they quickly collected their bearings and returned to Chihuahua.
Espejo only spent a few days with the Jumanos Indians, mostly on the trail returning to Mexico. And remember, there were no friars with Espejo at this point. This brief 1582 Spanish contact with the Jumanos, without missionaries, is very important to the story that follows.
Around 1620, the Franciscans began building missions along the Rio Grande, including the mission at Socorro. A major mission and monastery was also established at Isleta Pueblo under Fray Juan de Salas.
In July 1623, a small band of Indians arrived at Isleta on a trading trip. They had tattooed lines on their faces and arms, and called themselves the Jumanos. They asked for the priest. Fray Salas must have been totally stunned when the unknown Jumanos asked to be baptized and for missionaries to be sent with them “to their country” to continue teaching them about Christianity.
In spite of his astonishment at their request, the good friar had to decline. Salas was one of only a few friars in New Mexico at that time.
Over the next several years, the Jumanos would arrive at Isleta each July, and again ask the friar for baptism and missionaries. Again, Salas explained he had to decline the request — there were no missionaries to spare.
At some point, Fray Salas asked the Jumanos Indians how they knew about Christianity, the ways of the church and the significance of baptism. What the Jumanos Indians told Fray Salas is truly amazing — and well documented.
The Lady in Blue
The Jumanos delegation told the friar, through an Isletan translator, that they had been visited on numerous occasions by a “beautiful white skinned lady in blue.” She came “down from the heights” and taught their people about God and Jesus Christ in their own language. She had them build a cross and an altar in their villages, taught them how to pray, make a rosary and other Catholic rituals.
The description of the woman, and her clothing, was that of a nun. Her gray robe and blue cloak described a Franciscan nun — although no nuns were in New Mexico at that time. The Jumanos insisted they had not been visited by any friars or missionaries, only some Spaniards they heard about 40 years before – thus identifying the Espejo Expedition. Their Christian education was solely due to “the Lady in Blue,” who told the Jumanos to find the missionaries, be kind to them and ask to be baptized.
There is no indication that Fray Salas shared this story with others at that time, but no doubt he wondered on many occasions, “Who is the Blue Nun?”
Across the Atlantic
Back in Spain, there was little doubt who the Blue Nun might be. She was a young Franciscan nun named Sor (sister) Maria de Jesus de Ãgreda. Her life and miracles are well documented.
Born Maria Fernandez Coronel on April 2, 1602, she grew up in central Spain, north of Madrid. According to her parents, she was unusually spiritual from an early age. In 1619, at just 17 years old, Maria Coronel took her vows in the Franciscan order, also known as the Poor Clares. The virtues of the Franciscan order are poverty, chastity and obedience.
The following year, Sister Maria became a cloistered nun at the Ãgreda Monastery in the Franciscan Conceptionist order, and took the name Maria de Jesus de Ãgreda. Conceptionists were those who believed in the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which at the time was not fully embraced by the Catholic Church. Conceptionists believe that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was herself born of a virginal conception, thus freeing Mary from original sin. This was not adopted as church doctrine until 1854.
As a cloistered nun, Maria agreed to serve the Ãgreda Monastery the rest of her life. And, indeed, she did. There is no indication she ever left the four walls of the monastery until her death in 1665. As a Conceptionist nun, she wore a light gray habit with a blue cloak.
Sister Maria ‘Travels’
Upon entering the monastery in 1620, Sister Maria began almost immediately to have mystical experiences. She was often seen in deep trances or levitating. Having nothing to hide, she told her fellow nuns and friars how she was “transported by the aid of the angels” almost daily to settlements of strange people in a strange land — the Indians of New Spain. Among these, she identified one group called “Jumanos.” In her altered state, she appeared and ministered to these people, teaching them in their own language and urging them to get baptized when the men of God would one day arrive.
The word of her mystical abilities quickly spread. Sharing her stories, Father Sebastian Marcilla documented many of her experiences and travels — called “bilocation” at the time and “teleportation” or “astral projection” today.
Not everyone believed the stories; skeptics called for an investigation. Maria de Jesus testified before numerous priests, a bishop, and the Franciscan Minister General in 1622. One year before the Jumanos first appeared before Fray Salas at Isleta, Sister Maria described the New Mexico Indians in amazing detail — including their tattooed appearance.
Two years later, hints of heresy against Maria were raised by the Inquisition and investigated. In the end, the sister’s testimony was declared to be authentic.
At the Ãgreda Monastery, Father Marcilla, Sister Maria’s confidant, prepared transcripts of the testimonies and sent the reports to Mexico for final verification. Carried across the sea by royal mail, Sister Maria’s portfolio was delivered, in 1626, to the acting archbishop of Mexico, Father Francisco y Manso Zuñiga. The letter asked if there were any reports of a Franciscan nun being seen in New Spain, and if her descriptions of the Jumanos and other groups were accurate.
Archbishop Zuñiga read the reports with intrigue. Reports of a beautiful young “lady in blue” teaching Christianity to the native Indians was nothing new to the friars. Learning the identity of the mysterious traveler added credibility to the reports and became an inspiration to the missionaries.
1628 Caravan to New Mexico
The handful of overworked friars in New Mexico begged Mexico City for more missionaries and mission support. On April 12, 1628, Archbishop Zuñiga was ordained a bishop. Taking advantage of his new position, he organized a mission caravan for the Franciscans far to the north. The new bishop also appointed Fray Estevan de Perea to head the missions in New Mexico, the post currently held by Padre Alonso Benavides, the “Apostle of Socorro.”
On Sept. 4, the caravan departed Mexico City for New Mexico. Under military escort, the caravan headed up El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro for Santa Fe with 30 friars, including Fray Perea, and 36 ox carts of badly needed mission supplies.
It was a long, rough trip to Santa Fe. Winter travel was slow through the Sierra Madre Mountains; further delays were experienced in the heavy spring winds and sand storms of the Chihuahuan deserts; and once they crossed the Rio Grande, the muddy trail from unusual spring rains brought the caravan to a halt on several occasions.
After nine months on the Camino Real, the caravan finally passed Socorro at the end of May 1629, stopped at Isleta Pueblo on June 3, and arrived in Santa Fe on June 13.
Friars Arrive in New Mexico
Father Benavides had called all the Franciscans in New Mexico to Santa Fe to greet the long-awaited caravan. Immediately upon their arrival, they retreated to their headquarters at the Santo Domingo Pueblo. A special ecclesiastical meeting was held in the chapter house with all the Franciscans in New Mexico in attendance. The new missionaries were welcomed and introduced, given assignments and briefed on mission affairs.
It was at this meeting that Fray Perea revealed a letter he had hand-carried from Archbishop Zuñiga in Mexico City inquiring about the rumors of the Blue Nun. The letter was read, in which the archbishop charged the friars to ascertain whether or not, in unknown kingdoms, “there is any knowledge of our holy faith, and in what manner and by what means our Lord has manifested it.”
Fray Perea, having read the Inquisition reports of Sister Maria, further explained that there had been suggestions of outside intervention among the Indians not yet ministered to by the Franciscans.
At this point, Fray Salas from Isleta apparently recalled how a group of tattooed Indians, calling themselves the Jumanos, arrived at his mission each July asking to be baptized, with no previously known contact with the Spaniards or Franciscans. He revealed how they had been preached to in their own language by a mysterious woman they called the Lady in Blue, although he did not know where their villages were located. Salas also explained how he had to refuse their request for baptism and sending missionaries due to the lack of friars.
To Fray Perea, who had read the Inquisition reports, and, perhaps, Father Benavides, there seemed little doubt the Lady in Blue was Sister Maria de Jesus of Spain. Her descriptions of the tattooed Indians, called Jumanos by name, and other details, were just too uncanny to be a coincidence.
The Jumanos Arrive at Isleta
Fray Perea accompanied Fray Salas back to Isleta to hopefully meet Sister Maria’s Indians. Like clockwork, the Jumanos arrived at Isleta Pueblo on July 22, 1629, just as they had for the past six years. Received by the two friars, the Jumanos again asked to be baptized and have a missionary assigned to their villages. Fray Perea quizzed the delegation. What prompted their repeated requests for baptism? Why had they come and at whose direction? The answers were the same: at the instruction received from the Lady in Blue.
No doubt overwhelmed by their answers, Perea sent for Padre Benavides, still the head Franciscan, or custos, in New Mexico. Upon his arrival, Benavides, Perea, and Salas again quizzed the Jumanos about their knowledge of Christianity, the church and their desire to be baptized. The answers were rock solid — they were ministered to by the Lady in Blue that came down from the sky.
Father Benavides took the Jumanos Indians into the convent, where a painting of a Franciscan nun, wearing her light gray habit and blue cloak, was on the wall. They were asked if this was the woman who visited them. The Jumanos shook their heads and replied the woman in the painting was too old and fat. They told the friars the woman appearing to them wore the same clothes, but was much younger and very beautiful, and comes to them from the sky. Of interest is how the Jumanos found nothing unusual in her angelic arrival.
This left no doubt in the minds of the friars that the mysterious Lady in Blue was indeed a Franciscan nun, and that it was Sor Maria de Jesus in Ãgreda, Spain. The New Mexico friars were also convinced they were receiving divine assistance in their missionary work, which greatly inspired them.
The three senior friars agreed to return with the Jumanos delegation. They traveled for days, more than 100 leagues (250-300 miles) “to the east,” to reach the Jumanos nation. Being a nomadic people, their villages were grass huts. With no permanent homes, like the pueblo Indians of New Mexico, there remains today no trace of the Jumanos villages. Most agree that their home must have been in far east New Mexico or the panhandle of Texas. Some have suggested the Palo Duro Canyon south of today’s Amarillo, Texas.
When the friars reached the villages, they were greeted with a Catholic fiesta-style procession carrying a large cross. They were told the Lady in Blue helped them build the cross and taught them how to greet the “men of God.” The cross was decorated with fresh flowers, and the Indians told them the Lady of Blue had helped them decorate it “earlier in the day.”
The missionaries preached and conducted their apostolic work at the various villages for several weeks. It is not recorded whether the Jumanos were baptized or not, although presumably they were, since Father Benavides’ counted them as “Christianized Indians” in his departing report. They did not, however, stay to build a mission — a mystery to the missionaries that followed. The population of these Jumanos villages was estimated at “several thousand souls.”
Father Benavides to Spain
Upon their return to Santo Domingo, Fray Perea relieved Benavides as the custos of New Mexico. Benavides returned to Mexico and penned portions of his landmark document that historians continue to use today, entitled “Memorial of 1630.” In this 111-page document, Benavides recorded detailed observations of the people of New Mexico, mission building and ministerial works, the terrain and resources in the Southwest. Most of what we know about 1600s Socorro, and the founding of today’s San Miguel church, is from the pages of this historic document.
Benavides also included the story of the Lady in Blue, and the striking parallels to the description of the Jumanos and pueblo people, and their miraculous conversion to the faith by Sister Maria — the Blue Nun. Archbishop Manso Zuñiga was so taken by the story, he sent Benavides back to Spain to personally report the miraculous story to church leaders and King Phillip IV.
In the meantime, due to her very recognized mystical ministry, Sister Maria was elevated to the position of abbess, or Mother Superior, of the Ãgreda Monastery in 1627. Due to her young age of only 25 years, her appointment as abbess was approved by Pope Urban VIII.
While in Spain, Father Benavides met with now Mother Maria de Jesus at the monastery in 1631. He interviewed her exhaustively, amazed at the details she provided, including physical descriptions of some of the dominant Indian leaders and Franciscan friars Benavides knew well. Mother Maria, by her own testimony, claimed over 500 visitations to New Spain between 1620 and 1631, without ever physically leaving the monastery.
Benavides was summoned to Rome, where he wrote his “Memorial of 1634,” an addendum and revision to his report on New Mexico. Benavides approached Pope Urban VIII about returning to be New Mexico’s first bishop. This was denied by the pontiff; instead, he was sent to Genoa, Portugal, as assistant bishop, never to return to the Jumanos and Pueblo Indians he had learned to love.
Other Blue Nun Sightings
This article has concentrated on the Jumanos Indians, primarily because they were an unknown people to the Spaniards and Franciscans until they were revealed by Sister Maria. However, many of New Mexico’s pueblos also have stories of being visited by the Lady in Blue in the 1600s.
Of particular interest are reports of Sor Maria visiting the Piro people of today’s Socorro County. Following his meeting with Mother Maria in 1631, Father Benavides’ wrote: “This blessed mother told me that she had been present with me at the baptism of the Pizos (Piro Indians) and she recognized me as the one she had seen there. Likewise, she had helped Fray Cristóbal de Quirós with some baptisms, giving minute description of his person and face.”
Father Benavides dedicated the Nuestra Señora de Socorro mission on Aug. 3, 1626, and baptized many of the Christianized Piro Indians at that time. After the dedication of the Socorro mission, the local friar conducted baptisms. Therefore, we have documentation that gives us at least one date that Socorro was visited by the Blue Nun.
Fray Quirós, also mentioned, established the missions at San Felipe and Zuni pueblos, where he baptized many.
Sister Maria also testified she ministered to the Tampiro Indians of the Salinas pueblos at Abo, Quarai and Gran Quivira. Interestingly, Gran Quivira is also known as “Las Humanas,” believed in part due to the Lady in Blue encouraging the Jumanos desiring a mission and Christian teaching to move to the mission pueblo at Gran Quivira. Integrating with the Tampiros at Gran Quivira and the Salinas pueblos, they were called the Humanas Indians for many years.
Apparently, Sor Maria de Jesus de Ãgreda — the Blue Nun — was no stranger to Socorro County.
The Legend Continues
Mother Maria served as a cloistered Franciscan nun her entire life, never leaving the Ãgreda Monastery. Throughout that time, she is credited with numerous miracles and visions in addition to her well-documented ability to spiritually transport herself to different places. She died in 1665, at 63 years of age, though her legend lives on to this day.
In 1690, after her death, an Indian in Texas asked a Franciscan missionary for a piece of blue cloth in which to bury his mother. While he had never seen the Blue Nun, he explained “In times past, (we) had been visited frequently by a very beautiful woman who used to come down from the heights, dressed in blue garments, and they wished to be like that woman.”
Many such stories persisted long after the sister’s death.
In 1765, Pope Clemente X declared her to be “heroic in virtue” and bestowed the title of “venerable” to Sor Maria. Since then, there has been at least two attempts at full canonization to make Sister Maria a saint. This has not yet come to pass.
In 1909, the body of Maria de Jesus was exhumed and placed in the church at Ãgreda. After 200 years, her body was found to be virtually uncorrupted. Her almost perfectly preserved body is now on display in Ãgreda in a glass coffin. This miracle initiated another unsuccessful attempt at canonization.
And, just a few weeks ago, Archbishop Michael Sheenan of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, blessed a roundtable discussion on “The Bilocations of the Cloistered Nun, Sor Maria de Jesus de Ãgreda, the Blue Nun, who lived from 1602 to 1665.” Attended by historians and clergy, details of the discussions or opinions derived have not yet been released. It does show the continued interest in the Blue Nun by today’s church.
There are more than 70,000 Poor Clare Franciscan sisters today, living in monasteries in 70 countries. They are still cloistered nuns — living in the same monastery for their entire lives. The dedicated Franciscans are still in New Mexico today, living in the Poor Clare Monastery of our Lady of Guadalupe in Roswell.
Most legends are loosely based on fact, passed from generation to generation by word of mouth. The appearance of the Blue Nun in New Mexico has been well recorded in both secular and church documents over the centuries, and never discounted by the church. Her supernatural appearances were an important part of spreading the faith in early New Mexico, and at least once, graced the walls of Socorro’s San Miguel Mission.
All images by Paul Harden unless otherwise noted. Some of the references used in this article: “Maria de Jesus de Ãgreda,” Office of the State Historian; “Mystery of the Lady in Blue,” by C.F. Eckhardt; “Mystical Lady in Blue,” by Marilyn Fedewa; “The Strange Tale of the Lady in Blue,” by Jay W. Sharp, Chronicles of the Trail (CARTA) Vol. 8, No. 1.