By Andrew Stuart
From places as distant as present-day San Angelo and Albuquerque, the first Spanish expeditions encountered one particular Native tribe throughout the plains and deserts of West Texas and New Mexico – a people known as the Jumano. The Jumano traded widely. They farmed corn, beans and squash at La Junta, present-day Presidio-Ojinaga. They hunted bison on the Llano Estacado.
And, in the 1620s, they were at the center of a mysterious episode that continues to resonate today.
In those years, Sor María Jesús, a Spanish nun, is said to have been “transported by the aid of angels” from her Spanish convent to the Texas plains to evangelize the Jumano, on hundreds of occasions. The story is the focus of new attention, from archeologists, historians and believers, from West Texas to the Vatican.
It’s stuff of legend – but it was recorded in contemporaneous Spanish accounts.
In 1629, a Jumano delegation arrived at a mission in Isleta, New Mexico. They carried crosses, and asked that priests return with them to their homeland. Had French missionaries visited them? No – the Jumano said they’d learned the Christian faith from a mysterious “Lady in Blue.” The friars journeyed with them to the San Angelo area, and baptized 2,000 Jumano in a week.
One friar, Alonzo de Benavides, was so awed that he returned to Spain to report the incident. He found his way to the town of Ágreda, and Sor María – who, wearing the blue habit of her order, reported that she had “bilocated” to the New World, and ministered to its people. She mentioned the Jumano by name. She’d stitched tapestries that included New World plants and animals – oak trees, bluebonnets.
Tilly Chandler has led the “Lady in Blue” Committee at the Catholic diocese in San Angelo.
“You can’t explain it, but you can’t explain it away,” she said.
Chandler worked with the diocese to celebrate the story of the Jumano and María. She organized annual celebrations, and helped commission Sor María statues, which now stand by the Concho River.
But a few years ago, her project took a different turn.
“My phone rang one day,” Chandler said, “and this male voice said, ‘Mrs. Chandler, this is the Vatican.’ I said, ‘Yeah, right.’ Well, when I looked at the caller ID, it was the Vatican.”
Her caller was charged with making the case to the Pope for Sor María’s sainthood.
The canonization effort is in partnership with indigenous people – including Jumano descendants.
Enrique Madrid, of Redford, is historian for the Jumano-Apache tribe. He says the Lady in Blue story is embedded in tribal culture and memory. The Jumanos’ way of life made them a good choice as the first in Texas to receive the Christian message, he said.
“The Jumanos covered most of Texas and New Mexico in their trading routes,” Madrid said, “so they had this extensive network. As Catholics, we think one of the reasons the Lady in Blue picked the Jumanos is that they would spread the religion through all of Texas.”
The essence of María’s message, Madrid said, is love and self-sacrifice. It’s especially urgent on the borderlands today, he said.
“And that message came to us in the 1620s,” Madrid said, “and we became Catholic, and we’ve been living that message as best we could, but now it’s part of the history of the Church itself. When she is made a saint, that message will be amplified and spread throughout the world.”
Apart from its religious dimension, the Lady in Blue story is historically potent.
Andy Cloud is the director of the Center for Big Bend Studies in Alpine, which studies the region’s archeology and history.
“I can’t testify to validity of the story,” Cloud said, “but the story itself connects the history from both places.”
In spring 2019, Cloud traveled to Ágreda, and signed an agreement with municipal authorities there to work on projects of shared interest.
“Any time you can collaborate, you’re going to have stronger research,” he said, “and you’re going to be able to tell the story better. And that’s ultimately what we’re trying to do in our work, is understand the story of the past, and be able to tell that story.”
Jumano tradition says that when María vanished after her last sermon, the plains were blanketed in bluebonnets – she is, tradition says, the source of Texas’ state flower. The Lady in Blue story is tied to the West Texas landscape, and it speaks to historic bonds among its diverse cultures.