120 years ago, on March 6, 1898, Maria Antonia was born in Tolosa (Guipúzcoa), in Spain. Her parents, Don Ramón Bandrés and Doña Teresa Elósegui, had fifteen children. María Antonia was the second. She was baptized two days after her birth and confirmed at the age of four. On May 23 she received her First Communion.
From then on, the center of her spiritual life, which was also characterized by filial love for the Virgin, would be Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. Because of her fragile health, she received her first lessons at home. Later she attended the school of the Daughters of Jesus, which had been founded in Tolosa by Mother Cándida María de Jesus.
From early childhood, Maria Antonia was distinguished for a profound spiritual life uncommon for her age, for her apostolic zeal, humility, charity, love for Jesus and the Blessed Virgin expressed in many small gestures, obedience and the spirit of sacrifice. Deeply concerned about the poor and the needy, she carried out in the periphery of Tolosa, and in particular with the women workers of the union, an evangelizing social work rare in those times.
At the age of seventeen, she entered the Congregation of the Daughters of Jesus in Salamanca on December 8, 1915. On May 31, 1918, she pronounced her religious vows. A few days earlier, she had written, “To live crucified with Jesus by means of the holy vows, and, by means of them, to belong to God entirely and forever. May only Jesus and Mary remain in my heart”.
Already before her religious profession, she had made the most beautiful oblation to the Lord: following the impulse of an interior inspiration, she offered her life to God for the conversion and salvation of her uncle Antonio, her baptismal godfather. It seemed that the Lord accepted this generous offering. Her health, which had never been robust, began to weaken further, and soon a relentless illness appeared, that at the beginning of the year 1919 was diagnosed as intestinal infection, resistant to any treatment.
On Good Friday, April 25, she received the Viaticum fervently and joyfully. Then she said that she still lacked the Sacrament of the Sick to get ready for the encounter with God. She requested and was allowed to pronounce her perpetual vows, and she recited the formula firmly. With deep peace she repeated, “This is dying? How sweet is death! How sweet it is to die in the religious life!”
At the first hours of April 27, 1919, at the age of 21, she entered eternity, after having invoked the Blessed Virgin “Mother of mercy.”
Antoñita’s example of courage and faith leads us to reflect on the angel Gabriel’s words to the Blessed Virgin, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God” (Lk 1:30), which is also the theme that Pope Francis has chosen for his Message for the 33rd World Youth Day (Palm Sunday, 25 March 2018). He wants us to “… seek, together with her, to listen to the voice of God who inspires courage and bestows the grace needed to respond to his call: ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, because you have found favour with God’.”
The Pope assures us, “God also reads our inmost heart. He knows well the challenges we must confront in life, especially when we are faced with the fundamental choices on which depend who we will be and what we will do in this world. It is the ‘shudder’ that we feel when faced with decisions about our future, our state of life, our vocation.” The Holy Father urges us to make an act of faith in God, which means “believing in the fundamental goodness of the existence that God has given us and trusting that he will lead us to a good end.”
Antoñita, who was of lively and nervous temperament, needful of a constant self-control, also had to confront challenges in making fundamental choices. But she knew how to focus her affectivity and tenderness of heart to superior ends, and although she loved her family deeply, she made God her Absolute … “To remain silent to the point of heroism, to suffer until death, during my whole life, permanently”, was a fixed point in her thinking. These words might make us think of a sad and miserable girl, but Dr. Filiberto Villalobos of Salamanca, the doctor who attended to her, declared: “From the first time I visited her as a doctor, in the Novitiate of the Hijas de Jesus in Salamanca, I was impressed by this sister’s joy and attraction. During her illness, which ended in death, she never complained of the gravity of her ailment nor of the bitterness that it could have caused her. I always found her smiling and happy…”
It was as if Antoñita knew what Pope Francis insists in his Message, that “our life is not pure chance or a mere struggle for survival, rather each of us is a cherished story loved by God.” On her deathbed, she confided, “For me everything has been difficult, cold, dry; Jesus has not gifted me with his caresses; but now I am filled with peace and consolation: I feel that the Virgin is beside me, that Jesus loves me, and I love Him.”
For Dr. Villalobos, Antoñita was a strong witness of that Love. When he visited her for the last time on the afternoon of April 26, 1919, he was left amazed. Even more than a quarter of a century later, he would write of that experience of his:
I was very impressed. Sentiments of tenderness, admiration, and amazement kept me from conversing coolly with that sister of 21 years who told me, happily and joyfully, of her impending death. I wanted to be finished with the emotional scene, but at the same time, I did not want to be separated from that supernatural creature. I bade Sister Antonia an anguished goodbye, saying “Till tomorrow”, and she answered me smilingly, “Till heaven”.
And a few hours later, singing ejaculations, the pure and generous heart of that Daughter of Jesus left the world. That afternoon, like so many others, I had gone to the novitiate with Don Miguel de Unamuno, a very good friend of the Bandrés family. Don Miguel was waiting for me on the sidewalk near the Novitiate. There are few men so sensitive as Don Miguel, as to able to appreciate the grandeur and gentleness of Sister Antonia’s sublime spirit. And my account so profoundly touched his soul – ever tortured by worry and anxiety about the next life, – that in our walks through the streets and byways of this city of Salamanca, the sweet and joyful death of the angelic sister became a frequent topic in our conversations. She had never asked me, as D. Miguel did many, many times: “What will become of us when we die?” Unamuno’s extraordinary knowledge and genius always shattered in the face of the mysterious fate of the human soul…
Blessed Maria Antonia, so young, and, like Mother Mary, so strong a witness of Courage and Love. To the young people of today, we share the Pope’s invitation: “to contemplate Mary’s love: a caring, dynamic and concrete love. A love full of boldness and focused completely on the gift of self. … a love that is service and dedication, above all towards the weakest and poorest, love that transforms our faces and fills us with joy.”
May Blessed Antoñita inspire us with her example and assist us with her prayers!
Anna-María Cinco, FI
1. Much of the material here about Antoñita’s life and virtues was taken from the Decree on the Heroic Virtues issued on April 6, 1995 by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Vatican City.
2. Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo (29 September 1864 – 31 December 1936) was a Spanish Basque essayist, novelist, poet, playwright, philosopher, professor of Greek and Classics, and later rector at the University of Salamanca. His major philosophical essay was The Tragic Sense of Life (1912). [Wikipedia]