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All the Agents and SaintsDispatches from the U.S. Borderlands$

Stephanie Elizondo Griest

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9781469631592

Published to North Carolina Scholarship Online: January 2018

DOI: 10.5149/northcarolina/9781469631592.001.0001

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The Venerable

The Venerable

(p.26) 3 The Venerable
All the Agents and Saints

Stephanie Elizondo Griest

University of North Carolina Press

Abstract and Keywords

The author travels to Kingsville, Texas to meet Sister Maximina, who has spent 40 years campaigning for the canonization of Mother Julia, the founder of the Missionary Daughters of the Most Pure Virgin Mary. (At present, she is “Venerable,” which is the second of four stages to Sainthood.) In her lifetime, the Mexican nun established dozens of convents and schools in the United States and Mexico that catechized thousands of indigent children throughout the borderlands. Through her meeting with Sister Maximina, the author further meditates on the concept of spiritual mestizaje in the borderlands.

Keywords:   Venerable Mother Julia, Missionary Daughters of the Most Pure Virgin Mary, Catholicism, miracles, spiritual mestizaje, Kingsville, Texas, Tejano folklore, canonization, sainthood, U.S. Mexico border

THE SUN IS JUST BEGINNING ITS EVENING MELT ACROSS THE HORIZON. The sky turns lavender; the sorghum fields glow crimson. A maguey1 undulates its aquamarine leaves like a desert octopus. Somewhere along Chapman Ranch road, not far from Bishop, Greg pulls over. “I want to show you something,” he says.

The land before us is overgrown with weeds as high as our knees. We wade toward a cinder block house abandoned long ago. Spiderwebs mend the shot-out windows. Braids of vine slither up one wall; black and green mold creeps down another. Greg points out a paint-splattered pattern and grins—and, just like that, what was previously an eyesore becomes an aesthetic. We circle around the house, marveling at the plant life burgeoning from the rooftop and the wooden door, distressed just so.

Out back is an old warehouse, equal parts rust and tin. We slip in through a door cracked open. Inside is an arsenal of tractor tires. Some are as tall as me. Greg emits a low whistle, then throws a rock at a tire suspended from the rafters above. Suddenly, there is movement—a chaos of buff and white. Owls! Two—no, three. Five. Eight! The kind that look like they’re wearing opera masks, swiftly exiting their balcony nests. Soundlessly, they circle above our heads. Their wingspan is immense, upward of three feet in length.

(p.27) They render the rafters almost invisible. For a thrilling moment, I see only black eyes and white feathers. Then they swoop out the door behind us.

My paternal grandmother collected owls. Every summer, when Dad and I drove to Kansas for a visit, I would rush to her bedroom to admire her latest acquisitions. Conditioned, perhaps, by years of Winnie-the-Pooh cartoons, I thought her porcelain figurines signified a fine intelligence. Once I learned to put pencil to paper, we started a written correspondence that lasted until her death my senior year in high school. After the funeral, when Mom, Aunt Jolene, and I sorted through her jewelry boxes, the piece I claimed was a silver owl with green glass eyes that dangled from a chain. It hangs now above my writing desk, a tribute to the woman who first encouraged my efforts there.

The sight of owls swirling overhead, then, engulfs me in her reassuring presence—something I haven’t felt in years.

I am eager to share this story when Greg and I gather in Santa’s living room a few nights later. Many of her paintings feature the women in her family, so I know she’ll appreciate it. At the first mention of owls, however, Santa gasps. “Lechuzas?! That’s a bad omen.” She goes on to explain how, in Mexican folklore, witches turn into owls in the dark of night to cast their spells more discreetly.

This, in essence, is why I moved to Mexico when I turned thirty a few years ago. As a “Chicana writer,” I felt obligated to know such cultural markers as whether owls should be feared or revered. For months I roamed the countryside, talking to everyone whose path I crossed, aspiring not only to learn the language of my maternal family but also to absorb some of their mindset as well. I came to realize that internal culture-clashes are actually an intrinsic part of the Mexican experience—a legacy of blending colonial and indigenous bloods (or, in my case, Pennsylvania Dutch and Tejano). One grandmother’s spirit animal is almost by definition another’s demon.

So while Santa’s revelation doesn’t launch me into identity crisis mode—as it would have, pre-Mexico—my existential divide widens a bit. And since I’ve already reached a vulnerable place, I might as well venture further.

“We went to see the talking tree,” I announce.

“And?” Santa asks.

“It didn’t say a thing.”

“It was too cold,” Greg jokes.

Nobody laughs.

Santa looks me over thoughtfully. Clad in one of her trademark huipiles, or hand-embroidered Mexican blouses, she is nestled in the cushions of her (p.28) couch, her wire-rimmed glasses perched professorially on her nose, her thick black hair rippling down her back. Because her art has traveled with me to so many places—because her Virgen de Guadalupe has been one of the first images I have seen upon waking and the last I have glimpsed before resting—Santa has become a tether of sorts. Though she is constantly suggesting books to read and people to meet to deepen my knowledge of the borderlands, she is herself my most definitive resource.

“What are you looking for, Stephanie?” she asks.

Stories? Faith? Fusion? I take so long to respond, Greg does it for me. “She’s looking for a miracle.”

Santa smiles. She knows just where I should go.

A BLOND BRICK ROAD leads to Mother Julia’s Solemn Place of Prayer in Kingsville, Texas. Following it through a yard freshly trimmed, I recognize Santa’s contribution here. Upon the building’s facade is a giant mural of a nun shrouded in indigo yet outlined in white, so that she appears illumined. One hand rests on a Bible; the other curls on her lap. She is surrounded by red and purple pansies. Bereft of laugh lines or wrinkles, her face seems timeless. She could be thirty, forty, sixty. Mother Julia, I presume.

I peek in the chapel’s doorway. Strands of Christmas lights and rows of poinsettias deck the altar, as do mechanized Barbie angels who move their arms and turn their heads in unison. The surrounding pews could seat dozens but don’t. Only one spot is occupied, by an elderly nun who is praying. Seeing me, she crosses herself, rises from the kneeling bench, and strides over to greet me. Even in padded black Reeboks, she stands only five feet tall. A mole hovers above her lips; white wisps peek beneath her habit.

“When you enter a shrine for the first time, mija, you must kneel down and pray,” Sister Maximina says, guiding me to a pew. “Don’t ask for wishes but for graces. God doesn’t count, so you can ask for as many as you want. Pray first, mija, then we can talk.”

Despite my struggles with faith, rattling off Hail Marys and Our Fathers moments before sleep was a ritual for much of my life. Once I started traveling, though, I realized my prayers had not developed since the pattern set at age seven. In the context of the new cultures I was exploring, my old recitations seemed vapid. Rather than reconfigure my practice—or, better yet, value it as a cultural rite of its own—I gave it up altogether. Now that I’m back in the borderlands, however, prayer seems to be an important link in reestablishing my connection here. There’s just something about South (p.29) Texas’s epic heat, its desert dust, its diametrically opposing forces that sends you seeking intervention. Recitation feels like a natural soundtrack to this landscape, as if you are singing along to its repetitions. Hail Mary full of grace: sorghum, sorghum, tractor, oil well. Our Father who art in heaven: cotton, cotton, cactus, oil well.

And so, I maneuver into position—knees on bench, hands clasped, head bowed, eyes shut, body still—and dip into memory. I have just recovered an old desert song when Sister Maximina walks over with a photo album. She knows I’m here to ask about Mother Julia, and she can hardly wait to begin.

JULIA NAVARRETE GUERRERO was lured by the Lord when she was fifteen years old.Growing up the only daughter among six brothers in Oaxaca, Mexico, at the end of the nineteenth century, she’d already been schooled in submission, but a Jesuit priest taught her the importance of being penitent, too. “I prayed with a profound quiet of spirit and abundant tears and immense desires to suffer,” she explains in her autobiography, My Journey. To deepen her practice, she began slipping bitter aloes into her food, depriving herself of sweets, and—while praying three creeds—suspending herself from nails so that she hung in the form of a cross. “Coming down,” she writes, “I would feel a general swoon that I believed was pleasing to Our Lord.”

Eventually a band was slipped on her fourth finger, a golden ring that declared in fine script on its inner lip Amo a mi solo Cristo. And she did. Enough to decline a flesh-and-blood man who asked her to be his bride. Enough to leave her family behind and join a nunnery. Enough to take a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience so she could wholly live for him. For Julia was enraptured with Christ, not only beseeching his grace throughout the day but also rising multiple times in the night, her rosary wound between her fingers. Her devotion caught the attention of a priest looking to establish a new congregation of women, and at age twenty-two, Julia was asked to lead it. This unleashed a torrent of jealousy from the other nuns, but no matter: She was now Mother Julia, Superior General, Julia de las Espinas del Sagrado Corazón. She marked the transition by carving a monogram of Jesus upon her breast and burning it with a hot piece of iron. “In this way I was marked forever as belonging totally to Jesus,” she writes. “The ardor of the spirit exceeded the pain of the flesh.”

At the height of the Mexican Revolution, Mother Julia hustled her nuns across the international borderline and settled into a one-room house in Kingsville. She had no money for a mission, not a penny cut in half, yet within (p.30) weeks she transformed the house into a school and enrolled a flock of students. She taught the neighborhood children in the afternoon and ministered to the neighborhood adults in the evening and embroidered handkerchiefs throughout the night to sell to the neighborhood ladies the following morning. Mother Julia purportedly worked so hard she forgot to eat and even to drink, but she never failed to pray. No, she prayed until she felt invaded, until “He took full possession” of her, whereupon she fainted in bliss.

After establishing her mission in South Texas, Mother Julia continued on, ultimately opening forty-five congregations of the Missionary Daughters of the Most Pure Virgin Mary in Mexico and the United States. And ever since dying in 1974, at the age of ninety-three, she has apparently worked even harder than before. People say she resuscitated a little girl who drowned. Woke a stuntman who split open his head in a moto crash. She mended marriages and healed the ailing and otherwise sent the celestial equivalent of smoke signals from above.

This is why southern Texans and northern Mexicans pray to Mother Julia to this day, why they sink to their knees and plead for intercessions, why mothers tuck her prayer card into the billfolds inside their purses, why truckers paste her photograph inside their big rigs. And it is why Sister Maximina has dedicated her life to spreading word of this woman’s virtue. She wants the Vatican to canonize Mother Julia so that she’ll officially be deified as a saint.

JOINING ME IN THE PEW, Sister Maximina opens the photo album. Its images are shot in color film but capture a black-and-white world of habits and bedsheets. Mother Julia is the golden raisin in the middle. Flipping the pages, Sister Maximina narrates a bit of her own story. How she was the youngest of fourteen children and studied at school under the same order of sisters she serves today. How she “fought the call” to become a nun herself because she couldn’t bear to leave her family. How finally, at age twenty-five, while working at a drugstore in Taft, she surrendered to God’s lure.

A decade into her own life of poverty, chastity, and obedience, Sister Maximina learned that Mother Julia had taken to her bed and was unlikely to rise again. A clutch of nuns was caring for her in Mexico but needed younger hands. Whenever anyone asked why she hadn’t volunteered her services, she blamed her studies. The truth, though, was she didn’t want to witness Mother Julia’s suffering.

“But then a sister said, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to say I was there when Mother Julia needed me?’ And wow, mija, that was a dagger to my heart.”

(p.31) Late one night, two of Sister Maximina’s seven older brothers drove her to Toluca, Mexico, for her new assignment. She prayed the entire way. By the time she arrived, Mother Julia was five months from death. Among her ailments was poor circulation. A massive sore had formed at the base of her spine. Wounds rippled across her back and legs. When she moved, she oozed, yet her smile remained beatific.

The sisters used only traditional medicines on Mother Julia, herbs brought over in paper bags by the indigenous people of Huasteca. They picked flowers from the garden, soaked them in a basin, and bathed her with fragrant water each day. Sister Maximina’s duty was to dip gauze in medicinal extract and wrap Mother Julia’s wounds. She smiles as she recounts this for me, then thrusts up her palms. “These hands have held a saint, okay?”

But one terrible morning, hours before dawn, the end seemed near. The sisters panicked. Forgoing traditional treatment, they summoned a white-coat doctor. After a brief examination, he started assembling an IV.

“He made an incision in her arm and, excuse the word, but he was such a brute, as he was trying to get in the IV, a little piece of her flesh came out and he didn’t even notice!” Sister Maximina stamps the floor with her Reebok. “Fortunately I was there, and I kept it. That man just didn’t know who he was treating.”

Flesh wasn’t all she saved that morning. She also fished Mother Julia’s catheter out of the trash.

Mira,” she says, removing the crucifix tucked inside her blouse. Taped to the back of the black lacquered wood is a sliver of plastic. “Do you see what’s there, mija, inside that catheter?”

Staring closely, I make out a tiny stain within.

“Blood!” she crows. “Mother Julia’s blood.”

She unzips a Pyrex Portables bag and removes a wooden jewelry box. This belonged to Mother Julia too, she says, turning its lock with a tiny silver key. Two pairs of surgical scissors are taped beneath its lid; bundles of soiled gauze cover its contents. She removes a golden locket from a gift box and opens it. Inside are a miniature photograph of Mother Julia and a slice of her flesh. I clasp it in my hands as Sister Maximina rummages through the Pyrex Portables bag.

“Where are you where are you where are you,” she murmurs. “Here, here. Mi-ra.”

She opens a piece of paper that has been folded many times, then allows me to peek at its contents. It looks like expired spice. Paprika, perhaps. Cayenne pepper.

(p.32) “Saint’s blood!” she cries.

However dizzying this collection might seem, it is actually upholding a Roman Catholic tradition that dates back to at least the second century. Because many of the earliest saints were martyred for their faith, they were viewed as having suffered as Christ did, thus achieving a sublime perfection. Taking the symbolic body of Christ (the Eucharist) at an altar surrounded by the physical bodies of saints, then, became a prized spiritual experience—especially during the Middle Ages, when some relics were believed capable of producing miracles. Churches grew competitive with their reliquary collections and, as demand increased, developed a ranking system. First-class relics are pieces of a saint’s actual body: bones, blood, teeth, hair, fingernails, bits of flesh, and, in the case of Jesus, foreskin.2 Second-class relics consist of a saint’s earthly possessions, not only religious accoutrements like robes and rosaries but also more pedestrian items like eyeglasses and combs. Weapons involved in the martyring of saints also fall into this category: spikes, knives, stones, and, in the case of Jesus, thorns from his crown and nails from his cross. Third-class relics, meanwhile, are objects that came into physical contact with first-class relics, while fourth-class relics touched second-class relics. This explains Sister Maximina’s ire with the doctor who assembled Mother Julia’s IV: he was mishandling primo relics.

We have now reached the final pages of Sister Maximina’s photo album. Just a few more images of bedsheets; just a final blur of veils. In a low voice, she remembers how, early the morning of November 21, 1974, she was sent to buy saline. As she rushed about from one farmacia to the next, a sister ran up, wide-eyed and urgent. They hurried home together.

First, Mother Julia asked all of the sisters gathered around to pray the rosary. Next, she asked them to sing. Then she didn’t ask for anything. Her eyes had been closed for much of the morning, but suddenly they glittered open as they had in her youth, when she prayed to the point of ecstasy, to the point of collapse. She smiled as she greeted her love of seventy-four years. Then she closed her eyes and was gone.

(p.33) IT CAN TAKE DECADES—centuries, even—to be deemed a Catholic saint. First comes the obligatory five-year waiting period3 to allow mourners time to grieve you as well as to improve your odds of an objective evaluation. Then the church dispatches a postulator who scrutinizes your writings, teachings, and other “acts of holiness” and presents the evidence to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. If deemed worthy of the pope’s consideration, you are declared a “Servant of God.” To advance on to subsequent stages of sainthood, you must then bring about a miracle (or two).4

Mother Julia started performing miracles within a year of dying, says Sister Maximina.The first was for her gardener, who lived with his family in a rural farm community near Toluca. One day, his wife asked their son to mind the little sister while she did the wash. The boy promptly ran off to play. When the mother went searching, she found her three-year-old floating in a ditch, face down, dress bubbled up. The gardener ran to their neighbor’s house for a truck, and they sped off to the nearest clinic. But the doctor found no vital signs. He said their child was dead. The parents rushed their daughter to a second clinic, praying all the way. Again, the doctor said she showed no vital signs. The gardener fell upon his knees as his baby girl was laid upon a stretcher. Remembering Mother Julia, he begged for her intercession. He prayed and he prayed and he prayed to her. A hospital aide came to wheel his daughter away. Then one of her toes started twitching.

Such holy acts have earned Mother Julia the title of “Venerable,” which is the second of four stages to sainthood. Before she can advance to the next one—“Beatified”—she needs to perform a miracle the church can verify.

The miracle part—that’s no problem, says Sister Maximina. She just did another one last week. A Kingsville woman gave birth to a two-pound baby. The doctor predicted she wouldn’t last the night, but the mother bowed her head and pleaded for Mother Julia’s grace. Now her girl is growing gorda and strong.

“But for the church, a miracle has to happen like that,” Sister Maximina snaps her fingers. “No medicines or hospitals or anything. They need medical records, documentation by doctors and witnesses. And we don’t have that yet.”

She leans in close. “To tell you the truth,” she whispers, “sometimes I think they’re picky.”

(p.34) FOR FORTY YEARS NOW, Sister Maximina and the other nuns in her convent have been memorializing the legacy of Mother Julia. An infinity of bake sales, clothing drives, bingos, raffles, and casino nights enabled them to buy back the property her old schoolhouse was originally built upon and transform the former tenant’s house into a chapel. (“And it wasn’t cheap,” Sister Maximina says. It wasn’t: $50,000.) Now they are raising another $50,000 to open a museum on the site. They plan to hang Mother Julia’s photographs there, her pamphlets, her robes, her prayer cards. The saucer she ate her toast upon. The pillow she laid her head upon. The wheelchair in which she took her final spins. They won’t display any of Mother Julia’s relics there, though—neither her catheter nor her blood. “I don’t want to risk losing them,” Sister Maximina says.

Not long ago, Sister Maximina marked her seventy-first birthday. The other nuns are even older. It is doubtful any will live to see their Mother Superior canonized. I personally find this crushing, the Catholic equivalent of Kafka publishing only a few stories or Van Gogh selling just one painting before their deaths. Yet the mystically minded are our nimblest border crossers. They traverse both space and time. If these nuns cannot alchemize Mother Julia from a mortal into a divine in this lifetime, they have faith that younger hands will spring up in the next. Which is maybe why—no matter what question I ask—Sister Maximina keeps lifting her palms in memory of that final morning she and her sisters gathered around the bed of their Mother Superior. They didn’t just witness the death of that living saint. They served as her aerial midwives.

“And that, mija,” she says, rising from the pew to indicate our interview is through, “that is a grace from God I will never repay.”


(1.) Volumes could be written about the maguey’s significance in the Texas-Mexico borderlands. Historically, the plant provided food, drink, medicine, and fiber for clothing. Today, Tejanos seed them in their front yards for good luck. The best story I’ve heard about the maguey comes courtesy of Santa Barraza’s mother, who contended that lonely soldiers copulated with the plant during the Mexican Revolution, leaving fetuses on the leaves. When Santa recreated that image in a painting, however, her mother protested, calling it witchcraft. Unperturbed, Santa continues using magueys in her work today, posing the plants directly behind her central figures so that they appear to have wings.

Growing up the only daughter Quotations and biographical information have been culled from Mother Julia’s autobiography, My Journey: Remembrances of My Life, which was translated to English by Sister Armida Fabela and revised by Janet Niedosik. No other publication information is included inside the copy I obtained from Sister Maximina Cruz.

one-room house in Kingsville Sister Kathleen McDonagh, “Missionary Daughters of the Most Pure Virgin Mary in the Diocese of Corpus Christi,” South Texas Catholic, November 1, 2012.

opening forty-five congregations Staff, “Sainthood Close for Mother Navarrete,” Daily Sun News (Sunnyside, Wash.), June 23, 2004.

However dizzying this collection David Farley, An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town (New York: Gotham Books, 2009).

(2.) That’s right. Someone saved Jesus’s foreskin—or, apparently, foreskins (as, depending on the source, there were anywhere from eight to eighteen enshrined in various European churches throughout the Middle Ages). A friend of mine, David Farley, once spent a year in the Italian hill town of Calcata investigating the mysterious 1983 disappearance of a Holy Foreskin from a church there. Read all about it in his book An Irreverent Curiosity.

It can take decades Staff, “How Does Someone Become a Saint?,” BBC.com, April 27, 2014, available at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-27140646.

(3.) This waiting period can be waived by the pope for cases considered urgent, such as those of John Paul II and Mother Teresa (who were canonized nine and nineteen years after their deaths, respectively).

(4.) Martyrs—or people who die for their faith—are cut a little slack in this requirement. They must generate only one miracle.

The first was for her gardener Eric Chapa, “Mother Julia’s Solemn Place of Prayer Becoming a Reality in Kingsville,” South Texas Catholic, August 15, 2008.