Sister Josefa Lina and the Immaculate Conception (Las Monjas)
The stories of the History
By Jesús Ibarra
It is common to see one or two nuns, dressed in traditional habit, walking in Centro or shopping in the market. They are from the Immaculate Conception convent (known as Las Monjas), the only contemplative religious order of nuns in San Miguel. There are currently 33 nuns at Las Monjas. They earn their living making and washing clothes for religious statues in the different churches and baking and selling pastries. They also receive some income from the small shop selling religious articles at the entrance to the convent. The Conceptionist nuns also do charity work, offering food to people who come to the door of their convent for something to eat. “We especially help the immigrants from Central America who pass through San Miguel on their way to the United States,” said Mother Estela.
The order of the Conceptionist nuns was founded by the Portuguese nun Sor Beatriz de Silva in 1489, and the rules of the order were approved by a papal bull issued by Pope Julius II in September 1511. In San Miguel, the Immaculate Conception convent was founded in 1756 by Sor Josefa Lina de la Canal, born here on September 25, 1736.
Sor Josefa Lina
In 1751 in the Villa of San Miguel el Grande—today San Miguel de Allende—the 15-year-old, wealthy, orphaned heiress Josefa Lina de la Canal decided to found the community’s first convent. She was the eldest daughter of Manuel Tomás de la Canal, benefactor of the villa and founder of the chapel of Our Lady of Loreto, inside the Oratorio. Don Manuel Tomás and his wife both died in 1749, when Josefa Lina was only 12; she was the eldest of nine children. Don Francisco José de Landeta, the Count of Casa de Loja, Don Manuel Tomás’ friend, was appointed guardian of the nine orphaned children, heirs to their father’s fortune. Josefa Lina told him, as well as her confessor, Father Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro, who was at that time busy with the recently built shrine in Atotonilco, that she wanted to start a convent with her dowry. Both men told her she should think it over before making a decision, and Father Alfaro took her to a spiritual retreat in Atotonilco. But the girl knew that she wanted the convent.
Author Margaret Chowning, in her book Rebellious Nuns, suggests that Josefa Lina might have made the decision partially to honor her father, who had the same goal, and partially because she felt insecure and nervous about the great responsibility of raising her younger siblings. On the other hand, her official biographer, Juan Benito Díaz de Gamarra, said Josefa Lina decided to found the convent because of her devotion and piety.
Josefa’s dream came true on January 29, 1756, with the arrival of four nuns from the Order of the Immaculate Conception from the convent of Regina Coelli in Mexico City: Antonia del Santísimo Sacramento, María Anna del Santísimo Sacramento, Gertrudis de San Raphael and Phelipa de San Antonio. Because the new convent was not yet completed, the nuns stayed at La Santa Escuela, the church next to the Parroquia; they moved to the new convent in 1765, which began with 21 nuns and 6 novices. According to local historian Graciela Cruz, 70,000 pesos were collected for the building of the convent, of which 58,000 came from Josefa Lina’s dowry and 12,000 from donations of residents, including the Count of Casa de Loja, Antonio de Lanzagorta, Domingo de Unzaga and Father Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro, among others.
A grand celebration
On February 1, 1756, on the eve of Candelaria, the villa held a grand reception for the four founding nuns. Father Antonio Ramos de Castilla describes in a chronicle that a long procession went from the Oratorio, where Josefa Lina had taken her vows, to la Santa Escuela. The procession was led by 54 uniformed students of San Francisco de Sales College (today Universidad de León, at Plaza Cívica), followed by priests and monks, among whom were the four founding nuns and Josefa Lina. Bells rang out from all the churches. That night, fireworks exploded in the squares, and the air was filled with the music of flutes and chirimías (a kind of oboe). The party continued for eight days, with solemn Masses, processions and parades, including early versions of the present-day mojigangas, and five days of bullfights.
Josefa Lina had chosen for her convent a regimen of strict observance of their vows and an austere lifestyle including manual labor, hunger and physical discomfort. According to Chowning, this asceticism was supported by the founding Mother Abbess, Sor Antonia, but opposed by the other three founding nuns, mainly Sor Phelipa, who wanted a more comfortable and private life when not at prayer. With the passing of years, and after several struggles between the two factions and the local religious authorities, Sor Phelipa’s vision of the convent prevailed.
Josefa, who took the veil in 1757, died in 1770 at age 33. The causes of her death are uncertain; her biographer, Díaz de Gamarra, said that “hundreds of legged, hairy worms came out of her nose in her final days, later metamorphosing into butterflies.”