The Woman Who Passed Away Smelling Like Flowers
By Jesús Aguado
When Josefa Lina de la Canal passed, her body gave off the scent of jasmine, and from her nose caterpillars were released that then turned into butterflies. Her funeral rites were showy and lasted several days. In remembrance of the anniversary of her death, the music will play, the bells will ring, and the fireworks will light up the cupola of the church that was her home until her passing.
This month at the church of the Most Pure Conception—also known as Las Monjas—the anniversary of its founder Sor Josefa Lina de la Canal’s death will be honored, as well as St. Beatriz and Our Lady of Assumption.
Sister Josefa Lina of the Holy Trinity’s origins
City historian Graciela Cruz states that the de la Canal family was always linked to the funding of civil and religious works in San Miguel el Grande, specifically Manuel de la Canal and his wife María Grabriela Josefa de Hervás. The construction of the House of Our Lady of Loreto at el Oratorio is attributed to this family, as well as the improvement of roads and certain houses during the 18th century. This marriage produced nine children; Josefa Lina was the first-born of this lineage, in 1736.
Cruz comments that Manuel de la Canal always wanted to start a female religious congregation. In his first attempt he wanted the nuns to be situated at the El Oratorio grounds. However, one of the many reasons for not having it there was because El Oratorio was a congregation for religious men, thus women could not be near, “although there were more arguments than we can imagine,” states Cruz. The second attempt was when the family moved up from Casa Solariega—now Instituto Allende—to the house constructed at Canal 4. The idea was to use Casa Solariega as the cloister, but for unknown reasons it did not happen. A fabrics factory was opened at that house.
She wanted to accomplish her desires and her father´s
Josefa’s parents both passed away in 1746; María Gabriela Josefa de Hervás on April 9, and Manuel de la Canal on April 16. Josefa and two brothers remained in the custody of their executor (by testament), Francisco José de Landeta. Later, to support the girl’s vocation, he introduced Josefa to father Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro, who would become her confessor and spiritual guide. Neri de Alfaro and Landeta helped Josefa get the licenses to start a royal convent in San Miguel el Grande; they needed the bishop’s authorization as well as that of the Spanish crown.
“Josefa wanted to accomplish her desires of becoming a nun; she always knew she wanted to do it. She also wanted to fulfill her father’s desire to found a convent,” remarked Graciela Cruz. Nowadays we know that the de la Canal family always supported religious works, not just in San Miguel, but also in the valley of Mexico (St. Gregory, Tepotzotlán, as well as in the old basilica of Guadalupe, which received an altarpiece). Those desires of Josefa are printed in a document at the General Archive of the Indias, which she had access to in Seville, Spain.
According to the city historian, the process to get the permits to found the convent started in 1752 and they were granted in 1754. Well-kept and locked up at the temple of the Most Pure Conception, there is a plaque (Atención had access to it) engraved in copper and wood. That plaque was placed—somewhere—when the construction of the building started. The plaque states that the construction started on May 25, 1756, when Benedict XIV was the pope, Ferdinand IV the king of Spain, and the city’s mayor was Joachín Sánchez de Tagle.
At that time the granting of royal licenses—issued by the king and the pope—were very complicated, and in San Miguel el Grande there were just two royal foundations: the Royal Convent of the Most Pure Conception, and the Royal Hospital of St. Raphael. The processes were complicated, remarks Cruz, because at that time the convents were not just religious institutions but also bank institutions. Thanks to them, economies grew and they were well regarded by the residents of the village.
Rise and fall, and rise of the convent
The convent occupied a whole block; it was surrounded by calles Hernández Macías, Canal, Insurgentes, and Quebrada. The current Bellas Artes building was the cloister, and the house of the Mexican Republic was a school. The money to construct all the facilities came from Josefa’s inheritance and also from the whole population, because they knew that it would benefit the economy. On July 12, 1859, when Benito Juárez was the president of the Mexican Republic, the Leyes de Reforma were issued and the Law of Nationalization of Ecclesiastic Goods came into force. That regulation decreed that all the goods from the clergy were property of the government. In 1862, the nuns of this church received a notice from the government and they were commanded to take their belongings and abandon the facilities. They were expelled at 9pm. The city historian assures that in the archive of the parish of St. Michael the Archangel, there are registers that prove that the nuns were sheltered at the homes of sanmiguelense families.
After 50 years, during Porfirio Díaz’s administration, some of the goods were returned to the clergy and the nuns were able to return to their convent—to the current space where they live—but 50 years had gone by, and some of the nuns had passed as well. That is the reason why images, books, and furniture from the convent are lost, including the Libro Becerro, a book containing the history of the place. “We do not know if it is at a house or if it was lost during the movement,” said Cruz.
Sister Josefa’s death
Sister Josefa Lina of the Holy Trinity passed away on August 7, 1770. Sister Lidia, who has been in the convent since 1960, says they know that when she passed, her body smelled like flowers. From her nose caterpillars were released and once in the environment they turned into butterflies. We also know, she said, that when Sister Josefa passed, many residents came to see the body; they had heard that “the saint passed away” and they wanted to say goodbye. According to Sister Lilia, Sister Josefa was buried in the choir in the church, where all the nuns could step on her while they were having communion. “That was her last desire,” said Sister Lilia.
Graciela Cruz said that according to the chronicles from Benito Díaz de Gamarra, the funeral rites lasted several days. The residents constructed an altar made up of candles, flowers, fabrics, and poems. The cause of her death is unknown, although it has been linked to the fatigue provoked by penitence. There will be private masses in her memory.