The Radiant Charity of Madre Nati
Mexico’s first female saint is an eloquent witness of love for Christ and the poor
Santa Maria Venegas Assembly in Lake County, Ind., bears a unique name. It’s not often that a Knights of Columbus assembly or council is named after a woman, let alone a saint related to one of the assembly’s members.
Michael Velasco, the culture of life director for the Indiana state council, grew up hearing stories about his great-grandaunt, Sister María Natividad Venegas de la Torre, whom the family affectionately called “Tia Nati.” When his late father, John C. Velasco, was just a boy, Tia Nati nursed him back to health from malaria. John later fled to the United States as a teenager with his mother and two brothers, during the period of religious persecution in Mexico in the 1920s.
“After the announcement was made that Tia Nati was going to be canonized,” Michael recalled, “my father wept.”
At age 87, the senior Velasco traveled to Rome with his wife, June, to attend the canonization Mass on May 21, 2000. A year later, just months before his death, John became a charter member of Santa Maria Venegas Assembly, named after his grandaunt, the first Mexican woman to be declared a saint.
SEEDS OF SANCTITY
The youngest of 12 children, María Natividad Venegas de la Torre was born in Zapotlanejo, near Guadalajara, in the Mexican state of Jalisco on Sept. 8, 1868. Raised in a deeply religious household, Natividad, or Nati for short, learned to read the Bible at an early age and prayed the rosary each day with her family.
An energetic child, Nati was also drawn to contemplation. When playing hide-and-seek, she sought places where no one could find her so that she could pray.
Her mother, who had prepared Nati to receive her first holy Communion at age 9, died young, when Nati was 16. Her father, an accountant, then moved the family to Compostela, in the state of Nayarit, for economic reasons. Nati made frequent visits to their parish church there to gaze at an image of the crucified Christ called the “Lord of Mercy.” Nati’s father eventually brought the family back to Zapotlanejo, where he entrusted his children into the care of his brother and sister-in-law, Justo and Crispina Venegas Velasco. He died three years later in 1887.
Living with her aunt and uncle, Nati came to know the beauty of nature and agriculture. She would later write about the pastures, wheat, bananas, mangos and sugar cane, reflecting on God’s abundant generosity. Many who worked in the fields were illiterate, and Nati began teaching the children how to read and gave them religious instruction. She also participated in parish life and attended daily Mass.
In 1898, Nati joined the Association of the Daughters of Mary and began to give serious thought to a religious vocation, praying frequently before the Blessed Sacrament. In November 1905, her spiritual director recommended that she make an Ignatian retreat. Less than a month later, on Dec. 8, she joined the Daughters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a pious union of women dedicated to caring for poor and abandoned people at Guadalajara’s Sacred Heart Hospital. Sister Nati served in many roles — as nurse, pharmacist and the community’s accountant — and earned a reputation for knowing patients by name and creating a family environment at the hospital.
In 1921, Sister Nati was elected superior general, having made her temporary religious vows in 1915. In order for the Daughters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to receive official approval as a congregation, a bishop encouraged Madre Nati, as the sisters now called her, to write the constitutions. Though she did not consider herself competent to do so, she completed the task in 1924.
Beginning in 1926, Mexican President Plutarco Elías Calles strictly enforced the persecutory laws of the anti-clerical constitution that had been adopted nearly a decade earlier. The government seized Church property, Catholic schools and seminaries; shut down hospitals, orphanages and homes for the elderly; outlawed religious education; prohibited public worship; and exiled Mexico’s bishops. This sparked a rebellion known as the Cristero War, or Cristiada.
Against all odds, Madre Nati was able to keep the hospital open, said Sister Maria Rosa Bohórquez, a Daughter of the Sacred Heart who serves as the order’s general counsel. “Madre was not afraid. She would always say, ‘The Sacred Heart of Jesus will fix it all.’”
When soldiers tried to shut the hospital down, Madre Nati offered them food, disarming them through her compassion. The sisters treated injured government soldiers and Cristeros alike.
Madre Nati was also adamant that the Blessed Sacrament would be present at the hospital.
“To prevent the soldiers from committing sacrilege, the Eucharist was often hidden with the bees,” recounted Sister Clara Guenoveva Encarnación Luna, who knew the saint for many years. “The sisters always kept an empty hive for the Lord.”
On one occasion, when Madre Nati and a sister transported the Blessed Sacrament to safety in a shoebox, they boarded a bus filled with federal soldiers. If the sisters had been discovered, they would have likely been killed. Still, the saint remained calm, trusting in the Lord.
It was during this same period that John Velasco, who like his Tia Nati was born in Zapotlanejo, fled Mexico at age 15. His father and two uncles fought in the Cristero army against the anti-religious government, and their homes were frequently searched for ammunition and priests in hiding.
In fact, John’s family used to smuggle their parish priest, Father José Isabel Flores Varela, in and out of a secret room in their home so that he could celebrate clandestine Masses.
“If the soldiers had found the priest, I wouldn’t be here,” Michael Velasco said. “They would have killed everyone. They were merciless.”
Eventually, the soldiers caught Father Varela and hanged him — three times.
“Each time, just at the point of death, the soldiers let him down and asked the priest to denounce God,” Velasco said, “But he wouldn’t do it. Eventually, a soldier cut his throat.”
In 2000, Father Varela was one of the 25 Mexican martyrs, including six priests who were members of the Knights of Columbus, whom Pope John Paul II canonized together with Madre Nati, now known as Santa María de Jesús Sacramentado.
‘EVEN NOW SHE FILLS US UP’
In 1930, when the constitutions of the Daughters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus had received approval, Madre Nati declared, “We will celebrate the approval of the congregation without fear.”
This was also the year that she made her final vows and took the name María de Jesus Sacramentado (Mary of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament). She served as superior general of the congregation until 1954.
Sister Clara had met her two years earlier, during her interview for admission into the congregation at age 15.
“She was a very simple woman. You could approach her with confidence,” Sister Clara recalled, noting that the saint always had a ready smile.
All the sisters sought her gentle counsel and guidance, as did the doctors, priests and other coworkers. Together they cared for patients of all ages.
“The elderly are travelers who we must take care of before their life ends,” Madre Nati would say. “We must take care of them with all the tenderness possible.”
Sister Clara explained that the saint had many such sayings, and her words have become teachings for the sisters today:
“Suffering is short. Our joy will be eternal.”
“Those who are merciful with the needy of the world will not lack God’s mercy.”
“The weight of the cross is burdensome for those carrying it, but not for those who embrace it.”
“The hospital is the antechamber to heaven.”
Sister Clara served as Madre Nati’s nurse and shared a room with her for some time. The saint didn’t sleep much, she said, but the alarm was always set for 5 a.m. so that they could attend eucharistic adoration.
“We have to visit my Jesus,” Madre Nati would say.
Even toward the end of Madre Nati’s life, Sister Clara would often find her tending to patients from her wheelchair. Children at the hospital thought of her as a grandmother, and seminarians would sometimes remark that she loved them more than their own mothers did.
In all, Madre Nati lived at the hospital for 55 years until her death on July 30, 1959, at the age of 91.
“She didn’t live an extraordinary life,” Sister Clara said. “She lived an ordinary life in an extraordinary way.”
For Michael Velasco, who recalls growing up with the stories about his great grandaunt’s faith, courage and service to the poor, Tia Nati was always just a part of the family.
Sister Maria Rosa affirmed that Madre Nati continues to inspire all the sisters in their service to the sick and poor.
“She is known for her great charity and is still interceding for us from heaven,” Sister Maria Rosa said. “Even now she fills us up, she loved us so much.”
J.D. LONG-GARCÍA is editor in chief of The Tidings and Vida Nueva, the newspapers of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He is a member of Father Marcel Salinas Council 11536 in Mesa, Ariz.