The Word Among Us

May 2018 Issue

A Mother’s Mission

During a time of war and persecution, Conchita de Armida cared for her children—and for the whole Mexican Church.

By: Laura Loker

A Mother’s Mission: During a time of war and persecution, Conchita de Armida cared for her children—and for the whole Mexican Church. by Laura Loker

Every year, Pentecost makes me think wistfully about the work of evangelization I did during my college years. The Bible studies and retreats that I invited other students to attend made a visible impact. But after I married, had a child, and stopped working full-time, my “mission field” didn’t seem so clear-cut. I often wondered: “How can I build the Church when I can barely keep up with laundry? How can I be open to anything extra when I’m tied to a baby who needs to eat every two hours?”

It was the perfect time to get acquainted with a nineteenth-century Mexican wife and mother named Concepción Cabrera de Armida, also known as Conchita. In the midst of raising nine children with her husband, Conchita managed to go to daily Mass and spend time each day in prayer. As simple as these commitments were, they had a far-ranging impact both on her family life and on the entire Mexican Church. The more I read about her, the more convinced I became that Conchita is a helpful guide for anyone who finds the bulk of their time filled with seemingly “unspiritual” tasks—including me. She is showing me that the Holy Spirit can guide every task if we start with prayer.

A Youthful, Prayerful Bride. Conchita was born on December 8, 1862, in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, to upper- middle-class Catholic parents. A pretty girl at age thirteen, she caught the attention of Francisco Armida, known as Pancho. He was smitten from the start, and he proposed within weeks of their introduction. After a nine-year engagement—not an unusual practice in northern Mexico—they married and began having children.

In many ways, Conchita was an ordinary wife and mother. She was disappointed when her son’s first word was “cat” instead of “Mamá.” She had trouble getting along with her in-laws. She read fashion journals and kept a small notebook full of jokes. Her husband was a considerate man, but early in the marriage had an explosive temper. As time went on, this tendency softened, and the two learned how to support each other better. Pancho sought Conchita’s advice about business matters, and she sought his help putting the children to bed at night.

But deep within her, Conchita sensed that it was prayer and spiritual reading that illuminated her everyday family life. She wrote in her diary, “The inner life of my soul grows in spite of all the joys of this earth.” Early in her marriage, she placed a high priority on the spiritual life.

The “Inner Cloister.” Amid the busyness of motherhood, Conchita’s prayer life became the “inner cloister” to which she withdrew for a period of time each day after her husband went to work. Through careful planning, she made certain that her prayer time did not interfere with household duties.

Urged by her parish priest to keep a diary, Conchita spent much of her free time writing. While some of her writings were distributed as books and pamphlets during her lifetime, her lengthy diary remained unread until after her death. Her family and others who read it discovered, often to their surprise, a rich interior life marked by spiritual inspirations and expressions of love and praise for God.

Far from separating her from her family or their servants, Conchita’s commitment to prayer made her more approachable and considerate as time went by. Her children experienced their mother as cheerful, caring, and engaged in their lives. “Even in church, we felt she was with us,” one of them said. Nurturing her children, however, didn’t stop Conchita from paying attention to the impulses of the Holy Spirit.

“A Fire That Burned.” When she was twenty-seven, Conchita participated in a retreat on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Already mother to several children, she came and went out of sync with the other retreatants so that she could tend to her family between the retreat master’s talks. As the retreat progressed, Conchita felt that she was preparing her heart to say yes to whatever God might ask of her. But she was still astonished when, in the quiet of prayer one day, God said to her, “Your mission will be to save souls.”

Her heart lifted. Not long after the retreat, she took her children to a country hacienda for an extended visit with her brother. While there, she offered to present talks from the retreat that she had just attended to some neighbors. No less than sixty women came! Conchita said afterward that she didn’t consider whether she was qualified or whether the idea had been prideful. Rather, “I felt within me a fire that burned, and I wanted to enkindle in other hearts this flame.”

And enkindle a flame she did. At the end of the retreat, several women made heartfelt confessions to a local priest.

Sadness for the Mexican Church. One day while she prayed in church, Conchita had a vision of the Holy Spirit. In the form of a dove, it shined light on a cross, in the center of which beat Jesus’ heart. The vision persisted for days. She also heard Jesus tell her, “The world is buried in sensuality; no longer is sacrifice loved. I wish the Cross to reign.”

Conchita told her bishop what she had seen. Venerable Ramón Ibarra y González was inspired; he read more of her writings. Moved by what he read, the bishop took steps to form a religious congregation inspired by Conchita’s vision: the Apostolate of the Cross. This community was open to laypeople, priests, and religious. Members embraced a spirituality of Jesus crucified. They offered up their daily trials and frustrations for priests, a form of “spiritual motherhood” that was very important to Conchita. Eventually, Conchita’s prayerful insights and theological reflections inspired the formation of five other congregations known collectively as the Works of the Cross.

Conchita had plenty of personal distress to offer up: one of her sons died in childhood. Then, in 1901 her beloved Pancho died, leaving her a widow at age thirty-nine. She was devastated. At the time, their eldest child was only sixteen. To add to her sorrow, three more of her nine children would die prematurely in the coming years.

Looking back, we can see how God used both her growing apostolate and her own tragic losses. Mexico was about to enter a prolonged period of suffering in the form of a nine-year revolutionary war, and Conchita’s ministry of intercession would become all the more important.

During the war, Conchita witnessed horrible persecution of the Church. Priests were killed or forced into hiding, churches were destroyed, and children were martyred. “I felt in my soul a mortal sadness as if Satan had entered Mexico,” she wrote. At great risk to herself, Conchita hid priests, bishops, and men and women religious in her home for the duration.

“Blessed Be God for Everything.” As the revolution dragged on, Conchita’s Works of the Cross continued to grow. New branches flourished, including a community of consecrated men called the Missionaries of the Holy Spirit and an order of contemplative nuns offering twenty-four-hour Eucharistic devotion for beleaguered priests. Congregation by congregation, the Holy Spirit seemed to be forming a spiritual wall to protect the Church in the midst of the crisis.

During this time, Conchita’s writings were examined over and over by local bishops and then by the Vatican. Each time, they were found to be authentic inspirations from God. But Conchita still had to petition the pope himself to gain approval for one of the congregations. For this, she brought two of her children with her so that they could experience the pilgrimage together. Always down-to-earth, she calmly wrote letters to her other children during the journey, asking about their families, health, and business travails. She gave practical and spiritual advice in her letters, and prayed passionately for their needs while fighting seasickness.

“I carry within me three lives, all very strong,” she wrote. “Family life with its multiple sorrows of a thousand kinds, that is, the life of a mother; the life of the Works of the Cross with all its sorrows and weight; . . . and the life of the spirit or interior life, which is the heaviest of all, with its highs and lows, its tempests and struggles, its light and darkness. Blessed be God for everything!”

Conchita spent her remaining years living with her children and grandchildren—and writing. Always writing. She died on March 3, 1937, at the age of seventy-four. By the end of her life, she had accumulated more than 60,000 handwritten pages.

Prayer: Her Gift to the Church. In their accounts of her, Conchita’s children stress that she was simply a good mother. Maybe it’s surprising that a woman of her state in life could be the catalyst for so much good. But what touches me is that it was her commitment to personal prayer and daily Mass that made her family life and ministry in the Church possible. Conchita’s prayer life wasn’t a waste of time or a selfish pursuit; it blessed her family and the entire Church!

This year, as I celebrate a very ordinary, diaper-filled Pentecost, I’m keeping this in mind. Like Conchita, I can turn to God in any situation and trust that the Holy Spirit will help me bear fruit—in whatever way he wants.

Laura Loker lives in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC.