St. Teresa, patron saint of Spain, is being celebrated throughout the Castile-Leon region during her Jubilee Year.
Many pilgrims follow the arc of her life, from her birthplace in Avila to her tomb in Alba de Tormes.
Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada was born March 28, 1515, to Alonso de Cepeda and his second wife, Beatriz de Ahumada. There were eventually 12 children in the family.
Her mother died before Teresa turned 12, and she asked the Virgin Mary to become her mother. Her father put the 16-year-old in the Augustinian Convent of Our Lady of Grace as a boarder.
Teresa fell ill in 1533 and heard her calling, but her father didn’t approve. She had a “religious elopement” at age 20 to the Carmelite Convent of Incarnation just outside the walled city of Avila.
Considered the first female founding religious, the mystic created 17 convents across Spain, mostly in the Castile-Leon region. They all continue today.
Teresa dies at her eighth convent in Alba de Tormes
The Anunciation Convent in Alba de Tormes was Teresa’s eighth foundation, in 1571. She returned to the convent, with a broken arm and weak heart, as her earthly work was nearing its end. Teresa died here at 9 p.m. Oct. 4, 1582.
Nine nuns now live in cloister here, welcoming pilgrims who want to see her gilt coffin high above the altar and, up the stairs through the museum, the reliquaries on either side of the coffin. One holds her heart, the other her arm.
“We aren’t able to put ourselves 500 years ago,” says guide Victoria Hernandez Vazquez, “so we can’t understand what these relics meant to people.” To have a piece of Teresa meant everything.
During her life, people often commented on Teresa’s lovely smell. Even though her teeth were rotten, her breath smelled pleasant, some said, like musk.
After death, some said the sweet smell persisted. She was disinterred five times over the years, displayed and dismembered for relics.
Disputes over the saint’s mortal remains
Avila asked for her body, but it was there only nine months before the powerful Duke of Alba wrested it back for Alba de Tormes. Avila took one of her hands, which is now in Portugal. The other is in Southern Spain.
In 1591, the Bishop of Salamanca wanted to see the condition of the saint’s body. It was then that the heart was removed for its own reliquary.
St. Teresa’s spiritual reach far transcends mere geography. Faithful around the world call upon this capable woman, an entrepreneur and feminist centuries ahead of her time.
When you go
The Master of Prayer exhibition continues in Avila and Alba de Tormes through Nov. 30.
The convents founded by St. Teresa have open hours for the public.
More information, Castile-Leon and Spain.