“I Want to Be Holy”
Sister Maria Emilia Heredia y Guerrero was born in Malaga on 15 October 1874. When she was three years old, her mother died and it was Maria Guerrero, her aunt, who assumed the care and education of her and her brother and sister. When Emilia received, for the first time, the Blessed Sacrament, she already dreamed of wearing the Carmelite habit.
In 1888, when she was 14 years old, her father suddenly died. A few months later Emilia and Pepita entered the College of the Sisters of the Assumption in London. Emilia attended the “habit taking” of a dearest companion, but God wanted something simpler for her and when she returned to settle in Malaga in 1897, she began to think about being a Daughter of Charity. She entrusted her desire to her spiritual director who encouraged her to carry out her purpose.
At the age of 23, she knocked on the door of the Daughters of Charity: The Asylum of San Juan de Dios at La Goleta. The Sister Servant (Superior) welcomed her with great kindness and helped her see what the renunciation and surrender to be a Daughter of Charity would entail. The Daughters of Charity are different from other religious groups, they have simple vows and she advised her to think and wait for the will of God.
Emilia with her cousin, Guillermina Heredia Barron, dedicated herself to visit the Daughters of Charity Houses, Child Jesus Hospital and Santa Isabel House of Mercy. Through the contact with Sisters it became increasingly clear for her that she wanted to be part of this Company. She did not waver; her decision was expressed in a slogan that she has recorded in a gold pin: I want to be holy.” I want to consecrate myself to the Lord. I want to lead the same life as Christ on earth. I want to be a Daughter of Charity.
Almost from the cradle the Lord had chosen her, preparing her for her future mission. Persuaded by the divine call, she responded with a firm will: “I am the poor little drop of water that the priest puts into the chalice … I am worthless, but God has fixed his eyes on the lowliness of his servant”. For Emilia everything is secondary; her heart is only of God. These words can be applied to her “she pleased the Lord from childhood, God looked at her and she showed that she was captivated“.
For family reasons she had to travel to Paris where she contacted the Motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity at 140 rue du Bac, Paris. She met with Mother General, Sr. Lamartinie, who, from the first moment, discovered in this young woman, her greatness of spirit and her profound piety; but it was her successor, Sr. Julia Kieffer who received her in the Company.
At 25, Emilia Heredia gave her human will to merge it into the divine and entered the Company on November 27, 1899. There she prepared himself for a life full of surrender to God in the service of the poor. She had the good fortune to do her Postulancy in Enghien Hospice, in a poor neighbourhood in the southeast of Paris, where St. Catherine Labouré was humbly and simply sanctified and buried. Sister Dufés told her that it was in that same place that Saint Catherine revealed her great secret. Emilia’s spirit was steeped in community work. All this was creating in her mind and in her heart the longing for holiness through external work and with the development of all the tenderness of which she was capable.
One of the episodes of the Founders that shocked Sister Heredia was the care of abandoned children. She had the illusion of going to the Land of Jesus to take care of the children. Instead, Superiors decided to send her to Spain. She had a brief stay in the Casa Cuna de Biarritz where she cared for fishermen’s children, and Sr Heredia gave herself in soul and body to take care of them with great sweetness.
A year later, she arrived at The Child Jesus Hospital in Madrid, where she began social work. In 1902, she developed her spirit of dedication in Santa Isabel de Madrid, the first Provincial House in Spain of Daughters of Charity who wore a grey habit.
The following year she was called to the Mother House to collaborate in the formation of the Sisters of the seminary. In 1912, before the rumours of a possible world conflict, Sr Emilia was sent to Spain to the Asylum of “Nuestra Señora del Puerto” at Santoña (Cantabria), to a school for children of fishermen.
During the European War, the Mother House asked her to get a suitable building to serve, occasionally, for Postulants because it was impossible for the young aspirants to go to Paris. On November 26, 1913, a community was established in Ávila, the city of St. Teresa, at Charity House of the Miraculous Medal, where she displayed a wide range of assistance and evangelization.
On November 11.1914, while the war ravaged Europe, despite the great inconveniences that had to be overcome, a second seminary of the Daughters of Charity was launched in Ávila, Spain.
On May 31, 1917, Sr. Emilia Heredia was transferred with the Seminary Sisters to the current provincial house of Martinez Campos, 18, in Madrid. There were 30 Sisters in the Seminary. In addition, she was responsible for the coordination of classes, the Association of the Children of Mary and Louise de Marillac. In November 1918, she was also a Councillor.
The Lord sustained, helped and fortified the one who put all her being in him. God prepared her for a new Service. On the night of March 23-24, 1920, Sister Catherine Massol, Provincial Visitatrice, died. The General Council appointed Sister Emilia Heredia as her successor. On April 21 of the same year, Sr. Maria Emilia assumed the direction of the Province being the first Spanish Sister to hold that position.
Emilia, at the age of 46, began her new “service” visiting all Communities of the Province, bringing them the light of her good judgment and the affection of her heart. Her spirit of faith made her welcome as being sent from God. She considered herself a weak instrument, but placed herself in God’s hands. She made an effort to create in the Provincial House an atmosphere of peace, cordiality, unity; the Sisters enjoyed a true family life feeling happy in Community.
In the Office of the Visitatrice she soon met the Cross in this “office” of responsibility, the royal road of the Holy Cross. She would find many crosses. After April 1931, when the Second Republic in Spain was proclaimed, several Decrees prohibited and closed religious centres. On July 18, 1936, the National Movement broke out. Madrid, the capital, was flooded with red flags and a mob that had taken to the streets seizing everything that was within their reach. On July 21, 1936 the Government decreed the departure of religious from all the State Centres within a period of 6 hours. Sr Heredia felt that the sectarian Law was for Religious Congregations and not applied to the Daughters of Charity.
During the Spanish Civil War, she converted the Provincial House into an Auxiliary Hospital of the Red Cross, under the political immunity of the French flag, which made it possible to care for many sick and wounded from both the national and republican sides and to save many Spaniards. Many Sisters took refuge in the Central House. Some arrived from the Levantine provinces having suffered vexations and even prison. Two Sisters were imprisoned on their way there was no news of them until the end of the war. They had stopped at a hostel and were taken from there to a checkpoint. At dawn they were shot on the road to Toledo. They were: Sister Modesta Moro Briz, assistant pharmacist in the Maternity of Santa Cristina, sister of the Bishop of Ávila and Sister Pilar Isabel Sánchez Suárez, assistant of the theatre of the same House. The two have been beatified.
Sister Heredia, the Visitatrice, was tested anyway and everywhere. Her family was persecuted, 33 members executed. Her brother Eduardo and his wife Carmen Lopez were murdered in 1931 by angry mobs. Her sister Pepita died of suffering when the war broke out.
She suffered in her heart. She was going to be tested in her most beloved centre: the province was practically decimated. And finally, she was tested in her very person, as she had to leave the central house and had to leave Madrid, during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) fearing that she too would be executed.
On January 25, 1938 she went to Barcelona, using a French name, Madame Merceau, and spent terrible days in a private house, dressed as a laywoman and fearing to be discovered leading to jail, or perhaps death. During this time she never complained. Meanwhile, she prayed her favorite prayer “Holy Virgin of the Pillar, of the Most Holy Rosary, My Miraculous Mother”. She finally left for the Motherhouse in Paris by way of Marseille. She arrived there, broken by fatigue, aged and very thin. However, with her blue eyes moistened, she smiled. At recreation, when they asked her to tell something about Spain, her voice trembled and her eyes were lost in infinity. She apologized saying: “You would have to have lived it to understand.”In the Chapel of the Apparitions, she entrusted her Sisters and her Province to the Virgin, it was the last oasis she found in the desert of her life.
On March 16, 1938, the North of Spain was liberated and having reached a stable situation, Sr Heredia crossed the French border through Irun. From there she continued encouraging the Sisters being interested in each of them. She had the consolation of visiting the new Seminary that had moved to a village in the North of Navarre, where the Sisters continued their life of piety and recollection, very far from the situation that was developing in the Centre and Levant of Spain.
The Province had to be reorganized with the support of Father Director, Fr Carmelo Ballester, who knew in detail the soul of each one of the Sisters, but a new sacrifice awaited her. The Director was appointed to the Bishop of Leon. Sr Heredia welcomed the news with great generosity without complaint. His consecration took place on May 15 in Pamplona.
On April 8, 1939, after the war ended, Sister Emilia arrived in Madrid, seriously ill. As they were leading her to the infirmary, she saw for the last time the image of the Blessed Virgin in the beloved Chapel, more welcoming and radiant than ever. After 15 days, on 23 April 1939, Sr Emilia Heredia Guerrero gave her soul to God. She was 64 years old and 39 years of vocation. Her life was not very long, but enough to leave a path to follow based on the demands of her vocation. She was fully united with the three traits of the Vincentian Christ:
Adorer of the Father, Servant of his design of Love and Evangelizer of the Poor.
On April 20, 1942, the City Council of Madrid authorized the transfer of her remains, being deposited in the garden of the Seminary, in an Oratory built under the chapel of the Virgin. For a long time, this has been a place for prayer and recollection for the Sisters, whether from the House, the Province, or the Sisters of the Seminary.
It can be said that her time was the golden age of the Province. In nineteen years, 61 Houses were opened. Until 1939, the Daughters of Charity were in 110 houses distributed throughout the Spanish geography.
Sister Heredia had made her own, from a very young age, the mandate of Jesus: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” and was perfectly united to the will of God who wants us all to reach sanctification. It is true that special recognition is needed on the part of the Church to raise Sr Heredia to the altars, but we are convinced that she is part of the great army of one hundred and forty-four thousand who follow the Lamb. Sr Emilia Heredia had, in truth, a luminous soul and a great heart. She offered grace more than an empty and passive vessel of clay. Her will to love was attuned to the mandate of Vincent de Paul:
“Let us love God with the sweat of our brows and the strength of our arms”
According to Mons. Carmelo Ballester in the prologue to “I Want to Be Holy”, Sr. Heredia felt devoured by the desire that Our Lord Jesus was becoming more known and loved. She excelled above all in knowing how to combine the life of Mary with that of Martha, the contemplative with active.
Source: Taken from the book: “I Want to Be Holy”,
Sr. Maria Teresa Candelas, DC