St. Mary Soledad
Catholic men have founded nursing orders. One recalls the Alexian Brothers, the Camillians, and the Hospitaller Brothers of St. John of God, all of them represented in the United States.
But the major number of religious orders dedicated to helping the sick have been founded by women. This is understandable, given womankind’s healing disposition and healing touch.
St. Mary Soledad was a “modern” saint who gave to the world yet another sisterhood dedicated primarily to nursing. They are the “Handmaids of Mary Serving the Sick”, better known in this country (where they have been working since 1914) as the Sisters Servants of Mary, Ministers to the Sick.
The foundress, a native of Madrid, was baptized Bibiana Antonia Manuela. She was the second of the five children of shopkeeper Francisco Torres and his wife Antonia Acosta. Raised in good Christian surroundings, Manuela grew up a thoughtful child, more interested in passing her own food on to her poorer playmates, and teaching them their prayers, than playing games with them. Educated by the Daughters of Charity, she may have been inspired by that order’s hospital work to think along nursing lines.
Definitely desiring to join a religious order, she had the Dominican nuns particularly in mind. But then she met Don Michael Martinez y Sanz, a lay member of the third order of the Servites. Worried about the lack of care for the sick of his parish, he gathered seven women together in 1851 and proposed the establishment of a religious nursing order. Emanuela Torres Acosta, then aged 25, took him on and became the actual founder of the Sisters Servants. She took the religious name of Maria Soledad, from a Spanish title of Our Lady of Sorrows (“soledad” means “desolate”). The little new community won its spurs during a cholera epidemic that struck Madrid shortly after the foundation.
The first decade of the Sisters Servants was the roughest. Growth in membership was painfully slow. Then in 1856 Don Martinez took away six sisters to make a new establishment at Fernando Po, West Africa. Thus Mother Mary was left with only six sisters in the community.
Now she became the target of serious slanders. The government refused to recognize her status, and she was deposed as superior general. Fortunately, she received an able new spiritual director, Fr. Gabino Sanchez, and he saw to it that the society was rehabilitated. The queen of Spain and some of the local officials also rallied to Mother Mary’s assistance.
The Servants of Mary finally obtained official diocesan approval in 1861. Matters now started to improve. The sisters took over the management of a home for delinquents in Madrid and made several foundations elsewhere. When in 1865 cholera once more became epidemic, the little community again won praise for its selfless devotion to duty. True, the departure of a number of the sisters for another religious order around 1870 occasioned new strife, and the foundress had to suffer further attacks from the disgruntled. (One of her faithful adherents said, “Mother Mary is like an anvil. She is constantly taking a beating.”) But there was an upturn in 1875. The congregation opened its first foreign house at Santiago, Cuba, and in 1876 it received the official approval of the pope. By 1887 it had 47 houses in both hemispheres.
Maria Soledad’s last years were fortunately serene. When her nuns, gathered about her deathbed in 1887, asked her blessing, she simply admonished them, “Children, live together in peace and harmony.”
Mother Mary left behind her, at long last, a well-organized and technically skilled body of women, ready to serve the sick not only tenderly but efficiently. It was a notable bequest to mankind.
Declared “blessed” by Pope Pius XII in 1950, Mary Soledad Torres-Acosta was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1970. In her they saluted all who with loving hearts perform the corporal works of mercy.
--Father Robert F. McNamara