Teresa Urrea, Known as Santa Teresa

In the Roman Catholic tradition, Santa Teresa is a saint.  Briefly, she was born Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada in 1515 in Ávila, Spain.  She is known as St. Teresa of Ávila, and is considered to be one of the most devout women of the Roman Catholic Church.  She was known for her devotion to God through prayer and contemplation.  Santa Teresa died in 1582 and was canonized as a saint in 1622.

Not to be confused with the Roman Catholic saint, another woman born Niña Garcia Noña Maria Rebecca Chávez and known as Teresa Urrea, also Saint Teresa of Jesus, Saint Teresita Of Cabora or simply Santa Teresa in northern Mexico in 1873, had an interesting history as well and was connected to Texas and Mexico.  Her father is believed to have been Don Tomás Urrea and her mother was a Yaqui Indian by the name of Cayetana Chávez who was fourteen years old when Teresa was born.

As a young girl, Teresa lived with her mother and was taught about holistic healing by an acquaintance of her mother.  The woman, her mentor, was a curandera, a doctor of herbs.  Teresa gave a newspaper interview when she was twenty-eight and recounted facts of her life.  When Teresa was sixteen years old, her father sent for her to come live when him in Cabora, Mexico.  Shortly thereafter, she contracted an illness that is said to have left her bedridden and unconscious for over three months.  She described her condition as being in a trance.  When she revived, she was told that people who were ill had come to her and she had placed her hands on them, they got well.  After she revived, she said she had healing powers and people began to call her Santa Teresa.  She also recommended herbs for them.

Her family moved to Sonoro, Mexico to escape the reach of Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz.  It is not documented how and when her followers took a political turn, but she was said to have inspired rebellions among the Yaqui, Tarahumara and other tribes against Díaz, leading to Teresa and the family being deported from Mexico.  She was eighteen at the time.  The newspaper account of her interview stated that she was aware that the government had accused her of being behind the rebellions among the Yaqui.  She denied this but said that she felt the Yaqui had been abused and harshly treated.  She said that their people were killed, including women and children, for the rebellion when she felt that they should have been less harshly punished.

The family then moved to Nogales, Arizona, a town that now straddles the Arizona-Mexico border, in 1892 before relocating further east to El Paso, Texas after a short period living in Solomonville, Arizona.  She claimed to have cured thousands which she referred to as her patients, as her reputation grew.  This was still a time of great unrest in Mexico when various movements arose in opposition to Díaz.

Descriptions of her vary and it is difficult to separate history from legend.  Some descriptions were that she was tall while others were that she was physically small and frail.  Some accounts like the one illustrated below portray her as leading the insurrections, while holding aloft an worn wooden image of the Virgin Mary.  Despite her spoken and written public denials of being a leader of these insurrections, when she lived in El Paso, Teresa was considered a political fanatic by the Mexican authorities and became known as the “American Joan of Arc.”


(Image credit: Los Angeles Herald, May 19, 1895)

In the late 1890s, newspaper accounts stated that Mexican forces attempted to capture those responsible for the activities, at least one of whom was found to possess photographs of Santa Teresa with her prayers inscribed on the reverse side.  On some occasions, the Mexican troops were joined by Texas Rangers, specifically Company D according to newspaper reports, but she was never captured or incarcerated.  Teresa is said to have continued to heal and perform miracles while living in Texas and is reported to have survived at least three assassination attempts, presumably from those loyal to Díaz, who would continue to remain in power in Mexico until around 1911 by which time he was in his early eighties.

Teresa was briefly married in 1900 to an individual named Guadalupe N. Rodríguez, a Yaqui living in Clifton, but newspaper reports stated that he was accused of trying to murder her while on their honeymoon.  Rodríguez was arrested by sheriffs for the attempted murder and a surrounding disturbance.   He was eventually incarcerated for a short time.  Other reports say that he was confined to an asylum for the insane.

Teresa sued for divorce in 1903.  Newspapers all over the United States somewhat pointedly reported this under the headline “‘Saint’ Wants a Divorce.”  In the divorce proceedings, she related her life story and stated that Rodríguez had forced the marriage after threats to her and her family.  The divorce was granted.  Teresa is known to have relocated to California where she is said to have continued to heal the sick.  San Francisco newspapers carried advertisements for her under the heading of “spiritualists” and gave her address.

She was also linked to John Maximilian Van Order.  It is unknown whether the couple married but in traditional genealogical sources, Van Order is referred to as being the father of Magdalena and Laura Van Order and Teresa Urrea is noted as being their mother.

Teresa was at one time engaged to tour the United States, but disassociated herself from the tour after finding out that the promoters were charging visitors to see her.  Teresa finally moved back to Clifton, Arizona where she died in 1906 at the age of thirty-two, of natural causes.  The Western Liberal newspaper of Lordsburg, New Mexico issue of January 26, 1906 stated, “Santa Teresa, who made such a stir among the Mexicans by her wonderful control over pain, died at her home in Clifton last week.”  Teresa is believed to be buried in an unmarked grave in Clifton Cemetery, located in Greenlee County, Arizona.

A Mexican author, Luis Alberto Urrea, has fictionalized Teresa’s life in his book, The Hummingbird’s Daughter.  The author calls Teresa his aunt, so it can be speculated that he is descended from someone who was also the child of Don Tomás Urrea.  Although it is fiction, in it, he recounts the life of Teresa Urrea, Santa Teresa.

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