This is another entry in the usually-weekly series Get to Know a Brazilian.
This week, we turn from the political activism among women during Brazil’s military dictatorship to look at an increasingly important figure in Brazil’s religious iconography: Nhá Chica.
Nhá Chica was born Francisca de Paula de Jesus in the interior town of Santo Antônio do Rio das Mortes Pequeno in Minas Gerais in the early 1800s; though her name appears in the baptismal registries in 1810, it is not clear if that is when she was actually born. Nhá Chica was from a slave family in Minas Gerais. Although slavery in Brazil’s colonial period had originally concentrated on the sugar plantations and mills in Brazil’s Northeast, the Dutch occupation of Pernambuco and surrounding areas between 1630 and 1654 broke Brazil’s effective sugar monopoly and transformed the economy. By the early-1700s, gold and diamonds were found in Minas Gerais, and the slave economy began to shift to Brazil’s southeast. Minas Gerais [literally, “General Mines”] became an increasingly important source of wealth for the Portuguese crown, while Rio de Janeiro, the main port for the transportation of slaves from Africa to Minas Gerais and São Paulo, became a booming commercial center, leading to the colonial capital relocating from Salvador to Rio in 1763. Though the mining boom had mostly gone bust by the 1800s, the rise of coffee production in Minas Gerais, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro perpetuated the existence of slavery in the Southeast. Indeed, throughout the 1800s up until abolition in 1888, Brazil’s internal slave trade increasingly saw the relocation of slaves from the Northeast to the Southeast, where people like Nhá Chica’s family lived.
By the age of 10, Nhá Chica was an orphan. Before her mother died, however, she asked Nhá Chica to dedicate herself to God and to caring for others. Following her mother’s request, Nhá Chica refused to live with her brother, instead choosing to live alone and allegedly repeatedly refusing marriage proposals. In the city of Baependi, where her family had relocated before she was orphaned, she gathered donations and constructed a chapel dedicated to one of the many permutations of the Virgin Mary, Nossa Senhora da Conceição (“Our Lady of Conception”). From there, she offered advice, prayers, and counsel to those who visited. Although humble in origin (she was not only poor but also illiterate, a situation common to slaves and their descendants), she gained a reputation for the quality of her counsel and the effectiveness of her prayers. Over time, more and more people came to her chapel seeking her out. Her willingness to welcome any and all people into her home or chapel, including the poorest in the area, led to her reputation as the “Mother of the Poor” in the area. In spite of her growing fame, she remained illiterate and impoverished, using all donations and gifts given for her chapel. She continued her life’s work for decades, continuing to live a solitary life, finally dying in 1895.
Her work made her a popular figure in Brazil’s interior, and decades after her death, people continued to travel to the chapel to pray and seek spiritual comfort or aid. In the process, Nhá Chica’s reputation grew, and she gained increasing symbolic importance to Brazilian Catholics. Given her status as a popular (rather than official) saint, the local Diocese began to investigate, launching early ecclesiastical proceedings in 1993. After a series of stops and starts, the case has recently received attention from the Vatican, which beatified Nhá Chica this past week, based on the recognition last year of a miracle attributed to Nhá Chica.
With Pope Francis granting Nhá Chica the status of “Blessed,” she, like Oscar Romero, now doctrinally has the authority to intervene on behalf of those who pray for her. Thus, Nhá Chica has become the first Afro-Brazilian woman to be granted the title of “blessed” in the Catholic Church, making her a unique figure in Brazil’s Catholic Church.