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A woman of virtue and valor: Remembering Maria Josefa de la Consolación Leal (1795-1857)

By Kathleen Muldoon

for Today’s Catholic

Cousins Teresa Hinojosa and Naomi Klann were intrigued when they learned that one of their ancestors, Maria Josefa de la Consolación Leal (“Maria Consolación”), was buried in a church beneath its high altar — an honor traditionally reserved for saints and relics. They knew she must have been one special lady! At different times and through different lenses, Hinojosa and Klann each began her own journey of discovery. Following diligent research of historical and genealogical records, documents such as old church and anniversary programs, and family stories passed on through the years, they pieced together stores of Maria Consolación, whose unshakable faith in God and relentless pursuit of social justice inspired and continues to inspire all whose lives she touched.

Photo: Veronica Markland | Today’s Catholic Newspaper | St. Anthony – Elmendorf

While accurate birth records aren’t always available for the late 18th century, an infant baptismal record from San Fernando Church dated May 2, 1795, confirms her birth year as 1795 in what is now San Antonio. Maria Consolación’s father, Joaquin Leal —  a rancher— and mother, Ana Maria Arocha — heiress to the Simon de Arocha land holdings — both descended from the Canary Islanders who, according to the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA) had decades earlier become “the first municipality in the Spanish province of Texas of La Villa de San Fernando de Bexar.” The Arocha and Leal family properties in Bexar adjoined, vastly “expanding the land holdings of these two prominent families,” according to Naomi Klann’s research. Although no account of Maria Consolación’s youngest years has been found, it can be assumed that she and her sister Juana enjoyed happy, comfortable childhoods. “Theirs was a simple world, where life centered around home, family, and San Fernando, a time when duty and sacrifice were embraced and not feared,” Teresa Hinojosa notes. But ominous winds of war were gathering, and dark days were about to descend on Maria Consolación’s family and on other inhabitants of Mexican Provinces.

Maria Consolación was 15 when the Mexican War of Independence (1810-1813) began. According to TSHA documents, “it was a series of revolts that grew out of the increasing political turmoil both in Spain and Mexico.” At this time, according to Memoirs of Texas statesman and revolutionary José Antonio Navarro (1795-1871), Maria Consolación and her family lived on their land along the banks of the San Antonio River. Genealogical records indicate that the Leal family “along with other prominent and wealthy families of San Antonio had aligned themselves with the Magee/Gutierrez Expedition,” a Republican army of the northern provinces. In August 1813, the Battle of Medina, the “bloodiest ever fought on Texas soil” (TSHA) took place 20 miles south of Maria Consolación’s home. The brave men of the Magee/Gutierrez army were outnumbered and overtaken by the Spanish troops. According to Naomi Klann’s research, those not killed in battle were captured and executed in front of their families, after which Maria Consolación, her mother, sister, and other wives and daughters were imprisoned. Conditions at the prison, La Quinta, were deplorable. In Memoirs, Navarro noted that “more than 500 married and single female inmates … were exposed to the insults of those depraved undisciplined troops and frequently endured defilement and lewd acts.” TSHA also documents women held at La Quinta as victims of verbal, physical and sexual assault. Navarro singles out Maria Consolación and her sister as particularly outstanding for enduring their imprisonment with “spirited courage before submitting to the shameful proposals of their jailers.” He named Maria Consolación his “heroine” — a term, Hinojosa adds, “of which we may never know the full extent of its use or meaning with regard to her entire life.”

Records do not indicate a release date for Maria Consolación from La Quinta. TSHA records state that most of the women were confined for two to four months. In her research, Teresa Hinojosa notes that “the aftermath of the Mexican War of Independence left Maria Consolación and her family desolate. Along with many of San Antonio’s notable families they endured the hardship of having their property, land cattle and homes confiscated.” Only a portion of this was returned. Records show that she married José Leonardo de la Garza in 1821 at San Fernando Church. At some point she and her family settled south of San Antonio in Graytown where Maria Consolación’s ranch was located. Teresa Hinojosa notes that family history steeped in oral tradition is replete with accounts of Maria Consolación’s “religious apostolic zeal and spirit, manifested in a life of piety, charity, generosity and bravery” for which she was known for the remainder of her life. Chief among these is her having “taken in homeless children who had lost their parents during the time of the war and providing for their care,” including nurturing their spiritual growth in the Catholic church. At age 4, Teresa Hinojosa’ great, great grandmother and namesake, Teresa G’Sell, was one of the orphans adopted by Maria Consolación; her parents were killed in 1844 as they traveled with the Henry Castro delegation to found Castroville.

Maria Consolación remained a vibrant member of Graytown and a staunch Catholic for the rest of her life. Although records don’t indicate what role she might have played in forming the congregation of and procuring land and funds for the building of Graytown’s St. James Church, which was completed in 1854 (TSHA records indicate that the church was renamed Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1877), her religious zeal and documented practice of Corporal Works of Mercy, as well as her stated desire to be buried in the church, are testament that she was surely instrumental in the founding of St. James.

“On May 28, 1957, Maria Josefa de la Consolación was robbed and murdered by bandits at her home,” Naomi Crain records from her research. St. James’ priest and a grateful community complied with Maria Consolación’s wishes and her remains were interred beneath the high altar of the church — a fitting honor for a life of valor and virtue.

In 1857, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, formerly St. James Church in Graytown, was the final resting place for Maria Josefa de la Consolación Leal.