Rose of Lima (1586–1617)

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Rose of Lima (1586–1617)

Peruvian mystic and ascetic who was the first person born in the Americas to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. Name variations: Rosa de Lima; Rosa de Santa María; Rosa of Lima. Born Isabel Flores de Oliva on April 20 or 30, 1586, in Lima, Peru; died on August 24, 1617, also in Lima; daughter of Gaspar de Flores and María de Oliva; never married; no children.

Confirmed at Quives (1597); took habit as Dominican tertiary (1606); said to have saved Lima from pirates (1615); canonization proceedings begun (1618); beatified (1668); canonized (1671).

A new society, 16th-century Peru grew out of the subjugation of the once-great Inca Empire by the Spanish conquistadors and the equally important subjugation of the conquistadors themselves by agents of the Spanish crown. By 1550, the western coastal and mountainous regions of South America had come under the effective control of the king of Spain's personal representative, the viceroy, whose capital was at Lima. Founded in 1535, this city had a population consisting mostly of native Americans, Africans, and persons of mixed descent, but it was dominated by a tiny Spanish elite, which traced its right to rule to its participation in the conquest and the early civil wars. More important than wealth to this elite's self-identity was its claim to racial purity, its loyalty to the Spanish monarchy, and its devotion to the Roman Catholic Church, the feast days of whose saints marked the passage of the year.

The saints of the Church were among the most important culture heroes of the time. Their lives were a principal theme for artists and writers, and were one of the most common subjects of books to be found in colonists' private libraries. Certainly, the saints were considered fit objects for imitation, and occasionally an individual would appear in society who, to the people around her or him, seemed to demonstrate an exceptional holiness. Such extraordinary virtue might be characterized by contempt for worldly goods, comforts, or pleasures, or by great acts of charity or compassion toward the less fortunate. Another possible sign might be some peculiar trait of behavior or personality that seemed evidence of a unique relationship with God. In this pre-scientific age, stories of supernatural occurrences, such as apparitions, prophecies, or miracles, were readily believed and tended to spread rapidly, contributing as they did so to such an individual's reputation for sanctity. If a person's fame became sufficiently widespread in his or her own time, it might well lead to demonstrations of popular devotion upon his or her death and, ultimately, to calls for canonization, that is, the official recognition of sainthood by the Church.

This process may be observed in the life of the woman who came to be called Rose of Lima, the first person born in the New World to be declared a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. Born in Lima on April 20 or 30, 1586, Rose was one of several children of Gaspar Flores and María de Oliva , a Spanish couple resident in the capital. Her parents christened her Isabel, after her maternal grandmother Isabel de Herrera , but very early she came to be called Rosa, or Rose, instead. According to a story repeated at the time, the change of name was inspired by Mariana, an Indian maidservant in the Flores household, who, when young Isabel was still a baby, declared that she was so beautiful that she looked like a rose, a European flower only recently imported to Peru. An impetuous person, María de Oliva was so delighted by the servant's observation that she gave immediate instructions that, henceforth, the child should be called by the new name. Only the infant's original namesake refused to cooperate; for years, the old woman insisted upon addressing her granddaughter as Isabel.

A native of Puerto Rico, Gaspar Flores was considerably older than his wife. He was a soldier who sometime before 1548 had come to Peru, where he saw military action against a rebellious faction of Spaniards led by Gonzalo Pizarro and also in frontier campaigns against unsubdued Indians. Later in life, about the time he decided to marry and start a family, Flores was rewarded for his service with a comfortable assignment as a harquebusier (a soldier armed with a specific style of gun) in the viceregal guard, a largely ceremonial position which did not pay much but which was safe and enabled him to live with his wife, children, and mother-in-law in Lima. Because they were of pure Spanish blood, the Floreses belonged to the city's elite. They lived in a large house in the prestigious downtown section, but they were not wealthy and had to engage in a number of different economic activities to make ends meet. To bring in extra income, María taught children to read and write, while Rose learned to do embroidery and sewing, and she also peddled the fruit and flowers the family grew in their garden.

In the mid-1590s, Gaspar Flores moved his family to the mountain town of Quives, where he had been appointed superintendent of the mines. In 1597, the town was visited by the famous archbishop of Lima, Toribio Alfonso de Mogrovejo (1538–1606), who was making an inspection tour of his archdiocese and offering to administer confirmation to those young people who had achieved the appropriate age. When Rose's family presented her for the sacrament, the respected prelate confirmed her under the religious name Rosa de Santa María, thereby giving the Church's sanction to the change made years before on her mother's whim. Now, even the stubborn grandmother began to call the child Rose. Because both Rose and Toribio de Mogrovejo would ultimately be canonized, devout Catholics have since attributed special significance to the brief encounter between them in the tiny stone church at Quives.

One obstacle to a full understanding of Rose's brief life, and especially of her development as a woman, is the scarcity of documentation. Rose was not an intellectual, although she did have artistic talents. She played musical instruments and enjoyed singing, sometimes making up her own songs, but her poetry was undistinguished and she left no great body of written correspondence. Although Rose is remembered as a gifted mystic, she wrote no books of devotion, and, unlike other religious women of her time, she never penned a spiritual autobiography.

The fact is that most of what we know about Rose comes from statements made in her canonization proceedings by people who had known her in life. For obvious reasons, such testimony tended to concentrate on examples of virtue or special gifts, and, what is more, it tended to resemble closely stories repeated about other saints, suggesting that witnesses may have been guided more by what they thought holy people were supposed to do and say than by what they actually observed. A further complication is that persons who aspired to a virtuous life frequently sought to imitate the behavior of their own favorite saints. For example, several stories told about Rose of Lima are similar to episodes from the career of the Italian mystic Catherine of Siena (1347–1380), whom she was known to admire and whose life she had read. Did Rose deliberately copy Catherine, or did the people around her merely attribute Catherine's deeds to her? It is unlikely that we shall ever know.

Dead over three hundred years, [Rose of Lima] still lives.

—Frances Parkinson Keyes

Difficulties with the historical record aside, the stories told about Rose of Lima in her own time and afterward portray her as an individual who, even as a young girl, showed a peculiar vocation for prayer and self-denial. By all accounts headstrong, as were her mother and grandmother, Rose preferred solitude and prayer to the company of other children, and, with the help of her brother Hernando Flores, who was devoted to her, she built herself a rustic hermitage in the garden of the Flores home in Lima. It was also at an early age, perhaps so early that she could not fully comprehend its implications, that she made a private vow of perpetual chastity. If Rose had been a lovely baby, she grew into an attractive young woman, but she showed no interest in the many suitors who came to her parents' house, and once, when her brother Hernando teased her by calling attention to her beautiful hair, she took a pair of scissors and cut it off.

We are told that Rose's lack of interest in men was a disappointment to her mother and father, who hoped to see her make an advantageous marriage. Dutifully, she agreed to grow her hair back and wear pretty dresses, but she was not happy doing so. In colonial Peru, if a woman of the elite did not marry, the only honorable alternative state was the religious life, of which one usually thinks in terms of the cloister. In fact, Rose did attempt on two occasions to enter a convent. The first time, she changed her mind because of parental objections; the second time, she did not even consult Gaspar and María, but she backed out at the last minute because of a message she claimed to have received from Mary the Virgin . Those who are skeptical of supernatural intervention attribute Rose's failure to become a cloistered nun to her unwillingness to defy the will of her mother and father, or to the Flores family's continued dependence on the income from her needlework and flower sales.

For Rose, the solution to her dilemma lay in becoming a beata, a woman who had taken religious vows but who lived and worked in the outside world. In 1606, in imitation of her ideal Catherine of Siena, Rose joined the Third Order of the Dominicans, which permitted her to become betrothed to Jesus Christ, while continuing to live at home with her parents and brothers and sisters. A tertiary, as members of third orders were called, was entitled to wear the habit of the parent order, but was not required to do so. In Rose's case, she preferred the white and black Dominican garb to the feminine dresses her mother had insisted upon; it remained her unvarying mode of dress until her death, and in it she became a familiar sight in the streets and churches of Lima.

In an apparent effort to make herself more worthy of her heavenly bridegroom, to whom she did not formally sanctify her spiritual marriage until Palm Sunday, 1617, Rose subjected herself for years to painful acts of self-torture, often with the reluctant assistance of her devoted servant Mariana, who had cared for her as an infant. She regularly flogged herself with a metal chain, and, to permit herself to experience bodily pain as a constant companion, she fastened an iron belt tightly about her waist, placed a lock on it, and threw the key into a well. To emulate the sufferings of Jesus Christ, she had made for herself a pewter crown of thorns. This crown, which she wore every day, dug into her flesh and frequently caused her to bleed, but she hid it from public view under a wreath of roses, because she considered it prideful to call attention to her own struggle for virtue.

Despite Rose's efforts at discretion, word spread of her visions and other mystical experiences, and her excessive acts of mortification. One result of her growing fame was a visit from representatives of the Lima tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, who came to determine for themselves whether the young woman's unusual behavior was inspired by God or by the devil. Following a lengthy interrogation in front of witnesses, during which Rose replied calmly and modestly to all of their questions, the inquisitors declared their finding that her gifts were of the Holy Spirit. The ecclesiastical authorities took no further notice of Rose, while the people close to her, and those who came to hear of her, became increasingly convinced that a peculiarly holy person walked in their midst.

Aspiring to be touched in some way by the same holiness, citizens of Lima sought Rose's company and favor. Her devotees included persons of wealth and influence, such as the royal accountant Gonzalo de la Maza and his wife María de Uzátegui , whose palatial residence became a second home to her. Rose's powerful admirers included also at least one viceroy's wife, the marquise of Montes Claros. If Rose welcomed the friendship and protection offered by the de la Mazas and their two small daughters, we are told that she accepted the attentions of other aristocrats with courtesy but great reluctance. From her point of view, the luxury of life in Lima's ruling households was inconsistent with the ideal of humility in God's service.

Much of Rose's time was spent in good works. Her most important private charity was an infirmary that she established in her parents' home for the treatment of the poor. At first, Rosa's mother María de Oliva was skeptical of this operation which brought some of Lima's most wretched inhabitants to her front door, but, as in so many other things in her relationship with her unusual daughter, she later came to accept it and even attended to the patients herself when Rose was away from the house on other matters. Gradually, Rose built a small following of young women who admired her and wanted to emulate her, and she decided to found a Dominican convent dedicated to Catherine of Siena. According to a story of the time, her mother scoffed at the grandness of the project, as well as at Rose's reported prediction that María herself would one day be a nun in the proposed community, but, after Rose's death, the convent was established, and María de Oliva did end her days cloistered there.

As it had been in her childhood, the garden of the Flores home in Lima remained Rose's favorite place, where she claimed that she "heard the voice of the Lord God … in the cool of the day." We are told that, in this peaceful retreat where she still kept the rustic cell Hernando had helped her build years before, Rose conducted conversations not only with God and the saints, but also with the plants and animals. On one occasion, she is said to have told María de Uzátegui, who visited her there and complained of mosquito bites, that the insects always left her alone. "We have an agreement," Rose said, "they do not sting me and I do not kill them."

It was natural that a young woman who was thought to enjoy such harmony with God's creatures should be credited with working miracles as well. One such event is supposed to have occurred in Lima in 1615, when the Dutch pirate Joris van Spilbergen (1568–1620), who had been raiding Spanish settlements along the Pacific coast of South America, attempted to attack the city. According to one of several versions of this story, when Spilbergen's men assaulted a church where women and children had taken refuge, they came face to face at the altar with Rose, who had gone there to invite martyrdom by defending the eucharist from desecration. Cowed by the sight of the young woman in the Dominican habit, her arms outstretched in supplication, the pirates retreated from the scene, returned to their ships, and sailed away.

Although Rose is universally described as a beautiful woman, apparently she was not robust. We are told that she was thin, which should not surprise us because she fasted long and often, and she appears to have been in chronically poor health, perhaps, once again, because of the physical abuse to which she subjected herself. Sometime after the reported encounter with the pirates, her condition began to worsen, and we are told that she accurately fore-told the date of her own death. During the final months of her life, Rose went to live in the Lima home of her powerful friends, the de la Mazas, and it was there that death overcame her on August 24, 1617.

By the time she died, Rose's reputation for holiness was well known in Lima and its jurisdiction, and news of her passing inspired massive demonstrations. There was a near riot at her funeral, as faithful followers, hungry for relics, mobbed the bier in a frantic attempt to snatch pieces of her habit and even of her corpse. It was finally necessary for the authorities to cancel the ceremony and proceed with the interment in secrecy. In 1618, only months after Rose's death, officials in Lima opened an inquiry into her life and virtues as a first step toward presenting her cause to the pope as a candidate for canonization. The formal process was a lengthy one, but at home Rose was already a saint by popular acclamation. Her little cell in the garden of her parents' home became a pilgrimage shrine, and her followers venerated her relics as well as an image of her that hung in the Dominican church. In 1624, the Inquisition ordered an end to this unsanctioned cult, but the campaign for official recognition of Rose's sanctity continued. A major milestone occurred in 1668, when Pope Clement IX declared Rose to be "blessed," the stage known as beatification, which authorized the faithful to venerate her within her own diocese. Only three years later, in 1671, Rose finally achieved official acknowledgement of her sainthood when Clement X formally announced her canonization.


Keyes, Frances Parkinson. The Rose and the Lily: The Lives and Times of Two South American Saints. NY: Hawthorn Books, 1961.

Martín, Luis. Daughters of the Conquistadores: Women of the Viceroyalty of Peru. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1983.

Vargas Ugarte, Rubén, S.J. Vida de Santa Rosa de Santa María. 2d ed. Lima: Tipografía Peruana, 1951.

suggested reading:

Maynard, Sara. Rose of America: The Story of Saint Rose of Lima. NY: Sheed & Ward, 1943 (for young readers).

Stephen Webre , Professor of History, Louisiana Tech University, Ruston, Louisiana