Little known among Catholics in America today are the sufferings of our Mexican brethren at the hands of the Communist, anti-clerical forces of the revolutionary government, amid a series of persecutions which were focused particularly on religious orders. Many communities of consecrated life in the United States owe their existence to Mexican priests and nuns who fled here in the first three decades of the twentieth century.
One of the most fascinating and enigmatic of the refugee-foundresses is the Discalced Carmelite prioress, Mother Mary Elias of the Blessed Sacrament. Of Napoleon’s line, Elena Maria Thierry was born on August 15, 1879 to a devout family of European extraction. The second to the youngest of twenty children, she received a thorough education, including operatic training, gifted as she was with a beautiful singing voice.
Called by God to the religious life, she first sought to enter a teaching order. On September 30, 1897, when traveling on a train to the convent, she suddenly found herself face to face with a young Carmelite nun. The nun looked at her knowingly and said, “You will remain there a short time. Then you will come to my order.” The mysterious nun vanished.
Elena Maria was dismissed from the teaching order after a few years and sought to enter the Mexico City Carmel. On the walls of the Carmel hung a picture of the same nun Elena Maria had seen on the train. She was told it was the Little Flower who was already world famous because of her autobiography and the prodigies which had been worked through her intercession. The day Elena Maria had seen her on the train was the exact day Sister Therese of the Child Jesus had died far away in France.
Around 1904, Elena Maria Thierry entered the Carmel of Mexico City and was given the name of “Mary Elias of the Blessed Sacrament.” Due to her fervor, charity and leadership abilities, she was transferred to the Carmel of Queretaro. Queretaro Carmel had been closed for many years because of the persecution and needed nuns like Mother Elias to help rebuild it. In 1910, the persecution broke out again. In 1913, Mother Elias, who by that time had been elected prioress, decided to move the community to the town of Aguascalientes where she thought they would be safer. However, there were few safe places for Mexican religious. The soldiers of the Revolution often broke into convents and kidnapped the young sisters. In 1914, Mother Elias decided she had better get all of her younger nuns out of Mexico.
Mother Elias had long feared that the dangers to the nuns would force the Carmelite community at Aguascalientes to flee the country. In her monastery there was a young nun of singular beauty whom, it was rumored, the local revolutionaries were planning on kidnapping. At night Mother would hide the young sisters in chests and cupboards and would herself keep vigil until dawn, guarding the door of the enclosure. She knew she had to get them all to safety, somehow. The hair of the nuns was shaved or cut very short so Mother Elias had made wigs from the novices’ hair. In 1914, disguised in wigs, bonnets, and secular clothes over their wool habits, Mother Elias and the younger sisters escaped to Cuba, enduring many perils en route.
After establishing the young nuns safely in Cuba, Mother Elias returned to Mexico to rescue the older nuns of her community who were in danger of starvation and imprisonment. Traveling with a young novice, she was apprehended by the authorities and placed under arrest. The two nuns stood for stood for three days and three nights in a prison cell with twelve inches of water on the floor. In desperation, Mother Elias prayed to the Little Flower, promising to establish a Carmel in her honor if she were delivered from prison.
After a brief interrogation, in which Mother refused to divulge the hiding place of her other nuns, she and her young companion were marched before a firing squad. Shots rang out; the nuns were left lying motionless on the ground. Some hours later, Mother Elias regained consciousness and found that there were no wounds on her body. Both women were unhurt and a mysterious stranger showed them how to slip away from the prison unseen.
After many more narrow escapes, Mother Elias made it to the rest of her community. They managed to flee to Cuba, and then to New Orleans. In 1915, they were invited to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Mother Elias founded the Carmel of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a community still thriving in Ada-Parnell, Michigan. In 1919, Mother Elias fulfilled her promise to Saint Therese by establishing the Carmel of the Little Flower in Buffalo, New York. In 1923, she founded the Carmel of Saint Teresa in Schenectady, New York, now removed to Rochester, New York.
Eventually, Mother Elias returned to the Grand Rapids Carmel and died there on February 28, 1943, leaving behind her a heritage of heroic determination to please God in all things. Many stories of prodigies surrounding Mother are told in the monasteries which she founded, even to this day. She had great devotion to the Infant Jesus, and a beautiful, life-like statue which is now at the Ada-Parnell monastery. Once, during her travels through Mexico, trying to avoid arrest, Mother was on a train, dressed as a housewife. She had the statue of Baby Jesus in her arms wrapped in a blanket, like a real baby. There were revolutionary soldiers on the train. One of them, vigilant for escaping religious, noticed Mother Elias and her little bundle. “That baby is being awfully quiet,” he said, and started over towards Mother. At that moment, the statue of the Infant came to life, and began to wail like a living child. The soldiers left Mother alone. (See The Dove With The Scarlet Collar by Mother Teresa of Jesus, OCD and Dr. Jose L. Morales)
In December of 1914, Mother Mary Elias of the Blessed Sacrament was brought before a firing squad of Mexican revolutionaries, having been arrested for persevering in her vocation as a Discalced Carmelite Nun. While she and her companion knelt as the order was given to shoot, Mother interiorly offered a somewhat skeptical prayer: Little Therese, if you are a saint, as some people say you are, then deliver us, and I promise to found a Monastery in your honor. Both Nuns heard the discharge of the guns, sank to the ground and were left for dead. They later regained consciousness, and although there was blood on their clothes, they were completely unharmed. Little Therese had indeed answered Mother’s prayer in a miraculous manner! Six years later, the promise made to the Little Flower of Jesus was fulfilled when Mother Elias founded the Discalced Carmelite Monastery of Buffalo, NY. Our Chapel was officially dedicated to Saint Therese on the very day of her canonization, May 17, 1925, thus making it the first in the world to have the Little Flower as its titular Saint. To this day, many visitors to our Chapel remark that they can feel the presence of Saint Therese here, along with a profound sense of peace.