Teresa Chikaba

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Teresa Chikaba, O.P.
Born c. 1676
West Africa
Died December 6, 1748
Salamanca, Spain
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church

Venerable Teresa Chikaba (c. 1676 – December 6, 1748) was a Guinean princess declared as Venerable by the Catholic Church.

Biography[edit]

In her childhood, Chikaba was kidnapped by Spanish sailors and sold into slavery. She was purchased by an aristocratic family in Spain and demonstrated great piety. On the death of the marchioness, she intended to become a member of the Dominican Sisters of the Third Order of Saint Mary Magdalene in Salamanca, but was denied initially by the local bishop, who only granted her permission to work as a maid for the religious community. Some years later, he relented and she made final vows as a Dominican. She was known for the care she gave to the poor, sick and down-hearted. Her cause for canonisation is being promoted by different groups.

The biography above is one that can be found on many religious pages and in some books published by Dominicans. We choose not to disturb it, but to caution readers about some errors or variations in the story. First, the African name—probably Ewe—is spelled either Chicaba or Chicava in the official hagiography written by Fr. Juan Carlos Miguel de Paniagua (Compendio de la Vida Ejemplar de la Venerable Madre Sor Teresa Juliana de Santo Domingo [Salamanca, 1752]). We believe that the substitution of the "k" is a relatively modern attempt at Africanizing the name.

Second, her place of birth was La Mina Baja del Oro, the part of West Africa that extends through present-day eastern Ghana, Togo, Benin, and western Nigeria. In the eighteenth century there were two ways of referring to Africa: Ethiopia, which designated Northern Africa and which is associated with Biblical references to the continent, and Guinea, which refers to sub-Saharan Africa, particularly those areas from which slaves were taken.

Third, when one reads the hagiography, saintly autobiography of Sor Teresa Chicaba, one realizes that her status in the convent of La Penitencia in Salmanca was not at first designated, that she traveled to this convent—the only one to accept her after several attempts on her behalf by the members of the household where she had been a slave (the Marquis and the Marchioness of Mancera), that she took with her a handsome dowry (more than most nuns entering that community), that she expected to be accepted as a member of the community in some official capacity and was surprised or disappointed when the welcome was not as she expected. After sometime, she was professed as a "white veiled" sister in the community. Her tasks in the community remained the same despite her profession; she did menial labor and sometimes tended the sick.

Below is a precis of her life.

The hagiography entitled Compendio de la Vida Ejemplar de la Venerable Madre Sor Teresa Juliana de Santo Domingo (Salamanca, 1752) is the primary source for information about the African religious Sor Teresa Juliana de Santo Domingo (c.1676-1748), who was named Chicaba at birth. In the first pages of the Vida, the author Father Juan Carlos Miguel de Paniagua maintained that he based his text on Chicaba’s autobiographical writings and poems as well as on extended conversations with his subject during the last months of her life. Though none of her autobiographical/confessional writings are extant in the archives of the monastery La Penitencia, where she lived most of her life, several examples of her firm signature are affixed to the documents of her profession and attest to her familiarity with the use of a quill. Further, since arguments for the canonization of Blacks usually offered their illiteracy as evidence of a simple, sincere, and earnest faith rooted in the heart and not the intellect, Paniagua’s assertions of Sor Teresa’s ability to read and write throughout the text must not be dismissed as mere fabrications.

According to the Vida, Sor Teresa de Santo Domingo was born in the territory known to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Spanish and Portuguese navigators as La Mina Baja del Oro, the part of West Africa that extends through present-day eastern Ghana, Togo, Benin, and western Nigeria. Kidnapped at the age of nine, she remembered only a few details of her life prior to enslavement; but she did recall the names of her mother and brothers, all of which suggest that her people were Ewe. She was initially sent to the island of São Tomé, where she was baptized and given the name Teresa. She was finally exported to Spain.

Perhaps her youth, her illness during the arduous first leg of the Middle Passage, or maybe her enslavers’ belief that the gold bangles (manacles) she wore were signs of her exalted social status convinced the traders that she might bring a special profit in the Spanish market. Juliana Teresa Portocarrero y Meneses, then Duchess of Arcos and later the third wife of the Marquis of Mancera, purchased Teresa/Chicaba. The marquis had been Viceroy of Mexico and, during his tenure there, had been a protector of the writer Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. As a member of the retinue of this religious aristocratic household, the young slave habituated herself to the piousness of her mistress and developed an intense spiritual life that in time became her key to freedom. In addition, while with the marchioness, Teresa/Chicaba must have acquired the intellectual preparation that enabled her to undertake the customary projects of religious women of the period.

Despite or because of the favor the marchioness may have shown Chicaba, the young woman was subject to cruelty and violence from the other staff. The Vida describes vicious beatings she received from the hands of her the housekeeper and the intrusions into her relationship with her confessor by others in the household.

In accordance with the behest of her owner, who died in 1703, Teresa/Chicaba was free to enter the Dominican convent of La Penitencia in Salamanca after being rejected because of her skin color by several other convents. Even in her own community, race put her at a disadvantage in the highly stratified social hierarchy of monastic houses of the era.

Despite her initial marginality to the community she joined, over time, Teresa/Chicaba gained recognition as a healer and sister with prodigious religious gifts. The annuity bequeathed her in the marchioness’ will as well as donations from people who sought her prayers allowed her to gain ascendancy in the monastery among nuns who were only able to make their professions thanks to her financial help with their dowries. Sor Teresa/Chicaba died on December 6, 1748. In spite of her inferior status in the order, her acts of charity, her mystical experiences, and her fame as a healer or miracle worker moved her order soon after her death to commission two portraits of her for purposes of local veneration. At the same time, they initiated the process for her beatification for which the Theatine priest Fr. Paniagua wrote first a funeral oration (Oración fúnebre en las Exequias de la Madre Sor Teresa Juliana de Santo Domingo, de feliz memoria, celebradas en el día nueve de enero en el Convento de Religiosas Dominicas, vulgo de la Penitencia, Salamanca, 1749) and later the full-length hagiography cited above (1752, second edition 1764). Paniagua’s Vida is a hagiography of an African woman, and as such, it exhibits its dual origins—African and European— especially as it syncretizes Catholic piety with religious practices retained among some peoples of African descent. It also combines the genres of hagiography and as-told-to slave narrative found in the Americas. A translation of the hagiography is forthcoming from Vanderbilt University Press.

External links[edit]

  • [1]
  • Melián, E. (2012). Chikaba, la primera monja negra en el sistema esclavista finisecular español del siglo XVII. (Chikaba, the First Black Nun in the Spanish Slavery System of the final Seventeenth Century). Hispania Sacra, 64(130): 565-581 doi: [2]