María Dolores Rodríguez Sopeña (1848-1918)
Dolores Rodríguez Sopeña was born in Velez Rubio, Almería, Spain, on December 30, 1848, the fourth of seven siblings. Her parents, Tomas Rodríguez Sopeña and Nicolasa Ortega Salomon, had moved from Madrid to Velez Rubio due to employment. Don Tomas had received his law degree at a young age, and because of this, could not work as a lawyer. He was able to find employment as an administrator of the Marqueses de Velez farms.
She grew up in the Andalucía region where her father began to work as a magistrate, an even though he was transferred often, she defined this time of her life as a “lake of tranquility”.
In 1866, her father was named Judge of Almería. Dolores was 17, and was formally introduced to society, though she did not enjoy the parties or the social life. Her interest was in doing good for others. In Almería, she had her first apostolic experiences: she attended, materially and spiritually, to two sisters who had typhoid fever, and to a leper. She kept this hidden from her parents because she was afraid that they might forbid her from continuing her work. She also visited the poor of Saint Vicent de Paul with her mother. Three years later her father was sent to Puerto Rico. There he traveled with one of his sons while the rest of his family moved to Madrid. Dolores chose a spiritual advisor, and began teaching the Catholic doctrine to women in prison, in the Princess Hospital, and in the Sunday Schools.
In 1872, the family reunited in Puerto Rico. Dolores was 23 years old and would remain in the Americas' until she was 28. She began her contact with the Jesuits and Father Goicoechea became her spiritual advisor. In Puerto Rico, she founded the Association of the Sodality of the Virgin Mary and the schools for the disadvantaged where she taught reading and writing, as well as catechism.
In 1873, her father was named state attorney of Santiago de Cuba. These were difficult times, because a religious schism was raging on the island. Because of this, her actions were curtailed to visiting the sick in a military hospital. She requested admission into the Sister of Charity community but was not admitted due to her poor eye sight. At the age of 8, Dolores had an eye operation and this disability remained with her the rest of her life.
At the conclusion of the schism, she began working in the poor neighborhoods and founded the “Centers of Instruction”. There she taught catechism, general instruction, and provided medical assistance to those in need. For these efforts she was able to get much assistance and was able to establish the centers in three different neighborhoods.
Her mother died in Cuba, and her father requested his retirement. The family returned to Madrid in 1877. In Madrid she organized her life on three fronts: her home and the care of her father, her apostolic work (the same work she did before leaving Spain) and her spiritual life (she chose a spiritual advisor and annually participated in Saint Ignatius Spiritual Retreat). In 1883 her father died, and once again she began to struggle with her vocation.
At the advice of her spiritual advisor, Father López Soldado, S.I., she entered the convent of the Salesians, even though she had never thought of devoting her whole life to contemplation. After 10 days she left the convent as she came to the realization that this was not her vocation. She then began to give all of her attention to her apostolic work.
In 1885, Dolores opened a center similar to modern social work centers. There, the poor and the needy were able to take their issues and concerns were addressed and resolved. During one of her visits, to one of the women prisoners that had just being released, she gets to know the neighborhood of the Injurias.
When she saw the moral, material and spiritual condition of the people, she began visiting this neighborhood every week and invited many of her friends to help her with her work. There she began the organization “Works of the Doctrines”, later named “Center for the Workers”.
In 1892, at the suggestion of the Bishop of Madrid, D. Ciríaco Sancha, she founded the Association of the Apostolic Laymen (which today is known as the Sopeña Lay Movement). The following year she received approval from the government which allowed her to expand her work to 8 neighborhoods of Madrid.
In 1896 she began her activities outside Madrid. In 4 years she took 199 trips all over Spain to establish and consolidate the “Works of the Doctrines”. At the same time she accompanied Father Tarin to Andalucía to help in the missions.
In 1900, Dolores participated in a pilgrimage to Rome for the celebration of the Holy Year. There she took part in a retreat at the Saint Peter's tomb and received approval to establish a Religious Institute that would provide continuation of her “Work of Doctrines” and help to sustain spiritually the Sopeña Lay Movement. Cardinal Sancha, then Archbishop of Toledo, proposed founding it there.
The “Ladies of Catechistical Institute” was founded On September 24, 1901. Dolores with 8 companions had just participated in Spiritual Exercises, in Loyola, where St. Ignatius was born and in the city of Toledo, on October 31 they started living as a religious community.
One of the greatest inspirations that Dolores had was to establish at the same time, the Civil Association which today is known as OSCUS or Social & Cultural Work Sopeña. In 1902 the Association was officially recognized by the Spanish government.
In 1905, the Institute received from the Holy See the Degree of Praise. Two years later, on November 21, 1907, Dolores received the approval directly from Pope Pius X. Today the Institute is known as the “Sopeña Catechetical Institute”.
During these years, her “Works of the Doctrines” were slowly changed to Centers for Workers' Instruction. These occurred because many of the workers that participated in the Centers were influenced by the anti-cleric sentiments and the instruction could not be called religious out right. The anti clerical sentiment was an important facet in the decision for the religious community of this Institute not to wear a ‘habit' and did not to wear any outward sign of religion. These changes were made with the end result in mind: to get close to the workers who were “alienated from the church”, that had been unable to receive any cultural, moral or religious instruction and to unite those socially distant.
One of the main objectives of the centers were to bring people together to give them an opportunity to learn from each other. These encounters would result in mutual respect and a desire to help each other.
Her deep faith, rich in spirituality was the reason for her commitment to the service to others. Her commitment to the dignity of people was born through her experience that God the Father of all, who loves us with infinite tenderness and who wishes for us to live as sons and brothers and sisters, was the driving force behind all that she did. From there, she had a great desire to “Make of all, one family in Christ Jesus”. Her total immersion in Christ allowed her to see Him in everything and feel Him in everyone, especially in those that were in the most need of dignity and love.
Towards the end of the 19th century, it was inconceivable to find a woman, who would go out to work in the poor neighborhood. The secret of her fearlessness was her deep faith, her confidence without limit. She recognized this as her greatest treasure, and it made her feel that she had become the instrument of God's work, the instrument of love, hope, dignity, and justice.
In a few years, she was able to established communities and centers in industrialized cities. In 1910 the community celebrated the first General Chapter and Dolores was reelected Superior General. In 1914 she founded a community in Rome and in 1917 opened their first house in the Americas.
The following year, on January 10, 1918, Dolores Sopeña died in Madrid. Talk had already began of her being a saint.
On July 11, 1992, John Paul II declared Dolores' life work heroic and on April 23, 2002 he certified the miracle attributed to Dolores Sopeña which advanced her to beatification status.
Currently the Sopeña Family which encompasses the three institutions founded by Dolores Sopeña are: the Sopeña Catechetical Institute, The Sopeña Lay Movement and the Sopeña Social and Cultural Work, can be found in Spain, Italy, Argentina, Colombia, Cuba, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.
Aspects of her spirituality
The spirituality of Dolores Sopeña has four especially relevant aspects: it is a Christocentric, Eucharistic, Marian, and Ignatian.
Her Christological experience emphasizes two fundamental aspects of Jesus: Jesus as God incarnate and Jesus as redemptor. God has assumed the human condition and he comes out to encounter each person in his or her sorrows and joys, needs and aspirations, offering his unconditional love and his entire life in a gratuitous manner. He is the center of her life and of her heart.
She dialogues with Jesus through her entire long journey, but recognizes a special presence in the Holy Eucharist. Her habitual practices includes: the visits to the Blessed Sacrament, the Holy Hour, and the Liturgy of the Hours. She calls Holy Thursday the Institute's day because it is a feast of Love when the Eucharist was instituted. In front of the tabernacle she makes the most important decisions; in front of him, each morning when she wakes up she “fixes the day's agenda,” receives comfort, strength and inspiration.
Her relationship with God is expressed in a filial attitude filled with trust.
She recognizes the presence of the Blessed Mother on her journey, in her heart, and in important personal events, and the events of the Institute.
Her contact with the Ignatian spirituality dates back to when she was very young, through her spiritual directors and the practice of the Spiritual Exercises, and it gives to her spirituality and to the Sopeña family a clear Ignatian character, where it is possible to discover:
– a strong apostolic character. Her whole life is moved by her desire to travel the entire world so others can come to know God. – a dialectic synthesis between action and contemplation, accepting the grace of seeing God present in everything and everyone, especially in the face of the working man and woman, who are in need of progress, and to whom no one has shown the gentle face of God who loves them with infinite tenderness.
– a continued effort to discover the will of God. And once she knew His will, great fortitude, will power, and capacity of selflessness and sacrifice to do His will, no matter the cost.
Her life is a “constant doing” but a doing with a clear conscience of being an instrument in God's hands. This experience develops in her such a sense of complete trust, that it makes her be courageous, capable of overcoming obstacles and to develop an apostolate incredibly risky for a woman of her time.