St Alonso de Orozco, priest

Alonso was born on 15th October, 1500 in Oropesa in Toledo province in central Spain, son of Hernando and Maria. While he was still a child the family moved to Talavera de la Reina and then to the provincial capital, Toledo. The very devout son of a very religious family he was attracted to the Church from an early age. Several siblings died in childhood and he himself was lucky to escape with his life when near drowning in the River Tagus. For Alonso these were signs that God had plans for his life and while still a very young child he promised to become a priest.

He, like his mother, was particularly devoted to Our Lady and he would see his later work as an offering to Mary, calling himself «Our Lady’s chaplain». He received his early education from the priests in Talavera and Toledo before being sent by his father to join his elder brother Francis as a student in the great university city of Salamanca. The preaching of the Augustinian friar Thomas of Villanueva during Lent 1521 had a great effect on many in Salamanca and some felt the stirrings of a religious vocation. Among them were Francis and Alonso who were accepted as novices in the Augustinian priory of St Augustine in June 1522.

On 9th June 1523 Alonso made his religious profession before the prior, Thomas of Villanueva. An illness, from which he was soon to die, prevented his brother from joining him. The Salamanca house was one of the most observant in the Order. Here Alonso began a rigorous way of life that he would never abandon, ascetic in food, sleep and personal mortification. He also began to suffer from scruples, a cross not of his own choosing which he would have to carry for many years.

He completed his studies and was ordained to the priesthood. Preaching and spiritual direction, inspired by his own rich prayer life, soon became his main ministry. From 1538 to 1557 Alonso served his Order as prior of several of the most important Spanish communities and in other demanding administrative roles. For much of this time he suffered from severe arthritis which he saw as another cross to bear. He had a great desire to be a missionary in the New World, even a martyr perhaps. He was accepted as a volunteer for Mexico but only got as far as the Canary Islands before a severe recurrence of his arthritis forced him to return to Spain.

In 1554, while Prior at Valladolid, he was appointed Royal Preacher at the court of Charles V. He held this office to the end of his life, even after Philip II moved the court to Madrid in 1560. During the reign of Mary Tudor in England when there were hopes of a Catholic restoration and the Order thought it might recover the houses suppressed by Henry VIII Alonso was one of three friars suggested for the enterprise by the Prior General. He was not selected for what was in any case a forlorn hope.

While fulfilling his duties as Royal Preacher Alonso continued to live in his Religious house, St Augustine’s in Valladolid, then St Philip’s in the centre of Madrid. As his fame grew he became known in the Spanish capital as «the saint of St Philip’s». His room was the poorest available and his bed made of narrow boards, a stone and an old blanket. He fasted several days a week and made do with the midday meal alone the other days. He gave three hours to sleep and the rest of the night to prayer. He frequently used the discipline and other mortifications. Any spare time was for manual work in the house or the garden or for visiting the sick and needy.

At this time Alonso was also becoming known as one of the most outstanding spiritual writers of a golden age in Spanish religious literature. Typically he saw his literary work as an act of obedience to Our Lady who had appeared to him in a dream and laid this charge on him. It has been said that he was the most prolific and in his own day the most popular of the great writers of 16th century Spain. He wrote in Spanish rather than Latin so as to reach more people.

In Madrid he established a network of poor and needy people to whom he regularly distributed much of his royal salary as well as what additional monies he obtained from noble benefactors including at times the king himself. Philip II was known to value his preaching and on occasion to seek his counsel or his prayers. The Royal Preacher was in great demand all over Madrid and he was ever ready with his services even when it meant preaching in several places on the one day. He never considered any of this work to excuse him of his duties as a Religious or from his attention to the sick and the poor all over the city. The «saint of St Philip’s» was known throughout Madrid, with numerous stories about his generosity, his holiness, even his miracles. Famous writers of that golden age of Spanish literature – Quevedo, Lope de Vega – make reference to him. In his late 70’s Alonso made several attempts to resign from his post at court but Philip II valued his service too highly to allow him to leave his service.

One final achievement of Alonso de Orozco was his religious foundations, some of which still exist, others having had a very significant influence on the development of Augustinian Religious Life. In Talavara de la Reina, a town always dear to him, in the 1560’s he had been responsible for establishing an Augustinian priory, Our Lady of Peace, which was destined to become in 1589 the original foundation of the Augustinian Recollects, as well as the convent of St Ildephonsus where his sister was a nun and which was also noted for its strict observance.

In Madrid he founded another convent, St Mary Magdalen’s, in 1574. Almost at the end of his long life, when he was approaching 90, Alonso founded his two best known houses. These were the convent of the Visitation, where his strict interpretation of the Rule would give rise to the first convent of Augustinian Recollect nuns, and the priory-seminary of the Incarnation in what is today part of the seat of the Spanish Senate.

In August 1591 Alonso fell ill with a fever and was eventually, and reluctantly, confined to bed. Among the many visitors to the humble cell were Philip II and his family from the Escorial palace. Alonso de Orozco died on 19th September 1591, holding the simple wooden cross he had made for that aborted mission to Mexico and which had seldom left his hands ever since. The sad news spread quickly through Madrid. Crowds gathered to see and touch the body of «the saint» and to take what relics they could from his clothing and his cell. Alonso was buried by the high altar of the Incarnation College.

His mortal remains are venerated in the Chapel of the Augustinian nuns of the convent of Saint Alonso of Orozco, Madrid (La Granja, 9), where they were translated in 1978 from the Church of Valladolid in which they had rested since 1881.

Though the process was begun soon after his death Alonso de Orozco was to be beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1882 and canonised by Pope John Paul II on 19th May, 2002.