Venezuela’s first canonized saint may be a plain looking but hardy woman, who practiced the works of mercy at face value. Susanna Paz Castillo Ramirez was born in 1863 at Altagracia de Orituco, south-east of Caracas. Her family was well respected, and her paternal grandmother was the sister of Simon Bolivar, South America’s great Liberator. Susanna’s parents taught her that whatever good things she had were a blessing from God, and should be shared with others, as Jesus had done. Even as a young girl, she sought out those less fortunate than she. Any poor, sick, or homeless person could count on help from Susanna.
Financial troubles forced the parents to sell their large estate, and her mother died when Susanna was 24. She quickly took over running the house, and caring for her extended family. But then Venezuela was thrust into disorder after 1899, when General Cipriano Castro seized power. His regime of nepotism, cruelty, and corruption did not even pretend to be just or fair. In 1901, a local rebellion against Castro brought war and bloodshed to Altagracia. The army crushed the rebels in savage fighting, but did nothing to care for its own casualties, let alone the rebels or the hapless civilians. Dead and wounded lay untended in the streets, as townspeople wandered amid the ruins. Sickness unleashed by the war endangered everyone. There were no relief agencies or medical services of any kind. Susanna saw a clear duty.
She began by taking in as many wounded as she could in her own home. Then she took over an unused building next door, and made it into a makeshift “hospital” for other victims. Susanna had no medical training, but she knew that sick and injured people sometimes heal themselves if they are kept warm, clean, and nourished. The most discouraged and hopeless received the great benefit of loving care. There was still one person who could love them and care for their needs!
The revolution faded away, but the needs of the poor did not. General Castro’s misrule continued until 1909, and he managed to alienate nearly every developed nation. A blockade of Venezuela brought total stagnation to what had once been a vigorous economy. Susanna’s improvised hospital had more patients than ever, even after the war casualties went home. She spent all of her personal savings, then continued to support her work by sewing and tailoring during the night. To make up the remaining shortfall, she resorted to begging for both finances and volunteers. Her pastor, Sixto Sosa Diaz, was upset at first, since he felt that she was bound to fail. But once he saw her determination, he contributed money himself, and encouraged others to help her.
With Fr. Sosa’s help, Susanna and a few companions established the hospital of San Antonio in 1903. The need had become obvious, and nearly everyone in Altagracia supported the new institution. It became obvious that Susanna Paz Castillo, a “nobody,” had been the motivation behind an impossible task. In 1910, Susanna and five other women took religious vows and established a congregation called the Little Sisters of the Poor of Altagracia. Bishop Sendrea accepted their vows, and gave them official status as a diocesan congregation, together with some financial help. As her religious name, Susanna took Candelaria of St. Joseph, since she had special devotion to the feast of the Presentation (Candlemas Day).
Sixto Sosa became a bishop in 1915, and was able to support Madre Candelaria’s work from a stronger position. Since her sisters showed astonishing love and concern for the sick and the poor, other towns soon pleaded for their help. A hospital was needed in the town of Upata in 1915, another on the island of Margarita in 1918. Then the cities of Barcelona (1921) and Cumaná (1922) invited the sisters to come and help them. Candelaria accepted as many commitments as her sisters could supply, and never stopped working herself.
Amazingly, she supported all these ministries by extended begging excursions. She traveled the length and breadth of Venezuela, asking people directly for their support. She insisted that she wasn’t ashamed to beg for money, since helping the poorest of the poor was a beautiful thing, and everyone should be welcome to help, even if only with a few coins. She never kept financial records, since every penny went to the neediest. She laughingly said that “Whoever has nothing does not need to write it down.”
In spite of increasing obligations, Candelaria took every opportunity to stay close to her beloved poor. Whenever she had a few days between trips, she went back to emptying bedpans and bandaging sores. Even patients with the most disgusting ailments, or the most repulsive personalities received her love. She even visited those not able to come to the hospital. Her one solution to their troubles: love them back to health, as Jesus had done.
In 1917, a new code of canon law told congregations of sisters to affiliate themselves with existing religious traditions. Mother Candelaria knew her sisters’ abject poverty did not make them attractive. But in 1922 she approached the Carmelite provincial Elias Sendra, who was founding missions in Venezuela and Puerto Rico. With the approval of Bishop Sosa, the congregation became the Third Order Regular Carmelite Sisters of Venezuela.
Madre Candelaria remained an inspiration to her sisters, even when she could no longer travel or work actively. She tolerated her own frailty with the same cheerfulness of her early days. As always, her awareness of God’s healing kindness was her principal touchstone. She died in 1940, after a life well lived. She was beatified in 2008, and may become Venezuela’s first canonized saint.