The dawn of the sometimes calamitous 20th Century was marked with the all-too-short life of a spectacular young champion of the joy of contemplation. Juanita Fernández Solar was born in Santiago, Chile on July 13, 1900. Her parents, Miguel Fernández and Lucía Solar, were very devout Catholics, although their family life was somewhat dysfunctional. Her father was very concerned to maintain the financial security of the family, and her mother had to raise the children nearly alone. The family was prosperous, and young Juanita would benefit from an excellent education. Even from her earliest years, she was a sweet, loving child who was drawn to prayer and kind treatment of her large family and her many friends. Like any pretty young girl growing up in a well-to-do family, she could have lost herself in a distracting tempest of nice clothing, hair styles, boyfriends, and entertainment. Instead, she fell hopelessly in love with Jesus.
She received her First Communion at the age of 10, which she described as the “fusion of Jesus with my soul.” She was delighted to learn that she could engage in friendly conversations with Jesus, and assumed at first that anyone who received the Eucharist could have similar locutions. She had attended Mass with her mother almost every day since she was 6 years old, and had also developed a warm devotion to Mary, as one whose life was totally centered on Jesus.
Juanita grew up as a healthy and exuberant teen-ager, filled with the joy of living. She loved swimming, tennis, and horseback riding. According to her brother, she rode her horse madly, “like an Amazon goddess.” He described her magnificent passion for living as almost too much to bear. But she also loved reading and reflection on the lives of the saints. She became familiar with Teresa of Avila, Elizabeth of the Trinity, and Therese of Lisieux, and began to fantasize about becoming a Carmelite, even though she had never met one! The night before her appendectomy at age 14, she decided that she had a call to Carmel. Her younger sister argued vigorously that she was wasting her life and talents by joining a cloistered community, but Juanita was not discouraged.
She began a correspondence with the prioress of the Convent of the Andes, who was surprised to discover the clarity with which this young woman could describe the Carmelite vocation. In a world that considered the vocation to the contemplative life utterly worthless, Juanita defended that dedication to selfless love with her customary passion and fire. She entered the Discalced Carmelite Nuns in Los Andes in July of 1919. She took the religious name of Teresa of Jesus, in homage to her 16th century mentor. Right from the start, she was determined to use letter writing as a vehicle to share her insights into loving God and God’s beautiful world. The nuns of her community would later testify that Juanita was already a saint when she entered the convent. It seemed that her only desire was to make goodness and virtue attractive to others of her own generation. She had no doubts about the materialism of her society, but she decided to make love of God even more attractive by practicing it herself.
Teresa showed a remarkably modern Christo-centric attitude in her prayer. Everything she did was focused on her desire to conform her life to Jesus and his loving presence. She went so far as to declare that his great “foolish” love for her was driving her to the point of madness, as she looked for ways to return some of that passionate concern. Her presence in the community was always surrounded with joy and radiant happiness, to such a degree that the other sisters could not help catching her spirit.
It is ironic that such an intense life would also be so short. Teresa of the Andes did not even survive for a whole year in Carmel. She came down with typhus during her novitiate year, and it became evident that she would not survive. By special permission, she was able to take her vows early, so that she died as a professed Carmelite during Holy Week of 1920. Her sister Rebecca, who had argued so strongly against her entering the convent, decided that her vocation had been a blessing after all. She replaced Teresa in the Los Andes Carmel, and lived there until her own death. If imitation is the highest form of praise, this serves as a suitable epitaph.