Monk, missionary, bishop and founder. These are the four facets of the biography of Msgr. Jose Maria Benito Serra.. In each of these aspects of his life, Serra was always an idealistic fighter, a man who went against the stream and, simultaneously, a son of his time.
He was born in Mataró, province of Barcelona ,Spain on May 11, 1810. He did his first studies in Barcelona with the Escolapios Fathers. These first years served as the foundation in the formation of the personality of Msgr. Serra. After he finished his basic education, he decided to become a Benedictine monk. He was ordained as a priest on March 18, 1835. Due to the Mendizábal's persecution in Spain, he had to transfer to the Benedictine Monastery of Cava in Italy accompanied by his longtime companion Fr. Rosendo Salvado, OSB. After knowing the various realities of the missionaries doing missions in various parts of the world, both Serra and Salvado started to nourish their dream of devoting their lives entirely for the missions.
On January 8, 1846 they arrived in Australia where they started their mission at the Monastery of New Norcia. Later on, Msgr. Serra was appointed Bishop of Port Victoria, Bishop Coadjutor of Perth with the title of Daulia.
In 1862 after spending the prime of his life in the missions in Western Australia, he presented his resignation as Bishop of Perth, Australia to the Holy Father. From then on, he established himself in Madrid where he committed himself to various pastoral tasks. It was in San Juan de Dios Hospital where he discovered the situation of the women who, after being healed of their physical illness were forced to go back to prostitution because they did not have a place to go. This made him exclaim: " It is too painful for me to have contemplated them and remain calm. I want to save these women and if all the doors are closed, I will open one for them where they can be saved. "
Msgr. Serra was aware that he knew nothing about working with women. He knew that it takes a woman to care for the women. He thought of Antonia Maria de Oviedo to help him in his new missionary endeavor as she used to be the governess of the daughters of Queen M ª Cristina de Borbón. At first, Antonia Maria declined to help in his work with the prostituted women. Before her resistance he told her: “ I do not want that you do anything in opposition to your will, but if nobody helps me, I will do it alone like the One who carried the lost sheep on His shoulders.”
There were a lot of people who did not understand his ministry with the prostituted women. However, he told them that he did not see that the position that he occupied in the Church hinders him to approach these women and to invite them to his table. After he conquered Antonia’s resistance, together they started the work for the prostituted women whom Pope Leo XIII describes as “not only a work of charity but a work of redemption.”
In 1886, there were already 14 houses that were opened in various cities in Spain. The Congregation that he founded had started to walk with firm and determined steps. However, due to the calumnies that he experienced, he chose to stay at the Desierto de las Palmas in Benicasim, Spain for his retirement. Antonia later told the Nuncio: “ After Msgr. Serra have provided houses, homes, family and maternal care to so many women ... he will die far from them, even without his daughters receiving his last benediction.”
Msgr. Jose Maria Benito Serra, OSB joined his Creator on September 8, 1886 - the Feast of the Birth of Mary in the silence of the Carmelites Monastery at the Desierto de las Palmas, Benicasim.
Ven. Mother Antonia de Oviedo Schonthal
Antonia Maria de Oviedo Schönthal was born on March 16, 1822 in Lausanne, Switzerland. She was the daughter of a Spanish father and a Swiss mother. Antonia received a good education like the women of her time.
In February 1848, Antonia went to Spain to work as the governess of the three daughters of Queen Maria Cristina de Borbón and Fernando Muñoz, the Duke of Riánsares. Her extensive and exquisite formation, ability to speak several languages, sensibility, taste for the arts and literature, music, painting and for everything beautiful are remarkable in the psychological profile of Antonia.
She spent 12 years in educating the princesses of Spain and only left the Royal family in October, 1860 after her youngest pupil, Princess Cristina Muñoz Borbón got married. During her work at the palace, she had the opportunity of meeting Bishop Serra who used to visit the Queen during her missionary years in Perth, Western Australia. From Spain, Antonia settled in Rome from 1860-1862, where she met Bishop Serra again due to her inspirations to religious life in that period. He was then her spiritual director together with Fr. Villefort. She was also the Vice President of the Apostolic Work established by Bishop Serra.
In March, 1863 she visited her paternal aunt in Madrid and while they had summer rest at Las Avellanas, Bishop Serra and Fr. Loyodice,CsSR were their guests. At this time, Msgr. Serra already resigned as a bishop in Perth, Western Australia and lived in Madrid since 1862 and committed himself in diverse pastoral activities, one of them was related to the phenomenon of prostitution.
Msgr. Jose M ª Benito Serra later encouraged Antonia to know the reality of the women working in prostitution in Madrid. At first, Antonia resisted the idea of working with this kind of women. However, she offered her financial resources to help in the Bishop’s ministry for these women. She even dissuaded the bishop in continuing the ministry with the prostituted women who are confined in San Juan de Dios Hospital in Madrid.
After many times of reflections and dialogue with Msgr. Serra and the people close to her, Antonia finally said “yes” to collaborate in the work for the prostituted women. On June 1, 1864 in Ciempozuelos, Madrid, Spain, the first refuge for the women who lived a difficult life in the streets of Madrid was opened. On June 7, 1864, the first women came to live in the house, one was a Spanish woman and the other was French. They both worked in the streets as prostitutes but Antonia believed in them. She believed in their desire not to be exploited and manipulated again and their longing to live a worthy life.
On February 2, 1870, what started as a benefit society became a religious Congregation with the name Oblate Sisters of the Most Holy Redeemer. On the same day, Antonia made her religious profession and became the first Oblate Sister. She took the name Antonia Maria of Mercy.
On February 28, 1898, that small grain of mustard seed that was planted in Ciempozuelos, Madrid had turned into a tree with branches in 17 Spanish cities where women who have decided to leave their work in prostitution found a home. Before entering into new life with the Heavenly Father, Antonia Maria who chose to be called Mercy as her way of identifying herself with the reality of the women she worked with, left this testament to us: " I want you to see in them the image of the Redeemer ". And " the women, are graces of God. "