Firsts are always important because, well, they are first. In the first male saint of Ecuador, we find a very important and interesting person. He was a religious who had a passion for teaching and a gift for learning and writing literature. Even as he was honored for his gifts, he remained humble and preferred to work in his classrooms in order to serve his students. Along the way, he became a national hero and beloved by the people of his beautiful country. His name is St. Miguel Febres Cordero Muñoz (1854-1910).
Francisco, as he was baptized, was born in 1854 into a prominent and politically-influential family of the city of Cuenca, Ecuador which is located in the Andes mountains at an elevation of around 8,400 ft (2560 m) above sea level. Francisco was born with a disability. It is unclear exactly what was wrong with his feet, perhaps it was club feet, but whatever it was, the disability prevented him from learning how to walk when most children do.
His father, Francesco, a professor in English and French at the local seminary, was distraught over his son's condition and feared he would be a cripple for his whole life. Francisco's mother Anna had more faith that God would take care of her son
Then around the age of 5 years old, having yet to walk, Francisco was out in the yard and was looking at a flowering rose bush when he saw a beautiful lady above the rose bush. Francisco immediately cried out to his family to come see the beautiful lady. Initially, it was in vain that he called his family to come see this amazing sight. Surely, his parents thought, that the young boy was simply playing and using his imagination. Finally, to humor him, they came and looked at the bush but they saw nothing.
However, Francisco saw the lady and described her to them. She was wearing a white dress with a blue cloak. And she was calling to Francisco to come to her. Then, miraculously, he got up on his feet and walked toward her taking his first steps on his own. Although no one else he seen what Francisco had seen, there was no doubting that he now could walk on his own when before he could not.
Surely, this young man was being prepared by Our Lord for some important future work! This message was underscored when at the age of 8, he was miraculously preserved from being gored by a wild bull.
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Educated by the Christian Brothers
Until the age of 9, Francisco was educated at home. Then, he was sent to a school of the Christian Brothers which had providentially only recently been opened in his hometown.
Not too many years before Francisco's birth, the president of Ecuador, Gabriel García Moreno, who was concerned about education in his country, and a very committed Catholic, had asked if the Brothers of the Christian Schools would come to his country in order to begin to establish schools.
Formally recognized in 1725, the Christian Brothers, as they are commonly called, had been founded by St. John Baptist La Salle. La Salle was a firm believer in the value of education for helping children to rise above difficult circumstances. Armed with this radical idea to provide education for as many as possible who would otherwise never receive an education, he led the teaching religious order in establishing many schools first throughout France and then to several countries outside of France.
Francisco flourished at the school. He excelled in his studies and was known for staying after school in order to review his lessons and to help the brothers with their duties. The brothers grew very fond of Francisco and the seed of a religious vocation was planted. Indeed, when the President of Ecuador came to visit the school, young Francisco, because of his academic record, was chosen to give the address by a student.
Although he appreciated his son's enthusiasm for education, Francesco did not share his son's affinity for the Christian Brothers. As a connected member of society, he did not think that being associated with the Christian Brothers with their emphasis on providing education to the poor helped boost his or his son's status. However, given that the president supported the schools, he reluctantly allowed his son to continue in order to show political support for the president.
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Becoming a Christian Brother
When his father understood that his son might want to join the Christian Brothers, he had Francisco pulled out of school and put into the seminary where he taught. The move proved disastrous for Francisco's health and he had to return home in order to recover. Through the persuasion of his mother Anna, Francisco's father finally allowed him to join the novitiate of the Christian Brothers in the capital city of Quito. All the same, Francesco refused to correspond with his son for the next five years.
After entering the Christian Brothers at the age of 14, Francisco took the name Miguel and is customary was henceforth known as Br. Miguel. As the order had only recently arrived and established a novitiate, Miguel was the first Ecuadoran to join the Christian Brothers.
As the needs were great and Miguel was well-educated and talented, he began teaching Spanish and religion at the tender age of 15. Miguel began to distinguish himself as a dedicated and capable teacher. He always remained committed to his own continuing education and was quite the linguist (not unlike his father) eventually learning to speak Latin, German, Italian, English, and French in addition to his native Spanish.
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A Teacher, Author, and Man of Letters
When Miguel found the available text books for the students to be wanting, he wrote his own. Before he was even 20 years of age, he had produced a fine Spanish grammar that eventually was adopted by the government as the standard text book throughout Ecuador. Over the course of his 38 years of teaching, he would write close to 100 books to help his own students and, of course, many other students. The books covered topics such as linguistics, poetry, and teaching methods. In addition, he wrote his own poetry, hymns, plays, meditations, and retreat manuals. His efforts in writing were recognized when he was elected to the Ecuadoran Academy of Letters at the age of 38. Through his literary work, he came into contact with many writers throughout the world, and eventually, he was elected to membership in similar academies in France, Spain, and Venezuela.
Miguel was convinced of the great value of books. He noted that for some people, reading a good spiritual book will do them much more good than listening to a homily. The students appreciated his teaching style which they found to be direct and able to make the complex simple. The students also appreciated his care and concern for them as people, and they understood that his life was fueled in part by his piety which included a deep devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Although a talented author, Miguel was at heart a committed teacher. On on occasion, he was placed in charge of a school. However, it soon became clear that his gifts did not lie in administration, and his superiors quickly returned him to the classroom. Miguel was also called upon to give retreats and to prepare children for their first communion. His love for the Eucharist shined forth in his retreats and his desire for the children to be fully ready to receive their Lord in Holy Communion.
Why do we have saints?
How does someone become a saint?
Twice to Europe
Many of his contemporaries respected Miguel and recognized his saintly qualities. Interestingly, among all the brothers in Ecuador, he was the one who was selected to travel to the Vatican in 1887 to be present at the canonization of the founder of the Christian Brothers, St. John Baptist La Salle. When he returned, he humbly and immediately resumed his teaching responsibilities.
Sadly, not long after the canonization of La Salle, the Christian Brothers, were, as were all religious, forbidden to teach children in France which of course is where the order had been founded. Miguel's superiors sent him to France in order to teach Spanish to many of the brothers as the order planned to send many of them to Spanish-speaking countries.
After arriving in Paris in 1907, Miguel threw himself into the task with his usual vigor and desire to find the best way to impart knowledge to his students. Not surprisingly, he wrote a text book to help his fellow brothers master the Spanish language. Then after establishing a program in Paris, he left for Lembecq-lez-Hal, Belgium to help the brothers there by translating books from French into Spanish.
Unfortunately, since arriving in Europe, Miguel's health had been very poor. His stay in Belgium was brief as his superiors decided to send him to Barcelona, Spain where they thought the climate would be more agreeable to him. Soon after his arrival in Barcelona, all of the brothers had to flee in the face of anti-religious forces. Miguel made it to just north of the city in Premia del Mar. However, he had contracted pneumonia and soon died on February 9, 1910 at the age of 56.
The report of his death back in Ecuador was a national tragedy because he was considered a hero and a saint. The president declared a national day of mourning. Although initially buried in Spain, his remains were transferred to Quito in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War because of the fear that they would be desecrated. Several miracles were reported as his remains were transferred to his home country. Today, his burial spot is an important place of pilgrimage in Quito.
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Feast Day (Memorial): February 9