The foundation of our Institute is due to the initiative of Father Michael Martínez Sanz (1811 – 1890), the parish priest of the Chamberí neighborhood in Madrid. The unexpected occurred on a spring evening in June.
Father Michael was involved in a pleasant conversation with some of the distinguished gentlemen of high society when the loving providence of God turned the course of the conversation to the fact that the daughter of an important government official was sick and that there was no religious institution that could care for her in her own home. Father Michael was moved by this. This incident was the spark that lit the fire in his heart, and inspired by the Holy Spirit, he came up with the idea to found a Congregation whose purpose would be to care for the sick in their own homes, gratuitously and under the auspices of Divine Providence. It could not be any clearer or more evangelical: “Cure the sick”, and “I was sick and you visited me”.
At that time there were many Congregations dedicated to the care of the sick in hospitals, asylums, etc.; however, at least in Spain, there was a gap to be filled: an Institute to care for the sick in their own homes during the day as well as night. Father Michael, influenced by the Marian spirituality of the Order of Servants of Mary, wanted to begin this work with seven foundresses. The young Manuela Torres Acosta, hearing about his plan, introduced herself to Father Michael who, although indecisive at first, accepted her as the seventh member of the founding group of women.
The seven founding sisters
On August 15, 1851, feast of Our Lady of the Assumption, the seven founding Sisters received the holy habit and professed their vows of chastity, poverty and obedience in the presence of the Cardinal of Toledo, His Eminence, Juan José Bonel Orbe. They changed their names, and so Manuela would be called Sister María Soledad. From then on they would have their own name: Servants of Mary or Handmaids of Mary (In England) and as pecific purpose: “the practice of charity through the diligent and gratuitous care of the sick, preferably in their own homes.”
From the beginning, difficulties were present. There were desertions, oppositions and restrictions by the government involving the development of the Institute. Father Michael, seeing that his efforts to give the Institute stability were in vain, decided to go to the mission in 1856 and to take some of the religious sisters with him. Sister María Soledad also volunteered to go, but Father Michael told her, “Stay here, Soledad; if you go, the Congregation will perish.” Mother Soledad was 30 years old when she became the General Superior at the head of the Institute.
The new parish priest in Chamberí, Father Francisco Morales, thought it a good idea to appoint another General Superior; he deposed Mother Soledad from her position and sent her to Getafe on November 13, 1856. After a short time, he was replaced by Father Gabino Sánchez, O.A.R. who soon reinstated her as General Superior in January, 1857. Two years later, Father Ángel Barra, O.A.R. (1809-1894) came to take the place of Father Gabino; both of them were valuable collaborators in the development of the new Institute. Father Michael Martínez returned to Madrid a year after embarking for Guinea, but he did not take charge of the Institute because he saw that it was in good hands with Mother Soledad as General Superior.