Alba de Tormes, Spain
The relatively unassuming Convent of the Annunciation in the picturesque town of Alba de Tormes in Central Spain is the site of the tomb of Teresa of Avila, one of only a handful of woman to be designated a Doctor of the Church and perhaps the greatest female theologian in Christian history. The convent, one of a score that she founded, unexpectedly found itself in the saintly spotlight when Teresa died here while passing through the town. It is now the most important Carmelite shrine in the world. Alba De Tormes is currently witnessing the construction of a new basilica, an increasingly rare event, which will eventually house Teresa’s final resting place.
Teresa of Avila was one of the greatest female luminaries of the Roman Catholic Church, second perhaps only to Catherine of Sienna. Her father’s family had been Jewish before being convertered to Christianity by the Spanish Inquisition, and after Teresa’s grandfather was condemned for backsliding, her mother made certain that she received a strong Christian educatation. So great did the Christian teachings take hold of Teresa that she was inspired to seek martyrdom as early as the age of seven. Thanks to an astute relative this did not come to pass, and Teresa lived to become a great figure of the Church.
Not surprisingly, Teresa found her calling as a Nun, and she became very well known for her devotions. She also became known for her mystical practices, which were often frowned on by Church officials. In her thirties and forties she was prone to mystic visions of Jesus, Mary and angels; she also began to practice self-mortification at this time. After several years of such activities, Teresa began to pursue the Counter-Reformation work for which she would later become so famous.
In the 1560s, Teresa began work to establish new Carmelite convents in Spain. Although she received support from some church officials, others condemned her ideas and her visions as heretical. In the end, her efforts were supported by both the Papacy and the Spanish Crown, and she went on to found her own Carmelite Order. During this period Teresa also established herself as a profound theologian and a prolific writer, perhaps the greatest female writer in the history of the Roman Catholic Church.
Teresa died in 1582 after having founded nearly twenty convents. She passed away on the same day that Spain adopted the Gregorian calendar, so that her death is commemorated alternatively on October 5 and October 14. Thirty-five years after her death, she was posthumously awarded a degree from the University of Salamanca. Along with Catherine of Sienna, she was one of the first two women to be awarded the title of Doctor of the Church. She was interred in the Convent of the Annunciation in Alba de Tormes where she died.
The Convent of the Annunciation is somewhat innocuous from the outside. Built of sand-colored brickwork, the main church is not overtly large, and by the standards of the time it was built the façade is relatively simple. There are some sculptures and relief work around the main entrance, featuring angels, saints and coats of arms. The church is flanked by a long wall which encloses the adjoining convent. The overall impression of the exterior is that of simplicity and humility.
The interior of the church is somewhat more interesting. The focal point is the niche in which Teresa of Avila is kept. Neither plain nor over-the-top, the shrine features beautiful paintings of the life of the saint. Her corpse is buried under the main altar of the church. It is brought out and paraded through the town on her feast day.
The Convent of the Annunciation is located near the old city center of Alba de Tormes, approximately 100 miles west of Madrid. A larger basilica shrine is currently under construction there. As of this writing no visitor information was available. Web: www.villaalbadetormes.com (official tourism website of Alba de Tormes).
The Convent of the Annunciation is easily the tourism highlight of the town of Alba de Tormes. Also worth a look is the Church of St. John of the Cross. For those who seek more Teresa sites, perhaps the best is the Church of Santa Teresa in nearby Avila. Avila has turned the entire month of October into one giant feast month in honor of the city’s favorite daughter and saint.