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Stories / Rosa Maria Egipcíaca da Vera Cruz

Rosa Maria Egipcíaca da Vera Cruz

Rosa Maria Egipcíaca da Vera Cruz, known as Rosa Egipcíaca, was a slave and later freedwoman, renowned religious mystic and author, and founder of a convent for former prostitutes in colonial Rio de Janeiro.

Rosa was born in what is now Lagos, Nigeria, and arrived in Rio as a six-year-old slave. At age fourteen, she was sold to the Inficcionado mining camp in the gold-prospecting region of Minas Gerais. Rosa lived there for fifteen years as a prostitute.

According to her own testimony to ecclesiastical authorities, at the age of twenty-nine, Rosa was possessed by a demon and received regular exorcisms from Francisco Gonçalves Lopes, a Portuguese priest known as the “scourge of demons.” They developed an intimate bond that led to their denunciation as lovers and prosecution by the Inquisition.

After release, Rosa abandoned prostitution and became a fervent Catholic devotee. She preached to crowds and prophesied the future. This behavior led to her veneration as a saint, even by her own master and his family. She renamed herself Rosa Maria Egipcíaca da Vera Cruz, a name inspired by the famous Egyptian saint, another former prostitute. Presumably, in response to her growing influence over the local Catholic laity, the bishop of Mariana had Rosa severely flogged, resulting in partial paralysis of her right side. After this ordeal, Father Lopes bought and freed her.

The pair moved to Rio de Janeiro, where Rosa’s visions and ecstatic experiences grew more frequent and elaborate, impressing the Franciscan monks and prompting talk of her becoming a model of saintliness for Afro descendants in the empire. During this time, she learned to read and write, thus becoming the first African in Brazil known to not only learn the alphabet but also to have written a book, The Sacred Theology of Love of God Brilliant Light of Pilgrim Souls, of which only six of 290 pages have survived. Rosa also founded the Retreat of Our Lady of Labor for former prostitutes, most of whom were either black or multiracial. Her writings and proclamations made Rosa the main Brazilian exponent of a cult dedicated to worshipping the hearts of Saint Joseph and Christ’s grandparents. Soon, she amassed a core group of followers who began worshipping her person. Her own worship embraced a heterodoxy clearly bordering on heresy, often combining the Catholic liturgy with African practices.

In 1762-3 Rosa and Father Lopes were arrested and tried by the Inquisition. Father Lopes eventually confessed to having been fooled by Rosa’s stories, but Rosa insisted that she never lied or invented anything. The records are incomplete, but she was probably sentenced to be whipped and expelled to Portugal for five years. However, existing information suggests that she stayed on in the household of the Inquisition, working in the kitchen as a servant, where she was found dead on October 12, 1771. According to the Inquisition’s own physician, Rosa died a natural death. Rosa Egipcíaca’s story remained undiscovered until a 1993 biography.

Read the full, original biography by Luiz Mott in The Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography

View complete story (pdf)

Bibliography

Lisbon Inquisition, Prosecutions nos. 9065 and 18078. Arquivos Nacionais-Torre do Tombo, Lisbon, Portugal.


Mott, Luiz and Daniel de Paula Valentim Hutchins. "Egipcíaca, Rosa." Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography , edited by Ed. Franklin W. Knight. , edited by , Henry Louis Gates Jr.. Oxford African American Studies Center, http://www.oxfordaasc.com/article/opr/t456/e718 (accessed Thu Sep 05 12:14:50 EDT 2019).

Mott, Luiz. Rosa Egipcíaca: Uma santa Africana no Brasil. Rio de Janeiro: Bertrand Editors, 1993.

Adapted by

James Almeida and Steven J. Niven

Contributing Institutions

Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.

Key Events

1719

Born among the Coura people in present-day Lagos, Nigeria.

1725

Arrives as a slave in Rio de Janeiro and is baptized as Rosa (sometimes Rosa Courana, reflecting an ethnic description) at the Igreja da Candelária (Candelária Church).

1733

After suffering sexual abuse at the hands of her master, José de Souza de Azevedo, Rosa is sold to Dona Ana Garcês de Morais of the Inficcionado mining camp in the gold-prospecting region of Minas Gerais, 300 kilometers northwest of Rio.

1733-1748

Rosa serves as a prostitute, the only woman among seventy-seven male slaves.

1748

According to her later testimony, Rosa came to be possessed by a demon and began receiving regular exorcisms from Portuguese priest Francisco Gonçalves Lopes. They eventually became lovers. Rosa is imprisoned and upon her release, she leaves prostitution and devotes herself to the Catholic faith.

1749

Mistrusting of Rosa’s growing popularity as a religious leader, the bishop of Mariana has her publicly flogged, resulting in partial paralysis of her right side that would affect her until death.

1751

Rosa and Gonçalves leave Minas for Rio de Janeiro and she becomes popular with the members of the Franciscan order. A vision prompts her to rename herself Rosa Maria Egipcíaca da Vera Cruz after a prostitute turned saint.

1754

Rosa founds the Recolhimento de Nossa Senhora do Parto (Retreat of Our Lady of Labor) for the “former women of the world.” This pious house, situated in the present-day Rua da Assembléia, came to shelter more than twenty former prostitutes and other women in need, most of whom were either black or of mixed race.

1758

Rosa is expelled from her own retreat for causing multiple scandals, including a sex scandal with her confessor, Father Lopes. She lives in his house after expulsion.

1762

Rosa (in February) and Father Lopes (in March) are arrested by order of the bishop for participation in the cult of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and after serving one year in prison in Rio, they appeared before the Tribunal of the Saintly Office in Lisbon in August 1763. After several interrogations, Father Lopes confesses, but Rosa insists that she never lied or invented anything. The case ends with Rosa’s last interrogation in June 1765. No resolution is recorded, but existing information suggests that she stayed on in the household of the Inquisition, working in the kitchen as a servant.

October 12, 1771

While working in the kitchen of the Inquisition in Lisbon, Rosa is found dead, dying a “natural death” according to the Inquisition’s own physician.