Colombia’s “Mystic of Tunja” was born Francisca Josefa on October 6, 1671. Her family were members of the local ruling elite in Tunja, magistrates and assistants to the Spanish corregidores, or district governors. Her father, Francisco Ventura de Castillo y Toledo, a jurist, had been raised in Spain. Her mother, Doña María, a criolla (creole), was the daughter of a city councilman. Francisca was one of the couple’s three daughters.
In addition to being a powerful family in New Granada (the colonial name for Colombia), the Castillos were devoutly religious. Several of Francisca’s female cousins and nieces professed vows in the community of Poor Clares in Tunja. The presence of several family members in the same religious community was not unusual in colonial Spanish America, and it ensured that the Castillos exercised influence in the affairs of both the state and Church. This proved advantageous for Francisca when she herself entered the convent of Santa Clara in 1689 and began her rise towards the position of abbess.
Other than a certificate of baptism and a few details in her autobiography, no documentation on Francisca’s life prior to entering the convent exists. We have no clear picture of her childhood, or the influences on her vocation. As a socially prominent woman, she may have been attracted to the religious community’s promise of autonomy and artistic development. We do know that when she joined the Poor Clares at age eighteen she had received a high degree of education and was soon entrusted with many of the managerial responsibilities of the convent, including bookkeeping. Francisca took the habit of novice in 1692. In 1694, she made her profession as a black veiled nun, the highest rank in her community. She was entrusted with more and more leadership, including positions as secretary, nurse, mistress of novices, parlor chaperone, director of music, and convent organist. In 1718, she was elected abbess, the first of three such elections (the others being in 1729 and 1738).