Opus Dei: the handmaid’s school

An in-depth, personal dive into the Catholic organization’s domestic studies institute for young girls in Buenos Aires province by Paula Bistagnino. Originally written for Revista Anfibia, translated and adapted for the Herald.

This article was originally published in June 2023 for Revista Anfibia in a creative non-fiction workshop and tells the story of Claudia Carrero, who escaped the Catholic organization Opus Dei (Work of God) — a secretive and highly influential network of mostly laypeople seeking to spread conservative Christian ideals. 

Cover photo courtesy of Anfibia.


“What…you can’t do more?!”
“Maybe, it’s just that…you cannot do less?”

Camino, Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer

Claudia Carrero walked into the kitchen, the biggest kitchen she had ever seen. A joyful girl wearing a uniform with tiny pink and white squares, she had to look up from her height of 4 ft 20” to see the dishwasher, which was twice as tall as her. She thought it was a modern, strange, and huge thing, just like everything she had seen after crossing the entrance gate holding her parents’ hands, an hour earlier. 

Behind an insurmountable wall, this was a small paradise with trees that grew high up to the sky, scented blossoms, and little birds. It looked like a forest from a fairy tale.  

A nice, well-dressed woman showed them the rooms she would live in for the next three years. Her bedroom accommodated three people, but other rooms had up to six beds. She didn’t mind the fact that it was smaller than her bedroom at home in Villa Ramallo, a small town halfway between Buenos Aires and Rosario. She left her bag on the bunk bed. The well-dressed woman took them to a room she called “the ironing room”. It was summer, so the heat inside matched the one outdoors. Later on, she would suffer that humid, stalled heat in the air like a sticky cloud when she was putting dozens of sheets through the huge ironing rolls. 

“Go with the girls and wipe the glasses.”

She came to the dishwasher holding a dry cloth and looked at the scene: some girls were pushing in stainless-steel trolleys filled with dirty dishes, cutlery, and glasses, rinsing them with hot water, placing them in the wooden drawers — so heavy they had to pick them up in pairs — and putting them in the washer. When the machine was done, her work started. 

A dishcloth in her right hand, a glass in her left. First on the inside, then the outside. Inside, outside. Into the trolley. Next. The only instruction was to hurry up. Fast. Inside. Outside. Once again. Into the trolley. And next. 

The machine set the pace: as the drawers came in, one after the other, they filled them up, and it all started again. How many girls were there? Many, but there was so much movement that you couldn’t keep count. There were also instructors and leaders, who were always moving. 

On the other side of the wall, a hundred men were eating in a fancy salon. Claudia couldn’t see them from the “office” — that’s what they called the back of the kitchen — but she could hear the buzz. The only ones allowed to cross the door to the other side were the “handmaids”, slightly older girls who were already in school and had more experience. They came and went pushing the trolleys, wearing their blue uniforms with white laces.    

The dirty plate must be picked up from the right side. 

The full plate is placed on the table through the left side. 

In silence.

Without looking anyone in the eye. 

Without drawing attention.

Without moving your hips too much.

The water goes on the right side. 

The wine goes on the left side. 

Standing behind the diners. 

Only their arms could lean onto the table. 

Without brushing against anything. 

Barely there. 

The uniform-wearing bodies on both sides of the wall moved as perfectly as the parts of an automated mechanism. Claudia paid attention to everything. Her hair was neatly set in a ponytail, eyes big and nervous. The dishcloth was in the right hand, a glass in the left. First on the outside, then on the inside. Once again. Put it in the trolley. One, two, three, four… ten or twenty steps? She didn’t even notice a different movement: a glass slipped out through the dishcloth. Tragedies happen in a split second. She watched as the glass fell and, before she even got to beg God, she saw it crashing against the floor.  

An artificial silence. 

The whole mechanism stopped. 

Claudia froze, with the crushed glass by her feet and the now wet dishcloth in her hand. She saw a woman walking straight towards her. 

With a low, almost kind voice, the woman leaned towards her and said: 

“My dear, don’t worry…”

She pointed to a price list that was hanging on the wall:

“You’ll pay for this with your work.”

Claudia lost count. Had she dried ten or thirty thousand glasses? How many floors and bathrooms did she clean? For how many men and women she had made exquisite dinners with appetizers, main courses, desserts, and homemade viennoiserie? How many pants, jackets, skirts, cassocks, sheets, and tablecloths did she scrub to take out every stain and then iron them until they were as smooth as her hands looked now? What she did count was the 22 years and six months she spent being a handmaid for Opus Dei. 

She wrote it in a document she started typing in the summer of 2020. As she watched her daughter Angelina play around — who was almost the same age she had when they tried the uniform on her — she sat on her computer at home in Rosario and wrote: “DON’T WORRY, MY DEAR. YOU’LL PAY FOR THAT WITH YOUR WORK.” Like that, in all caps, she wrote details of the almost ten thousand days she spent working, praying, hurting herself, and kissing the floor every morning at 6 a.m., as soon as the alarm clock went off, saying: “I WILL SERVE YOU”. She described it in her own words and wrote about it in anger. That same summer, 42 other women did the same thing in Buenos Aires, Entre Ríos, Moreno, Ezeiza, Tigre, Spain, Canada, and the US; seven years, 16 years, 13 years, 18 years, 26 years, 11 years. An “exquisite corpse” made of personal stories from different times and places that, when put together, describe a matrix, a machine that turned hundreds of young impoverished women into professional handmaids and obedient devouts. A factory. 

In 1973 Argentina, a military government was ending and a people’s government was about to take office and pass the most progressive labor rights bill in Latin America. Catholic organization Opus Dei opened a handmaids school in the province of Buenos Aires, on the outskirts of the capital city. They called it Instituto de Capacitación Integral en Estudios Domésticos (Institute of Comprehensive Training in Domestic Studies, ICIED)

“After almost ten years in the country, the first Opus Dei women, who already had a fine knowledge of Argentine reality, believed that bringing domestic work its dignity back was an urgent need,” said the first director Ana María Sanguinetti in a 50-page document published by the Escrivá de Balaguer Historical Institute in 2019, which describes the task of “one of the most modern and dynamic apostolic duties known in the area.”

In 1979, Ana María Sanguinetti was one of the two women who knocked on the door of Claudia’s home and introduced herself as the head of ICIED.

Claudia had been recommended by a woman who employed her aunt in the city of Rosario: the woman had promised that, if she studied in that hospitality school in Buenos Aires, Claudia could then become her handmaid. It took only a few days after Claudia said yes to have someone knocking on her door in Villa Ramallo. 

“A high school with an orientation in domestic work,” they explained to her parents. “For women only. Catholic.”

Before leaving, the director gave Claudia a holy card with a picture of Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer. She had already owned other holy cards, but she had never seen that man with thick black-framed glasses and a half-smile. She never forgot the phrase on the bottom: “A servant of God”. 

“There will be a draw between several girls to choose who enters the school. Pray a lot to him, so you get picked,” Sanguinetti told her. 

Claudia prayed. Every night and every day, she prayed for two or three months, non-stop. When they called her, she felt that some sort of miracle had happened. It was the first wish she had ever gotten. They had picked her, among so many others. 

The call came in November. They told her to be there on January 3. It was 1980. Six days had passed since her 14th birthday. 


“The number of people who wish to engage in domestic work is declining, and those doing this type of work are not happy, because they are underestimated by society. This leads young women to get temporary jobs, to believe housemaid work is not as decent as being a factory worker or a hairdressing apprentice, when actually this is the job that deals with the most dignified object: human beings”.  

María Alba Blotta, promoter and pedagogical advisor for ICIED, 1972.


An impassable wall surrounded the 9 hectares that had previously been the country house of a pioneering family of San Miguel, in the northeast of the Buenos Aires province, some 30 kilometers away from the capital city. The Gallardos had sold their property in Bella Vista after perseverance and a good offer from the Association for the Promotion of Culture — Opus Dei’s first civilian association in Argentina, created in 1961. 

The family handed over the main house on the premises, a typical 19th-century farmhouse with big galleries with majolica and terracotta ceramics, wooden floors, and brick walls. There was also another colonial-style house with orange-tiled roofs, white-column galleries, a patio with a cistern, and a water fountain on the main entrance. The Gallardos had named their country house La Chacra, and that name stuck. It sounded right for a spiritual retreat house. A few years later, that name was invested with a sacred aura: Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer lived there during his only visit to Argentina, between June 14 and 18, 1974.     

The school began operating in 1973 in some of the rooms of the colonial building, on the far side of the country house. This way, the guests would never come across with the girls, except with the ones who served them.  

When Claudia arrived, in 1980, you could smell the pine trees and the 50-year-old eucalyptus that had inspired the name of the town, Bella Vista (‘Beautiful View’), as well as a catholic and military common sense that shielded its borders like a village. The entire neighborhood was next to the largest Army facility in the country, Campo de Mayo, which set both the mood and the rules of living: by then, the military dictatorship had been in power for almost four years — out of the total seven — and this was one of the clandestine centers of kidnapping and torture where thousands of people had been disappeared and murdered.

People talked about it indoors, too. Those who dined there were elite members of Opus Dei: professionals, some with distinguished last names, from landowner, business, political, judiciary or academic families. They seemed like ordinary men — they probably were — but they were the chosen ones. They had accepted the challenge of sanctifying themselves in ordinary life through work and celibacy, foregoing money and abiding by the teachings of  Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer. They called those commitments of chastity, poverty and obedience. These were equivalent to the vows of religious people, but they called it commitments because that was their distinction. Unlike priests, they were secular people who could engage in civilian life without any restrictions: they could be legislators, judges, college professors, journalists, businessmen and bankers. Not only they could, but they had to reach the highest positions in society, take on the pinnacle of power, because the world is like a mountain and whoever wants to rule it must reach the summit so they can then melt the snow and bathe the rest.  

Created in 1928 “by divine inspiration” in Spain during the rule of dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera, Opus Dei disembarked in Rosario in 1950. The founder of “God’s Work”, Escrivá de Balaguer, had been exchanging letters with military bishop Antonio Caggiano for years. That year, they also got to Chile, and Mexico before that. By the 60s, members were multiplying. And as they grew, the same thing happened with the need to have properties where they could make homes for community life — “family life” — between men and women, separately. They went to La Chacra for their coliving experiences and “annual retreat” — equivalent to vacations — which lasted a month back in the glory days. 

By January 1980, male priests and secular members totaled a hundred people. So they had to bring in all the new students to serve them. In February, the men left and the women came in. They were also high class, and lived chaste, poor and obedient lives, but they didn’t have as many ambitions regarding public life. Their mission is to support the Opus Dei homes and centers, lead the maids who would serve the men first and them later, and reach out to society women in order to make them supernumeraries. This was a second ring of membership open for men and women also from well-off, powerful families, although they didn’t take on the commitment of celibacy — instead, they had to form a family. They were given spiritual formation, they were asked to bring in other women, collaborate with money, and have lots of children. A woman becomes a saint after giving birth to their eighth child. 

In the early days of the school, it was promoted by a group of women that formed a patronage: the first president was Hortensia Dedyn de Miguens, followed by Luisa Nelson de Llorente. Wednesday meetings at her home were attended by María Elena Duhau de Avellaneda, Lucía Duhau de Escalante, Elena Figueroa de Avellaneda, María Luz Fontana de Pini, Carmen García Verde de Klappenbach, Carmen de los Angeles Larruy de Petit, Esther Zavalía de García Mansilla and María Helena Secondo de Cuesta Silva.

Donations came in from everywhere: rent money from a farm, a gift shop in Ayacucho 1584 in Recoleta, which donated their earnings; Alejandro Roviralta’s Andrómaco laboratory, German institutions Adveniat and Misereor, “40 million pesos per month that came in since November 26, 1976 from renting a parking building located in a Buenos Aires area called Constitución, which submitted 50% of its earnings for six years  — that is, until 1982. This donation was obtained through Carme de los Angeles Larruy de Petit, from Córdoba, who knew Córdoba-born Osvaldo Cacciatore, with whom she talked about the project.”

In 1979, Ana María Sanguinetti gathered numeraries and supernumeraries and asked them for help. They needed more students, because La Chacra was going to be full throughout the summer. In only a few weeks, they set up lists with names of 12 and 13 year-old girls from all over the country who could be good candidates: poor, living in rural areas, with no chance of getting an education, coming from working families, catholics who hopefully had their sacraments up to date — but if they didn’t due to a lack of access — not faith — it was not a problem. Girls whose destiny was to be housemaids, one way or another. The supernumeraries got the first names from their own maids: a little sister, a cousin, a friend from home town. They send them to ask around among the neighborhood maids they used to chat with.    

The rumor spread about a free school in Buenos Aires that trained you to become a professional maid.

“The Ford corporation contributed with the donation of a car that was named ‘El Ochenta’ (‘The Eighty’) — because that was the year they got it — and it was used for promotion trips and searching for students, as well as other school needs”. 

That’s how Claudia found out: a lady from Rosario, the aunt of a numerary named María Amelong, made a comment to her maid. The maid called her niece: 

“There is a hospitality school in Buenos Aires.”

A practical training lesson for dining-room service at the Training Institute for Service Companies (ICES) in the early 2000s. Photo courtesy of Anfibia


“In the last decades, the word servant has acquired a derogatory tinge, the same happened with handmaid, even when its etymology refers to an employee who has served in the same household since they were young. Domestic worker has the same etymological root. Other terms like girl, muchacha, and housemaid, which is the most commonly used, are no longer used these days. In certain circles, they say the term ‘maid’ in English.”  

Ana María Sanguinetti, first director of ICIED, 2019.


Classes started in March, and they were just as Claudia had imagined they would be: they raised the flag, sang the national anthem, and received folders which they had to label for each class: Mathematics, Natural and Applied Sciences, Workshop Practices, Religion, History, Moral and Civic Education, Geography, Spanish, English, Home Arts, Labor Sciences and Physical Education.

The alarm clock would sound off in the hallways before 7 a.m. There was a quick breakfast before mass, and then right away they had to start working and tidy up, clean and cook. For them and for the guests. That went on until noon, when they stopped for lunch. After cleaning the kitchen, they went to class. Once they were over, they went back to work until dinner time. They had time for a little get-together after they picked up and washed the dishes. Around 10 p.m., when the guests finished their dinner, the door between the dining room and the rest of the house was locked. A double lock. One of the directors, always joined by a numerary or a student, locked it from the girls’ side, and another director would do so on the other side, with a numerary. Women and men were never supposed to see each other alone. The door would leave the kitchen on the side of the girls, so, once it was locked, they could start cleaning, washing, and setting the table for the next day’s breakfast. The faster they did that, the more time they had to sleep. Fast was hurried: they had to aim for perfection, always, because that is the way God wants things done.     

The silverware on the table must be set this way.  

What do you mean she placed the cups facing left?

The handles face right. All lined up.

The napkins must have all the same folding, to the right.

The silverware must not be together! One piece on each side of the plate, the fork goes on the left.

At the practical classes, they learned how to properly — or better — perform their everyday tasks: working with an order and a method allowed them to dose their effort and get less tired. 

The wax needs to cover the entire floor.

First, use a cloth and a squeegee.

Then, get on your knees to reach the corners. 

Carefully, so you don’t get stains on your uniform. 

You can put something below your knees so it doesn’t hurt so much.

Polishing looks easy, but it isn’t. It’s a big machine and the girls are small.

Be careful, it can throw you around!

There is some wax stuck against the socket, my dear. 

And also in that corner there. 

You’ll need a steel wool to take that out.

On your knees again.

Your hands burn from the steel wool. 

They had techniques to make the bed, tidy a room, clean the kitchen, and stock the pantry. And others for prioritizing and categorizing tasks when there were a lot of them: the goal was to make good time and not have to do the same thing twice. 

Some girls had arrived without knowing how to clean windows, and many weren’t familiar with basic cleaning items. Bathing in a shower, sleeping in an individual bed, and eating four times a day was also new to many of them.  

The classes in the afternoon were often harder. Especially in theoretical subjects, there was always a girl nodding off or falling asleep on their desk. There was one History teacher who wouldn’t have any of that. She leaned into them and whispered in their ear: 

Mijita, get up, go to the bathroom, wash your face, put some water behind your ears, and come back.” 

That teacher had gotten there after they had fired another, younger one, who had taught Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in class. She was a 22-year-old law student from the Bella Vista beyond the walls. When they called her asking her to return to the classroom and say that the whole evolution thing was a lie, she quit.  

“Most of the teachers weren’t members of the Work, and they loved us so much…we were very young,” Claudia remembers while looking at pictures that show her in uniforms of different colors as the years went by: at La Chacra dancing folk songs, in the kitchen cutting meat, in the ironing room with the rolls and the sheets, in a get-together playing guitar, sitting on her bed with a crucifix in the back.   

Claudia in her room during a spiritual retreat at an Opus Dei center in Luján, Buenos Aires province. Photo courtesy of Anfibia

“We couldn’t go anywhere alone. On Sundays they took us for a walk nearby and occasionally we went on a field trip: we went to see the Sarmiento Frigate once, and also La Rural and the Republic of Children.”  

They weren’t allowed to be alone, either. The only intimate time they had was in the bathroom. And they always had limited time, because another student was waiting for her turn, or an instructor was watching. And if they noticed some of the girls were getting close, they rotated them in their bedrooms and chores. 

There was a general telephone for the girls to receive calls, but their families often didn’t have anyone who could lend them a telephone, or money to pay for a call and they didn’t even know if the call would get through. The same with letters: they went straight to the director’s office. A numerary would check them and decide whether they could read it. The worst was if they announced someone had died because then the girls wanted to see their families. Those would be handed over a month later when it was all over. If the letters went through, they would let the girls write back. But they also read those before. And if they decided not to mail them, they didn’t let the girls know.   

The days went by pretty smoothly. Claudia liked the school. She had gotten used to it. She missed listening to music, though. How long had it been since she had been able to put on a record by Rafaella Carrá and play around moving her head like she did? Or a Palito Ortega album like the ones her parents listened to on Saturday nights? She had watched a concert on TV at home, but now they didn’t watch TV. There was one, fitted into the living room wall and locked. One of the directors had the key. How great would it be to secretly steal it from her and watch TV the whole afternoon, lying on the couch. Once in a while, a long while, they turned it on during their get-together time. But it would all depend on what was on. They couldn’t choose what they would listen to or watch. The projector, instead, was less risky. 

“Singing in the Rain, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Murder on the Orient Express, Sandokan, the Malaysian Tiger, The Sound of Music…those were the kinds of films they screened for us,” she said. “And whenever there was a kiss on screen or anything sort of romantic, they quickly covered the projector with a newspaper or something until the scene was over.”

They all sat quietly facing the wall, happy, watching with fascination and laughing or crying. Maybe one of them used that time to also cry about their family, or about a boyfriend who dumped her, or just cry because.   

The next day, everything started again. 

Opus Dei was omnipresent, but they didn’t know much until it was their turn. It could be anytime, a rainy afternoon, a sunny morning, before or after mass, or in the middle of a chore, at the end of the get-together, or the Sunday walk. 

A numerary, the one with whom they interacted the most, would come and talk to them.

“How does it feel to be better every day? God is watching and He is happy with your service.”

After a few conversations, they would advise them to confess. 

The priest didn’t hesitate: 

“You have a calling. How happy you must be.”

Then the numerary came back:

“You can sanctify yourself through work. “

And the priest:

“God has chosen you to grant you His grace. “

And the numerary and the priest:

“Your parents will go to heaven thanks to you.”

“Serving is the most dignified job a woman can have.” 

“It’s such a privilege to be able to save yourself by serving God.”

“No man has been born yet that could be with an assistant numerary.”

“You will not find happiness if you reject God’s plan.” 

“If you have children, they will be born unhealthy because you are challenging God’s decision.” 

“If it’s not the Work, then it’s hell.” 

“I never saw my calling, but if God saw it, how would I say no to that,” says Claudia. 

It was during the internship year, when she finished the three years of school, that she petitioned (pitó) to be an assistant numerary. That’s what Escrivá de Balaguer called “joining the Work”: petitioning (pitar).   

“I think they left me alone while I was in school because my parents came to see me once a month. They knew that I could tell them I wasn’t OK and they would have lost me, because they measure and choose you. They don’t invite any girl to become part of the Work.” 

After she petitioned, they separated her from the rest of the girls who weren’t Opus Dei in order to start abiding by the rules of the Life Plan aside from the work: being an assistant numerary entails a routine of praying, meditations, conversations with the spiritual director, confessions with a priest, two years of intense theoretical training, and physical mortifications.  

“There are so many things that when they give you the cilice — a spiked wire garter — and the discipline — a waxed whip with several ends — the only thing you can think of is that you have to do yet another thing.” 

Claudia petitioned in 1984. She was 19. A minor, according to Argentine legislation. Old enough, for Opus Dei.

Ideally, all members should petition at 14 and a half or 15. This was their math: six years had to pass between “admission” and their life-long incorporation to Opus Dei. Hence, they had to be legal adults. During that time, they trained and evaluated them: conviction, discipline, charisma, health. And then, yes, they were ready. At the age of 21, it was “fidelity” time: a ring as a symbol of their alliance with God and a hand-written will in favor of their new family. Claudia had to sign in favor of a civilian association, AFC, which managed the school. 

Between 1980 and 2022, she worked in a dozen Opus Dei institutions in Argentina: college residencies, men’s homes, women’s homes, retreat houses, children’s clubs, and the organization’s headquarters.  

Until she ran away. 

She found the right moment and got out. She took the few things she owned. She didn’t write the mandatory letter to the Father, the highest authority based in Rome, to ask for permission. No one can leave without a waiver letter. Claudia did leave. Opus Dei called her parents, they went to see them, and they searched for her at the homes of other assistant numeraries who had escaped before her. It was impossible because the girls that left were almost like ghosts. They disappeared like her, suddenly, and the ones inside were told that those poor girls had gone mad, or had gone after some guy. Sometimes they made them pray for their poor souls. That’s what they said about her too, while they were looking for her in Villa Ramallo, in Buenos Aires, and in Rosario.  

One of the homes where they looked for her was the residence of Lucía Giménez, an assistant numerary who had escaped before her. Lucía came from Loreto, a rural town in Paraguay. When she was 14, they took her to Asunción, and when she turned 15, in 1982, they flew her to Buenos Aires in an Argentine embassy airplane. They didn’t send her to school: she went straight to work. Lucía never knew where Claudia was until many years later, in 2014, when she traveled to Villa Ramallo with her family and remembered about her. She looked up her last name in the phone book and called the number. She spoke with her parents, who told her she lived in Rosario and gave her her address. Lucía went up to see her.    

In 2017, the Ministry of Education of the Buenos Aires province closed the Training Institute for Service Companies (ICES). They had changed the name and registration when they had to adapt their study program to the country’s new education laws in 1993. They had no argument to justify 13-year-old girls having to travel so far away from their families in order to get an education.    


“It’s true: before, he was ‘just’ peeling potatoes; now, he is sanctifying himself by peeling potatoes.”

Surco, Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, 1986.

“The founder of Opus Dei wanted an improvement in the social-labor conditions of domestic work in some countries, and foresaw the social projection that would result from dignifying this task, both for society as a whole and for the universal expansion of Opus Dei”.  

Ana María Sanguinetti, 2019.


In 2021, Lucía, Claudia, and 41 other women filed reports against Opus Dei before the Vatican Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith for human trafficking, slave labor, and psychological abuse. To this day, they haven’t got an answer.


Since this story was written in June 2023, a judicial investigation has been launched against Opus Dei. It includes cases of human trafficking, slave labor, and psychological abuse of over 40 women recruited by the organization from Argentina and Paraguay.

Translated by Agustín Mango. Edited by Valen Iricibar.


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