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Who is Grand Duchess Maria Teresa of Luxembourg?

Maria Teresa Mestre y Batista was born on 22 March 1956 in Marianao, a district in Havana, the capital city of Cuba. Her parents were José Antonio Mestre y Álvarez and María Teresa Batista y Falla de Mestre, both of whom descended from bourgeois families of Spanish descent.

The Mestre family were descendants in the female line of  Ferdinand I of León and Castile, the medieval Emperor of All Spain. Through her father, Maria Teresa is also a descendant of the Spanish Espinosa de los Monteros noble family.

Her maternal grandfather was Don Agustín Batista y González de Mendoza, a Batista family member with possessions in the town of Puerto de Santa María del Príncipe. He was the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Trust Company of Cuba and had no family relation with Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Maria Teresa’s maternal grandmother was Doña María Teresa Falla Bonet, daughter of the Spanish tycoon Laureano Falla Gutierrez, a millionaire businessman whose fortune was made up of several sugar mills, two banks (one of which was The Trust Company of Cuba, the same bank under the chairmanship of his son-in-law) and other goods which were confiscated by the government of the Cuban Revolution.

Although they held no titles, Maria Teresa’s nuclear family had made a considerable fortune in banking and maintained an estate in Santander, Spain.

With the onset of the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro’s rise to power in October 1959, Maria Teresa left Cuba with her parents, her two brothers, and her sister. The family settled in New York City, where, as a young girl, she was a pupil at the Marymount School before carrying on her studies at the Lycée Français de New York from 1961. In her childhood, Maria Teresa Mestre took ballet and singing courses. She practised skiing, ice-skating and water sports.

In June 1965, Maria Teresa’s family moved once again, initially settling down for a few months on their family estate of Santander in Spain, before taking up permanent residence in Geneva in Switzerland. Maria Teresa first continued her studies at the Institut Marie-José at Gstaad, then at the Marie-Thérèse boarding school in Geneva, where she successfully passed the French General Certificate of Education (baccalauréat) in June 1975. During her time in Switzerland, she obtained Swiss nationality.

Maria Teresa then entered the Graduate Institute of International Studies (part of the University of Geneva) where she earned a Bachelor of Political Science in 1980. During her years at the university, Maria Teresa concentrated her attentions on gerontology, the care of children with learning difficulties and it was as a result of this interest that she also taught children in a Geneva classroom. Maria Teresa also focused on the challenges experienced by women in the workplace whilst also attempting to juggle motherhood, leading the young student to write a thesis on the compared legislations within the European Economic Commission (the EEC was a precursor to the European Union) on women’s work and motherhood. During the same period, Maria Teresa took an ever-increasing interest in social and humanitarian problems, following the family tradition which had brought her grandparents to devote themselves actively to philanthropy and cultural charities in Cuba. Aside from her studies, she was also a member of a group who cared for the elderly in retirement homes.

It was during the course of her university studies that Maria Teresa met her future husband, His Royal Highness, Prince Henri, Hereditary Grand Duke of Luxembourg. They both read political science for four years, during which time they also sometimes worked together in the same study groups. It is unknown exactly how long the two knew one another before dating, but it is known that their relationship blossomed out of a strong friendship. Maria Teresa later said of their courtship, “The more time we spent together it was more clear to us that we would spend our lives together.”

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The pair’s engagement was announced on 8 November 1980 by Luxembourg Minister of State Pierre Werner. The announcement was made three weeks after the couple had finished their studies at the University of Geneva and, apparently, a day after the engagement was considered official. The Luxembourg public had known nothing of the couple’s relationship up to this point. Despite Maria Teresa’s accomplishments and the noble and wealthy history of her family, the Grand Ducal family was reportedly dismayed at Prince Henri’s wish to marry her, as they had hoped he would choose a royal or noble spouse. It was rumoured that the Hereditary Grand Duke even offered to renounce his claim to the Grand Ducal Throne in order to be allowed to marry Maria Teresa if that was what it would take. At this drastic proposal, Grand Duke Jean and Grand Duchess Joséphine-Charlotte finally relented and allowed the couple to announce their engagement. Years later, Maria Teresa told the press that she and her mother-in-law, Grand Duchess Joséphine-Charlotte, had always had a difficult relationship from the outset.

Henri and his parents officially introduced Maria Teresa to the press two days after announcing their engagement. At that time, the two announced that a spring wedding was being planned, but that the exact date and location were not yet known. Henri gifted Maria Teresa with an engagement ring of yellow gold, set with a cabochon ruby, which she wore during the press conference.

After originally being told to choose either a date in February, March or April for their wedding festivities, the couple did not want to wait any longer and thus chose the closest day, the 14th of February. It was only a few years after their wedding that the couple realised that they had chosen to marry on St Valentine’s Day, as it was not a well-known date in Europe at the time.

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On the morning of 14 February 1981, the couple was married civilly in a simple ceremony held at the Grand Ducal Palace of Luxembourg in the presence of their respective immediate families and their closest friends. The ceremony was conducted by the Mayor of Luxembourg City, Camille Polfer and was followed an hour later by a religious ceremony in the Notre Dame Cathedral in the capital city. Maria Teresa was attended by her sister Catalina, who served as a bridesmaid and wore a dress designed by the French fashion house, Balmain. The dress was simple. However, it included a jewelled neckline and was trimmed in white fur. A train two metres in length extended from the bride’s shoulders and was the same length as her veil. Maria Teresa anchored her veil with the Congo Diamond Tiara, which was worn by Grand Duchess Joséphine-Charlotte at her own wedding after she received it as a gift from the people of Congo. Over 700 guests attended the religious service, including King Olav V of Norway, King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola of Belgium, Queen Margrethe and Prince Henrik of Denmark, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

It was soon announced following the wedding that the then Hereditary Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, Maria Teresa was pregnant. On 11 November 1981, the Princess was delivered of a healthy baby boy, Prince Guillaume Jean Joseph Marie, thus ensuring the line of succession to the Grand Ducal Throne. Over the following years the Hereditary Grand Ducal couple would have four more children, Prince Félix (born on 3 June 1984), Prince Louis (born on 3 August 1986), Princess Alexandra (born on 16 February 1991) and Prince Sébastien (born on 16 April 1992, the same birthday as his father). The couple now has four grandchildren.

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In the period following her marriage, Princess Maria Teresa was truly able to pursue her humanitarian and social interests and began by creating the Prince Henri and Princess Maria Teresa Foundation, which aims to support persons with specific needs to help their integration in society. Since 10 June 1997, she has been a Goodwill Ambassador for UNESCO. Her preferred field of action is the education of women and children throughout the world as well as the promotion of microcredits, which she strongly believes to be a powerful tool to help the poorest. Her Royal Highness has committed herself to allaying their suffering. She chairs many humanitarian foundations working in this field. She strongly supports any actions giving women the means to be autonomous and uphold their rights, such as the UNESCO project “Breaking the Poverty Cycle of Women” in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, enabling the improvement of living conditions of girls, women and their families.

She has visited many UNESCO projects in Nepal, Bangladesh and Bosnia, despite being afraid of flying. As a mother, she is particularly concerned about the destiny of children: she has denounced paedophilia and has sought to protect children by every means. Her Royal Highness places particular emphasis on the cause of child soldiers and the protection of children and orphans affected by HIV/AIDS. For her ongoing commitment, she was named “Eminent Advocate for Children” by UNICEF, in 2007. Her Royal Highness has also been very active in promoting the development and aid of children suffering from learning difficulties, such as her son, Prince Louis, who was diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of 10. In 2016, Her Royal Highness created and hosted the ‘Troubles d’Apprentissage’ (Troubles of Learning) convention in Luxembourg.

Following the abdication of Grand Duke Jean on 7 October 2000, Prince Henri acceded to the throne of Luxembourg as Grand Duke, thus making Maria Teresa the first non-European Grand Duchess of Luxembourg.

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The Grand Duchess is President of the Luxembourg Red Cross and the Luxembourg Cancer Foundation. As Honorary President of her own foundation, “Foundation of the Grand Duke and the Grand Duchess,” Grand Duchess Maria Teresa set up a project, called “Projet de la Main Tendue” linked to Her Royal Highness’ visit to the Bujumbura prison in June 2009 in Burundi. The main objective of this new project is to ease the liberation of minor people from prison and to give them new opportunities for their future. Her Royal Highness is also Honorary President of the Luxembourg AIDS Research Foundation. Further, the “Ligue Luxembourgeoise de Prévention et d’Action medico-sociales” is under the high patronage of the Grand Duchess.

The Grand Duchess and her husband Grand Duke Henri are also active members of the Mentor Foundation (London), created under the patronage of the World Health Organisation. The aim of this foundation is to prevent drug abuse by teenagers. Grand Duchess Maria Teresa also continues to provide high patronage to a large number of organisations, such as SOS Villages d’Enfants Monde. Since September 2005 she is also an honorary member of the “International Paralympic Committee Honorary Board”. In 2006, the Grand Duchess received the Path to Peace Award from the Holy See Foundation for her “relentless contribution to humanitarian causes.”

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Her Royal Highness was given Honorary Doctorates from Seton Hall University (New Jersey, USA, October 1999) and the University of León (Nicaragua – February 2003). Her Royal Highness is fluent in Spanish, French, English and Luxembourgish and has a basic knowledge of German and Italian.