Maryknoll-A A +A
Friday, August 23, 2013
IT WAS an abbey. That’s actually what the old Maryknoll convent was: an abbey, where sisters in white robes and black veils with white wimples stayed. It had a comfortable living room, a kitchen/dining room, bedrooms, a chapel, and an old world European feel to it; never mind that the Maryknoll sisters are just so American. Dark, polished wood and white lace curtains seemed to be the theme, except in the rooms designated as classrooms which, along with the abbey kitchen, were done in bright, cheery colors (the better to teach you with, my dear).
I remember best the chapel. In the time that I was in grade school, it was done in two versions. First, it was this very French place, all dark, polished wood, with wooden beams crisscrossing the ceiling, over box seats under which rested padded kneeling stands which you could pull out. These box seats were up front of the chapel, near the altar, flush against the side walls. They were reserved for the higher grades, five to seven. Children in the lower grades had to sit on benches at the back.
Benediction was on Fridays, and I always fainted at benediction, maybe from the incense, more probably from a childhood anemia too young borne of a desire to be slim and fashionable in the grown up way. After all, all the rage was to look like Twiggy, all skin, bones, dramatic eyes, and geometric dresses. So, like Friday clockwork, upon fainting, I got carried off to the sunny, sunny kitchen to be revived with smelling salts, after which I was made to sip lemon tea. Sister Carmencita would ask me what I’d had for breakfast -- “Fruit, Sister” -– and cluck-cluck that I should eat more than fruit. But maybe I just didn’t like benediction.
In second and third grades, I did like to one day get old enough to be one of the older girls up front. Sadly, before I could get there, the chapel was remodeled, modernized, too. It turned into a stark, sleek, open space with a giant rock in the middle. The rock was form and function exemplified a rare piece of art that had the priest’s dressing room inside. Outside, a single, simple metal cross adorned one side of it, the side which backdropped the barest of altars, a light, slim table in dark, varnished wood with a white lace tablecloth thrown over it. The new chapel was a beautiful place, done by my classmate Roweena’s father, Architect Silvestre. But I never got to be the older girl on the box seat near the altar.
Neither did I get to wear the big girl’s veil. Girls in grades five to seven got to wear this pretty white veil. The younger ones had to be in these prayer-cap-like headgear called beanies, singular: beanie. But by the time I got to fifth grade, veils were oh so very out. Bare heads were, like Twiggy, all the rage, the in thing.
Another place I loved at Maryknoll was this small jungle between the convent and the main school. To get between those two places, we walked on a rock path through the jungle holding hands, two abreast, through dense foliage: trees, sunflowers, giant ferns, and more ferns. It felt very Nancy Drew; something mysterious could happen, any moment. But of course, I did read way too many of those children’s mystery books, Nancy Drew, Dana Girls, Hardy Boys, Rick Brandt.
The small jungle disappeared after one particularly vicious storm. The whole area just fell, even leaving the main school building hanging on edge where the jungle had been, and the latter was addressed by bracing the building on that side and adding a balcony.
One end of the Maryknoll grounds had a tennis court down a hill, where we picnicked occasionally. It was beautiful being there in the afternoon when the sun played peek-a-boo through the surrounding trees, making the oddest shadows on everyone’s faces and clothes, and on the court.
To get back to school, we climbed back up the hill and through the grotto, set on a lawn where students, parents, teachers, and Sisters enjoyed many a field day, especially on the garden which overlooked the grotto, and from which steps led up to the convent. I fancied that the steps looked like the ones through which the baby King Arthur was brought when he was turned over to the magician Merlin’s care. Obviously, I also read way too much of Arthurian legend. Always have.
My first taste of the -– ahem -– legitimate stage happened in Kindergarten. I played Henny Penny in a version of that story in the school auditorium, site of school plays, graduations, dances, and all the rest of it. I even remember my lines from Henny Penny, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” I hid behind the deep green velvet curtain after the play because I had suddenly turned shy.
No piece about Maryknoll can be written without a segment about Sister Carmencita Reyes. Aside from being reviver of the faint, she was also the one who could, and did, okay a double-book loan from the library in a day when each child was allowed to borrow only one a week. I took advantage of that intercession all the time: “Sister, I promise I can read both in one week...I promise!” And she clucked, “Alright, alright.” She was also the one who one memorable evening put my youngest sister Nettie to bed in the convent when she hadn’t yet been fetched by 5:00 p.m. –- Dad had forgot. By the time he drove up the knoll, the school was empty. He had to catch up with Nette at the convent, already tucked into a bed, already fed, homeworked, and all.
There is much that can be written about Sister Carmencita, but my favorite tale is about this one time in fourth or fifth grade; she was our Reading teacher. She was such a stickler for diction, and just lost her temper when someone read aloud a passage and said oven, taking the oseriously, as in oh-ven. She proceeded to deliver this whole lecture on how the o in oven is pronounced like the u in up, and made us all say ovencorrectly at least a million times that morning. Before she went on to how Rachel is said with the ch like in church, not like an sh. Which led to Raquel and Vachel having the same last syllable, and the very clear difference between Rachel and Raquel. Oh, yes.
There was also my all-time favorite, Jo Rosales. She was my fourth grade homeroom teacher. I loved her for her clarity, her ways, and means. She was someone whose language was always correct, whose ways were always gentle, and whose methods of instruction were always firm. A transplant from Maryknoll Manila, Miss Rosales was also very pretty. To my mind, her greatest contribution to the Baguio school was to make catechism classes more meaningful by turning them into more current ones in something she called Christian Formation. I understand that Miss Rosales eventually became a Maryknoll Sister herself.
Speaking of which, the one Sister who dramatically stands out in my memory is Sister John Eileen. As such, she was dressed in the black veil, white wimple, white habit, and brown wooden rosary hanging from somewhere around the waist. After sometime that she became the school principal, she became Sister Eileen Maloney. As such, she wore a simple, shoulder-length grey veil over a habit of the same color and fabric, likewise simply cut, and it did still look like a uniform. The skirt came to just below the knee. And so we all got a glimpse of Sister Eileen’s nylon-clad legs, her feet shod in classic, medium-heeled leather pumps which went clickety-click as she walked through the school corridors. Some more time later, the veil went, and Sr. Eileen it was, with a short, quite becoming hairdo for her now visible red hair. The modified habit later gave way to a regular top over a regular skirt. What a character, what a costume change.
These days, the Maryknoll Sisters don’t wear habits, at least not in Baguio. I see them dressed as the rest of us are, sometimes in jeans, even. They are, after all, nothing if not progressive. The old school has likewise been transformed into a new school, the Maryknoll Sisters’ Center for Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation and the Environment. My take is that they have gone from being about God, Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic to being about God and Life and God in Life.
Other characters from the Maryknoll of my time were Mr. Ricardo de Leon, who came to school in a scooter, Miss Evangeline Banaticla, whom many of us, her students, thought was the prettiest teacher for miles around, and the ever-reliable Miss Maxima Donio, who saw generations of us through the school corridors.
Corridors we were not allowed to run in. The spoken rule was No Running In the Corridors. The unspoken one was Run In the Corridors and Die. I broke the rule once, once in seven years. And. Got. Caught. I faced a major chewing-down in front of an older class, and was made to walk back to where I came running from, and from there to walk to where I was going. Walk in peace, yet. Of course, the No Running rule was in place because it was downright dangerous to run in those thickest of cement corridors where you could risk falling and ending up, literally, with a cracked head.
I am thankful for the pockets of memory I have about Maryknoll. I am thankful, too, for my parents sending me to a place well recognized for educational quality. I am thankful for the friends I made there, the mentors I had, even for the heart-rendering sunsets you catch from the school grounds. Then as now, the sunset from Maryknoll is enough to turn even the most blessed of days divine.
Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on August 24, 2013.