By Antonio Maria Rosales, OFM
THE celebration of the 5th Centenary of Christianity includes a “bonus” that has an important contribution to the evangelization of the Philippines: the 4th Centenary of the arrival of the Order of St. Clare, popularly known as the Poor Clares.
On July 24, 1621, the 65-year-old Madre Jeronima de la Asuncion together with six other Poor Clare nuns landed in Port Bolinao, Pangasinan, after a voyage of almost two years from Spain, including some months of rest in Mexico. The venture was planned in the 1590s, but was realized only in 1620. The voyage from Mexico to Manila, already the start of the typhoon season, encountered rough sailing and the nuns got sick. One of them died and was buried at sea.
They arrived in Intramuros on August 5, 1621, welcomed by the civil and religious authorities. With the monastery near Fort Santiago, they were the first contemplative community of nuns in the Philippines and in all of Asia. Madre Jeronima guided the community that also accepted native women. She died on October 23, 1631, with the reputation of holiness, being proclaimed Servant of God and Venerable by the Church. Her remains are in the Monasterio de Sta. Clara in C-5, Katipunan, Quezon City, where the nuns relocated after World War II.
Until 1684 when the Religious of the Virgin Mary (RVM) was founded, the Poor Clares were the only religious women in the country, and the only enclosed contemplatives until the 1900s. In these 400 years their presence and influence were felt in our culture, with the well-known offering of eggs for requested prayers, the dance in Obando, Bulacan, accompanied by the folk song “Santa Clara, pinong-pino,” and the image of Maria Clara of Noli Me Tangere fame, who became the epitome of the ideal Filipina, as her name was a combination of Maria, the Blessed Mother, and Sta. Clara.
Even more significant in this 5th Centenary of Christianity with the theme “Gifted to Give,” is the nuns’ contribution to evangelization. They offer(ed) their enclosed life of poverty and simplicity, contemplation, penance and devotion to the Eucharist for the Lord’s blessings on those in the active ministry. This aspect of evangelization is not readily acknowledged as it is not quantifiable like programs, data, statistics, gadgets, etc., but without the part played by the nuns and others through simple and hidden ways, the history of evangelization is not complete. This has been the Poor Clares’ response and contribution to evangelization since 1621, and it is being continued today in the 27 Poor Clare monasteries from Cagayan in the north to Mindanao and Basilan in the south.
To stress the importance of contemplation in evangelization, the Church proclaimed St. Therese of the Child Jesus, a contemplative who never left her monastery in France, and St. Francis Xavier, the active missionary, as the Patron Saints of the missions. Evangelization has two “wings,” as also all Christians by extension: the active ministry or action and the contemplative component or prayer. Only when these wings are in harmony that there is true evangelization.
After the Thanksgiving Mass on July 24, the nuns of the Poor Clare Monastery in Luna, Bolinao, Pangasinan, join Bishop Fidelis Layog, D.D., for the blessing of the marker in Picocobuan, Bolinao. The commemorative marker of the arrival of the Poor Clares in 1621 will hopefully be given a historical status by the National Historical Commission (NHC) in recognition of what the Poor Clares, by God’s goodness and mercy, have contributed to the evangelization of our country by their enclosed life of poverty and contemplation. May the Lord give us peace.
(Antonio Maria Rosales, OFM, was former Spiritual Assistant to the Poor Clares and pastor of Santuario de San Antonio, Makati. Now based in Cebu City since 2007, he teaches part-time in St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute (SATMI) in Davao City. He is 83.)