Harking still to ‘Call of the Spirit’ after 100 yrs
MANILA, Philippines—It was the “call of the Spirit” that brought four young German Catholic nuns to the little-known town of Tayum in the province of Abra, where a school was urgently needed and faith was deemed waning.
One hundred years after the nuns’ arrival in the Philippines, and long after they were gone, the same Spirit is moving Filipino women to keep the Missionary Sisters Servants of the Holy Spirit (SSpS) ever discerning and responsive, empowering more women and some of the country’s neglected indigenous groups.
“[The mission] came from very simple beginnings and it has grown … Many people have been touched by the life of the sisters, who contributed a lot to the education of young people, to healthcare and also to the Church, [and] that is worth celebrating,” said Sr. Maria Theresia Hornemann, the congregation’s superior general.
Hornemann, representing the general leadership team in Rome, flew to the Philippines to join the festivities that marked SSpS’ 100th year of missionary presence in the country.
The festivities culminated on Jan. 15, the feast of the congregation’s German founder, St. Arnold Janssen, SVD, at the School of the Holy Spirit in Quezon City. But the centennial celebration began earlier with cultural activities in Tayum.
There, Hornemann and Sr. Mary Eden Panganiban, SSpS provincial leader, were welcomed with a bamboo raft-riding activity on the Abra River—an excursion that gave them an idea of the travails faced by their predecessors in establishing the then young congregation in the Philippines.
“We were trying to imagine how these young European women, in their heavy, dark blue habits, adjusted to the climate, language and culture. From the chronicles we read, they did not complain about the difficulties they experienced,” Panganiban said in an interview with the Inquirer on Jan. 15.
She said Sisters Cyrilla Hullermann, Hieronyma Schulte-Ladbeck, Cleta Heuwes and Cortona Ruther set foot on Tayum on Jan. 16, 1912, after traveling for months on board a military ship from Germany and at least nine hours on a raft on the Abra River.
What brought the four pioneers to Philippine soil was the same “call of the Spirit” that their brothers in the Society of the Divine Word (SVD) heeded three years earlier, Panganiban said.
The nuns immediately immersed themselves in the small community’s culture—fetching water, washing clothes and touching base with the local women, and riding on horses to get around and reach out to the residents.
Only weeks after their arrival they established a school, later known as the Holy Ghost School, which became a channel to reinforce the Catholic faith amid the growing support among the townsfolk for the Iglesia Filipina Independiente, or the Aglipayan Church.
“There was a need for education, especially in that area, and because there was strong Aglipayanism, for a Catholic formation of the people there,” Panganiban said.
As more missionary sisters from the congregation arrived in the country, another school, this time in Manila, was founded in 1913 upon the invitation of then Manila Archbishop Jeremias Harty.
Holy Ghost College, eventually renamed College of the Holy Spirit (CHS) Manila, was first put up as a primary school on Legarda Street. It expanded seven years later, opening a high school on Mendiola Street (its present site). The college department was opened in 1926.
Strong Filipino presence
Even after the German nuns had gone, SSpS continued to thrive in the country with Filipino women joining the congregation. A musician and teacher from Tayum, Sr. Consuelo Beatriz Lalin, was the first Filipino to join the congregation in 1924 despite her family’s opposition.
The congregation now has over 3,100 missionary sisters around the world, of whom 220 are Filipinos, according to Hornemann. In the Philippines, it has set up at least 14 communities in Metro Manila, in the cities of Malolos, Tarlac, Tagaytay and Baguio; in the Ilocos and Bicol regions; and in the Mindoro provinces.
“Now, we also have many Filipino sisters working in other parts of the world,” Hornemann said, adding that the strong presence of Filipinos in the mission had somehow brought a welcome change to the congregation’s stringent and cloistered culture.
Collaboration with laity
“One of the things Filipino sisters have contributed to the congregation is their collaboration with the lay community,” the German nun pointed out.
This partnership has allowed the mission to respond to new and emerging needs, thus thriving amid the worldly influences that draw young women away from the religious life, Panganiban said.
“It’s one of the secrets why the mission continues to grow … We respond to new needs together with our lay partners,” she said.
Such a partnership has led to the Tugdaan Mangyan Center for Learning and Development, an institution that offers a comprehensive education program for the seven ethnolinguistic groups of Oriental and Occidental Mindoro.
The establishment of the center some 20 years ago was a group effort of lay volunteers and the SSpS community in the Mindoro provinces.
In the course of realizing this undertaking, the missionary nuns took part in pickets and rallies in defending the rights of the Mangyan, Panganiban recalled.
She said “some politicians” had tried to “silence” or dissuade the nuns from their activity but that courage and faith prevailed.
“I admire the guts of our sisters there,” Panganiban said. “Again this is sustained by faith. We are doing this not because of any grandiose ambition but because it is in response to our commitment, an expression of our faith.”
After 12 years of painstaking work to empower the Mangyan long neglected by state agencies and bullied by capitalists and armed conflicts, the lay community and the missionary nuns in Mindoro finally entrusted the learning center to them in 2000.
On their own
“The Mangyan have been running the institution on their own,” Benjamin Abadiano, one of the founders of the center, said on the sidelines of the centennial celebration on Jan. 15.
Abadiano said this meant that the missionary nuns and the lay community had succeeded in empowering the tribe.
So successful was the endeavor that the Department of Education adopted “our experience” as the model in adapting education to the needs of the indigenous peoples, he said.
Abadiano is among the persons, groups and an institution recognized by SSpS for “actualizing holistic, relevant and inculturated education for the indigenous peoples.” (See boxed story on this page.)
Upholding its collaboration with the lay community as a vital pillar in its existence, the congregation has also broken with age-old tradition in appointing alumna Felina Co-Young to oversee CHS Manila.
Young, who holds doctorates in business administration and in management, took her oath in an investiture in July 2011 as the first lay president of CHS Manila, which celebrates its centenary next year.
“Again, it’s part of our thrust in partnership with the lay,” Panganiban said.
Turning a century older and with the Church confronted by the phenomenon of deteriorating vocations in the religious life, SSpS has set its eyes on breaking out of its “urban structures.”
Panganiban said that in the future, the Philippine mission would focus more on community-building, especially for the indigenous peoples. She disclosed a plan to start a “centennial community” with another indigenous group but declined to give details.
“It will be a different life [for us] … There will be less institutions and more direct contact with other groups like the indigenous peoples and with other groups on the care for environment,” Panganiban said, adding:
“There are possibilities that we can explore, but we have to discern, listen to where the Spirit is calling us, where we can respond best, and where our response can be sustained.”