‘A different sort of missionary’
My late mother Narni and her older sister Fe Gavino had a running “debate” throughout my childhood. This had to do with the schools they chose to send their daughters to. Tita Fe sent her two daughters Maris and Ditas to St. Theresa’s, which was just a few blocks away from their home on Kanlaon Street in Quezon City.
We lived in Cubao, and Mama chose to send her girls to Maryknoll College along Katipunan Avenue in nearby Diliman.
As sisters are wont to do, Mama and Tita Fe conducted a low-intensity conflict over the choices they had made in their lives, particularly over whose children were doing better. This was much more acute in our case because my older sister Chona and I were about the same age as Maris and Ditas, and so we felt constantly compared to each other. I remember, in particular, a torturous early adolescence because Maris and Ditas seemed the very epitomes of teenage popularity (Ditas even once danced with a group of friends on a TV teen show), while Chona and I were more bookish, retiring and not inclined to socialize.
But the competition really sizzled when it came to comparing our schools. I don’t now know what Mama had against St. Theresa’s (then run by strict Belgian nuns and renowned for its rigorous educational standards), but Tita Fe made her case against Maryknoll loudly and often. Since the college was founded and managed by American Maryknoll sisters, the students, she observed, were “too Americanized,” and thus we were less refined, less genteel, less quiet than her girls who grew up under the sharp eyes of the ICM sisters.
We cousins let the passionate dispute float over our heads, oblivious to any feelings of competitiveness or resentment. But still, school loyalty dies hard.
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Ditas was in town (from Virginia) some months ago just to attend her class jubilee celebrations, which included a wandering agenda that took her all over the country.
While I felt a surge of Maryknoll pride when I read e-mails about the induction in October of Mother Mary Joseph, founder of the “Congregation of the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic” into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York (Seneca Falls is the site of the first gathering on women’s rights, which was held in the United States in 1848).
Mother Mary Joseph, or Mary Josephine Rogers, who in her portrait which hangs on the hallways of Maryknoll College appeared to be chubby, smiling and benevolent, joins Betty Ford, Nancy Pelosi, Kate Millett and Julie Krone (a jockey!) in the Women’s Hall of Fame.
Only lately did I find out that the Maryknoll Sisters is the first US-based Catholic congregation of religious women dedicated to a global mission. And it was born out of the imagination and daring of the then 23-year-old “Molly” Rogers, who, while attending Smith College in 1904, was inspired by graduating Protestant students preparing to leave for missionary work in China. After graduation, she started a mission club for Catholic students in Smith, during which time she met Fr. James Walsh, director of Boston’s Office for the Propagation of the Faith, later founder of Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, “through whom she was inspired to establish a mission congregation for women.”
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I went to Maryknoll College from kindergarten to high school, encountering numerous American Maryknoll sisters, including two memorable Filipino women: Sisters Reina Paz and Marissa Lichauco.
I have since written often about what it was like growing up under the care and discipline of these sisters, who floated through the corridors of our school in their white habits topped with black veils with the distinctive “peak” above their foreheads. Our classes were distinguished by the way our teachers encouraged us to speak out and express our opinions (I guess Tita Fe was right, after all), and by their emphasis on self-expression and self-exploration. Not for Maryknoll were classes on the domestic arts. Instead, we had “art”: exemplified by dramas, most memorably musicals like “The King and I” (where I played one of the king’s children) and “The Sound of Music.”
Lawrence Downes of the New York Times writes thusly of the Maryknoll sisters: “If you think of Roman Catholic nuns only as walled-in ascetics or parochial-school knuckle-rappers—the cloistered or the cruel—then you have not had the privilege of meeting any Maryknoll sisters…. From the start, a Maryknoll sister was a different sort of missionary.”
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Downes quotes Sr. Janice McLaughlin, president of the order, who declared: “We were trained to be independent, to take initiative, to respect local cultures, local religions. We try to live simply with the people. As Mother Mary Joseph said to us, ‘If anybody’s going to change, it’s going to be us.’”
And that the Maryknoll sisters did in the Philippines, deciding in the early 1970s to leave Maryknoll College (now called Miriam) to lay trustees and to devote instead their mission life to serving marginalized communities.
Today, writes Downes, “the sisters work in two dozen countries, Albania to Zimbabwe, and in the United States as teachers, nurses, social workers and school administrators. They comfort the dying and occasionally infuriate governments. They fight human trafficking, environmental destruction and HIV/AIDS.”
Like many other religious congregations for men and women, the Maryknoll sisters are finding their numbers aging and dwindling. But they live on, if not in a national hall of fame like their founder, then in the hearts, minds and lives of those they taught and loved.