Sr. Mary John’s fantastic religious adventure
Who does not know Sister Mary John Mananzan (SMJ), OSB, of St. Scholastica’s College, the feminist and feisty nun who has broken into front-page news so often because of her active participation in protest rallies? She would be seen surrounded by crowds listening to her speak on stage and on 10-wheeler trucks on social justice, the rights of the poor, the democratic and equitable society we all deserve.
There was a touch of irony that last week, on May 8, in this lockdown season, as SMJ marked the 60th year of her religious profession, she was largely only with the Benedictine community in social-distancing mode in the lovely Romanesque-inspired college chapel that all Scholasticans associate with the fondest of memories. An unorthodox renewal of vows for an unorthodox religious. In keeping with the times, the ceremony was livestreamed, and to me, the most moving highlight was the pealing of the chapel bells, in joy and in gratitude for what SMJ calls “my fantastic religious adventure.”
Those of us who grew up Scholastican remember her for the special influence she wielded in her various roles as teacher, college dean, president, founder of the pioneering Institute of Women’s Studies, and Mother Prioress. In a radical change of pace, her last lockdown update was that she had learned to cook, and beside her was a proud casserole of fried rice.
SMJ was Sol Oca’s teacher in Oriental History in HS. It is a bond that has endured through Oca’s NY years as a UN employee, to her return to the Philippines to start the Sariaya Learning Centre for Development, a decision influenced by her friendship with her teacher and their long conversations in her one-bedroom apartment that was SMJ’s home during her numerous international meetings.
Another Manhattan host of SMJ was Daisy Barawidan, who describes her as no-fuss houseguest because she went around the city on her own and, more often than not, had such a full schedule of meetings. SMJ played host on Barawidan’s balikbayan visit. And what a treat she enjoyed, traveling with then Mother Prioress MJ, visiting Benedictine houses in Oriental Davao, Leyte, and Ormoc. MMJ was toying with the idea of a “Benedictine Tourism” project for alumnae.
SMJ was college dean when Mariasun Azcuna, then 30, decided to re-enroll as a married student. All she knew of the dean then that so impressed her was that, every day, SMJ would do her swim exercise in the pool in Subiaco or what was formerly the grand Feria home on Vito Cruz. They would become colleagues as Azcuna was recruited as teacher and then college dean. On an out-of-town trip to Sagada and the Chico River, they would have the chance to be in the
water together—with SMJ revealing her long hair and donning a malong. They became staunch partners in the Institute of Women’s Studies and, to their credit, graduates speak of the required women’s studies course as a life-changing factor in their lives.
I never had SMJ for a teacher, but had the chance to work with her when she commissioned four of us alumnae—Karina Bolasco, Ceres Doyo, Paulynn Sicam, and me—to produce a book to mark SSC’s centennial in 2006. It took a few years to complete the project, but we were all gratified to leave the school with a legacy of a book, “Daughters True,” that won the National Book Award in 2007. It was only appropriate for SMJ to have envisioned such a project—and one only knows too well that what she dreams of, she makes happen.
SMJ is college president again today and continues to ensure that Scholasticans experience the realities of Philippine society and commit themselves to promote fairness, justice, and truth. Such a thrust may sometimes draw controversy, but that is nothing new to SMJ, who remains fearless and feisty. Thus, our school motto is now said to be Ora et Laban, no longer Ora et Labora. Something that the twins Benedict and Scholastica themselves would have endorsed.
SMJ’s longtime friend Karina Bolasco celebrates her religious life dedicated to God and the struggle for freedom and justice. But sadly, as we all know, SMJ’s work is not done, but must continue on. That was what the tolling of the bells also signified.
Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected]) is a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.
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