‘Jeronima de la Asuncion’
To ensure that my lecture at Ayala Museum this Saturday afternoon will not be postponed because of rain or flood, I reminded the young museum staff to send a basket of eggs to the Monasterio de Santa Clara at the corner of Aurora Boulevard and Katipunan in Quezon City. We may live in the age of Facebook and Twitter, but I presume God hasn’t fully switched off and leaves lines open for intercession in the old-fashioned way.
In the days when traffic was not a major consideration, some made it a point to attend Mass at certain churches: Tuesdays at San Antonio in Sampaloc (later Forbes Park, Makati), Wednesdays at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Baclaran; Thursdays at St. Jude in San Miguel on the same street as Malacañang; Fridays at the Church of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo. There were other places for particular needs: Those who wanted children went to Obando, those who wanted protection for a safe trip went to Antipolo, and so on. All this is fast disappearing because the faithful can now attend Sunday Mass in a shopping mall, or to be more comfortable, Sunday Mass is offered on television.
The Monasterio de Santa Clara in Quezon City has a long history that goes back to Spanish Manila. Didn’t the heroine of “Noli Me Tangere” defy her father’s order to marry a man she didn’t love by entering Sta. Clara?
Sta. Clara, who founded the religious community known as the Poor Clares or, in Spanish, “Clarissas,” died in 1253, was canonized in 1255, and was later declared the patroness of television! Before the move to Quezon City, the original monastery was located in Intramuros, founded in 1625 by Jeronima de la Asuncion, an aged nun immortalized by the Spanish court painter Velasquez. You do not need to travel to the Museo del Prado in Madrid to see the Velasquez portrait of Madre Jeronima because a reproduction can be found in Quezon City in a chapel that has a marble slab that reads: “Aquiyacen los restos mortals de la Vble Madre Jeronima de la Asuncion Monjaclarissa, Fundadora del primer Monasterio de St Clara en Filipinas. Muerta en olor de santidad en Octubre 22 de 1630.” (Here lie the mortal remains of the venerable Mother Jeronima de la Asuncion, Nun of the Poor Clares, foundress of the first convent of St. Claire in the Philippines. Died in the odor of sanctity October 22, 1630.)
When I first visited the place decades ago and inquired about her, I was given a prayer card that contained a third-class holy relic—a piece of linen that had touched the bones or whatever remained of the nun who has remained a candidate for beatification for almost four centuries now.
Madre Jeronima de la Fuente was born in Toledo in 1554 or 1555. She was a religious child who even practiced bodily mortification with whip and spurs. At 15, she entered a local Clarissa convent, where her reputation for sanctity grew such that she was even consulted by Queen Margarita de Austria. She sailed from Sevilla on June 22, 1620, for the Philippines, and it was here in the predeparture area that she sat for a portrait by Velasquez. She was then 65, quite old for those times, yet she embarked on a sea voyage from Toledo to Manila that took one year, three months and nine days. It was not long enough to try her patience since it took bureaucrats in the Spanish Royal Council of the Indies over 20 years to approve her request to establish a monastery for nuns in the Philippines. Then as now, government red tape was stronger than a little old nun who was supposed to have stemmed the tide of an epidemic of leprosy in Toledo.
Madre Jeronima arrived in Manila in 1620 with eight companions and was received with great fanfare. In 1625, she founded the Royal Monastery of the Immaculate Conception of the Barefoot Nuns of St. Claire, or Monasterio de Santa Clara for short. Her fame as a miracle worker and visionary attracted a few native priestesses, babaylan or catalonan, who sought to enter the cloister as Clarissas; unfortunately, the monastery was open only to women of Spanish blood. It was one of Madre Jeronima’s frustrations that, despite her noble lineage, highly placed friends, and her reputation as a “living saint,” church authorities refused to approve her wish to accept indias in the monastery. To get around this problem, she planned a convent for native women in Pandacan, which she did not live to see.
After she passed away in 1630 Madre Jeronima’s body was not embalmed. Yet her body remained incorrupt until 1670, when Church authorities discouraged veneration of her memory by having her miraculously preserved body taken from the high choir of the church and dumped in a common grave and covered with lime. When the nuns decided to take her body back into the church, only her bones remained.
My interest in Madre Jeronima is rooted in my interest in the works of Velasquez because there are two other portraits of the nun aside from the famous one in the Museo del Prado. In this painting she stares at you from inside her Franciscan habit, her face closed in by a wimple. She holds a crucifix in her hand and seems like she will wield it on naughty children and dirty old men. Here is a saint waiting in the wings for official recognition. When she is canonized, Madre Jeronima will add to a growing list of saints who once graced the soil of the Philippines.
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