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FROM VIUDA TO BEATA: Woman Religious in 17th Century Philippines

Fr. Clarence Marquez, O.P.

To be widow is to be a victim of death. True that she is the survivor, but a vacuumed one. For in the condescending gaze of a patriarchal world, with the man gone, what is left of woman? It is as if the one flesh conjugated in matrimony is forever torn asunder by masculine mortality, and the feminine remnant is emaciated, disabled, scarred by death and dearth. To complicate the crux further, the widow is, at the same cruel time, childless. She is manless and fruitless; full of disgrace; no lord is with her; cursed among women.

But the widow and the orphan, have God as their defender. They are the explicit recipients of divine redress and salvation. For in the coming reign of God on earth, the restoration of widows to life and fecundity is a hallmark of the proclamation and realization of the Gospel.

Thus is the issue at hand, in the life-story of a viuda of Manila, FRANCISCA DE FUENTES. She overcame the bias against her gender, and the obstacles against her holy desires, in order to give birth to the pioneer beaterio, women religious-in-community, in colonial 17th century Philippines.

This work sets out to sketch the socio-political milieu from which she emerged as a woman of note, a woman who stood above women, and above men of her time. She is type and anti-type, embodiment of the fairest virtues, and frontier-woman who pushed the confines of her world and won a sacred space for her cause and her kind. In a real sense, she invented and reinvented herself as institution-builder, spiritual mother and daughter, paragon of excellence and persistence, woman of God, woman for others. Francisca is the viuda beata, the widow who lost a husband, but found God; who bore no children but mothered a whole new religious family; who received more than what was taken away; and who gave the most because she gave all that she has, all that she is.


Through the thick fabrics and textures of pious history, this work sets forth three assertions about the excellence and distinction of Francisca de Fuentes as gift to the Filipino people, as gift to women, as gift to consecrated life.

Francisca of the Philippines. Written history's first drizzles were these quaint details, culled from several, almost contemporary, biographical sketches:

"She was married, without children."

But "in the bloom of her youth, she lost her husband" and was "bereft of offspring:

So "she conceived the idea of consecrating herself to God,"to prefer "holy continence and a widow's chastity."

So, before this time, texts only make passing mention of her as being born in Manila, to Simon de Fuentes and Ana Maria del Castillo y Tamayo, around the year 1647. She is of probable Spanish descent; nonetheless, she is an insular, a true daughter of the islands.

The social strata of these early colonial years consisted of the peninsulares, i.e. the Spaniards who came from the Mother Country on the Iberian Peninsula; the insulares, those born to Spaniards, in the Philippine islands; then, the Spanish mestizos, children of the intermarriage of Spaniards and natives; the Chinese mestizos, of Chinese and native parentage; and the local indio. Historically, the term Fillpino/Filipina came to be first applied to the Spaniards, who were born in Las Islas Filipinas, who considered the archipelago as their true homeland. It was only later that Filipino blossomed into its nationalist connotation and came to encompass the identity of the nation.

Thus, Francisca de Fuentes, as an insular, is Filipino, in the earliest sense of the word. She sought to found a community of women religious, in no other place, than in her native Philippines. Her holiness was a true fruit of the faith that was sown here. This point is crucial in parrying the racist slur on the origins of the beaterio. Such smears appear belated and covertly imported, couched in an unhistorical and uncritical usage of the Filipino nomenclature.


A further proof would be the company she kept. Her vocation to religious life was always already a vocation to community. And it was a community which embraced all, as evidenced by the earliest women tertiaries of the Order of Preachers in the city of Manila, who formed "the chrysalis" of the beaterio. They were: Francisca (de Fuentes) del Espiritu Santo, who was born in the Philippines; Antonia de Jesus Maria Fuentes; the india Sebastiana de Jesus; and Maria Ana de la Vega, daughter of the so-called "Cibuana". However brief were the biographies of these pioneering women, nonetheless, they call attention to the fact of the transcendent composition of the group, i.e. they were bound only by the desire to seek holiness in religious community, beyond the narrow categories of class and race. Thus, Francisca was a woman of the Philippines, and the beaterio was a fruit of holiness, born in the Philippines.

Francisca the Woman.

Almost in silence, Francisca innocently appeared on the stage of history as "the widow," who gained a life after a death. For beyond and through the dark clouds of her mourning, Francisca saw the silver lines of promise and fulfillment. The loss of her husband led her to find the God who was calling her to holiness and wholeness in another state of life, in religious community, in prayer and good works.

Such desire seemed noble and unobjectionable enough. But in 17th century colonial Philippines, women were in no easy way to have their own way. It was always already a man's world -- of walls and fortresses (the situs for this drama is Intramuros of Manila); of male-led conquests and colonization and evangelization; of feuding friars and clerics, of highbrow lords of church and hard-nosed masters of state; of rules and jurisdictions and exemptions; of royal patronage and ecclesiastical prerogatives (very masculine terms indeed).

In contrast, Francisca only wanted a house with "the appearance of an oratory":  a home for prayer and recollection, for a simple life and extraordinary servitude, a place for praising God in contemplation and preaching God in example.

As with all of life, this story began in medias res, in the middle of things already given, a context she was thrown into: a woman of 17th century Philippines.


It was a nation just over a hundred years old in occidental reckoning. It was "discovered" in 1521; seriously claimed in 1565; and "by 1598 the larger part of the country had been divided up among the [religious] orders and the areas which each was to occupy were determined as they were generally to remain for the next two centuries. So, with the freshness of conquest, and with the dust " of pacification barely settled, this infant-people took the bath of baptism and the ways of salvation as zealously championed by Los Reyes Catolicos and propagated by the pioneering religious missionaries.

After these crucial nascent years, the Philippines entered the 17th century as a society-in-process. The local populace was being "reduced" around centers, established and edificed. seats of government, seats of worship, seats in the marketplace, seats of learning, etc. Life took a seat, to submit to an intense, protracted and feudal stratification.

In the spheres of state and church, power wielded was preferred to modest restraint. Governor-generals were appointed to administer this distant colonial outpost. And by the Patronato Real, the Spanish monarchs also provided for the nomination of bishops and priests to take care of the souls of the islands. By the cross and the sword, the Philippines was subdued and saved. Often, however, there were cases of the cross versus the sword, when royal prerogatives were jealously guarded and pontifical exemptions insisted; when interests conflicted and political maneuvers were directed against each other.

There were governor-generals and bishops, bishops and religious orders, soldiers and clerics. Between themselves and among themselves, they championed progress in both temporal and spiritual realms. At times, they acceded and conceded to each other; at times, they impeded each other; polarized against each other. And in all these, where was woman? Where was she seated? She had always already been there, in her proper silence, in her fair share. There were schools for her, to refine her in the ways of the hearth and the home. But, her path led only to either matrimony or monastery. And there weren't many opportunities for her, to advance in her field, to explore and harness her potentialities, to set out in the world on her own. She was always already and only a veiled presence in the world.


So, into this world, Francisca emerged as a woman, who took on the yoke of her gender, and as a widow who bore the weight of her grieving with heroic valor and saintly gentility. She was a woman of persistence, strong in her yearnings, prophetic in her visions, passionate in her pursuit of God's will in her life. She survived the death of her husband, wilted away the cynicism of her friar-confessors, and outlasted the opposition of an archbishop. She was reprimanded for her impertinence; faced excommunication and disgrace; built a home, saw it destroyed, and witnessed it being raised up again, according to the irresistible will of God. She was a flower that bloomed in adversity, admired by men and women, approved by God.

Francisca the Religious.

Historically, full participation of women in religious life, was a later development. This was very much true to the Philippines.

While men religious started coming to the islands, in the earliest years of the conquest, omen religious only appeared in 1621. Mother Jeronima de la Asuncion came all the way from Spain to found the Monasterio de Santa Clara. 50, religious women-in-community in those times were fragile morning blossoms, which took a lot of divine and human nurturing.

For the Dominicans in the Philippines, the idea of a monastery for nuns was born in their Provincial Chapter of 1633. However, a Royal Cedula of 16 February 1635, ordered the governor-general "to stop the foundation of the said convent ." But the dream did not die.


All the while the Dominican friars continued to nourish the vocation to consecrated life of pious lay women who frequented their Church of Sto. Domingo in Manila. And "by the supplication and petition of the women themselves... they asked to be allowed to wear the habit of the third order publicly, each one living in her particular house." So, by the year 1686, -there lived in the city, four of the tertiaries." These four were: Francisca (de Fuentes) del Espiritu Santo, who received the habit between 1682-1683; Antonia de Jesus Maria Fuentes; the india Sebastiana de Jesus; Maria Ana de la Vega, daughter of the so-called "Cibuana". They were dotingly called beatas, who frequented the sacraments... set good example of humility and devotion."

Still, the beatas desired to live in community, and their petition was included in the Acts of the Provincial Chapter of 1686. In 11 January 1688, the Master of the Order, Fr. Antonino Cloche, OP, - confirmed and approve that in the city of Manila, a house of sisters of the third order be established..."

As ever, a woman's place is the home. The beaterio, too, began at home, in the houses of one " Maria Garcia, in front of the belfry of the convent of Sto. Domingo. But this did not last long..."

Later on, one of the pioneering lay tertiaries, Antonio de Jesus Fuentes, at her deathbed, bequeathed her home as future site of the beaterio, with Fr. Juan de Sto. Domingo, OP, then prior of Sto. Domingo Convent as executor of her will. And so, "three beatas, including Mother Francisca, lived in that house as in a convent

As the place grew, the beatas, too, grew in gracious repute and number; so that on the feast of St. Anne, 26 July 1696, the beatas professed to the Order of Preachers, under a rule drawn and drafted by Fr. Juan de Santo Domingo, "from the General Ordinances of this Province, from the Constitutions of the nuns and of the Third Order Francisco de Fuentes was appointed as first prioress of the Beaterio de Santa Catalina de Sena.

But such noble and holy endeavors needed to undergo the purifying fires of trials and persecution.


In 1697, Diego Camacho y Avila arrived to take up his post as Archbishop of Manila. Armed with the decrees of the Council of Trent, he unleashed the full brunt of the storm, that is the "Visitation Controversy ". The "Visitation Controversy* involved the insistence of bishops to exercise their juridical rights to visit local parishes, per decrees of the Council of Trent. To parlay this, the religious orders in the Philippines, invoking the bull of 1522, "Exponi nobis," * (Omnimoda) by Pope Adrian VI, claimed exemption of regulars/religious, "exercising care of souls, N i.e. parochial administration, from episcopal jurisdiction. Cf. Schumacher, pp. t23-139. His ascendance to the see of Manila brought him into bitter juridical conflicts with the religious orders working in the Philippines, who by agreement , unified their zealous objections and actions against episcopal visitations.

Among those caught in the juridical crossfire were the beatas of Sta. Catalina. From the question of administration of Holy Communion to the beatas to complaints against harshness, to interventions in their life and discipline, to the parting blow, in 1703, of an interdict and a sentence of major excommunication, the beatas were the silent victims of personal and jurisdictional clashes.

Technically, the charge was the absence of a proper enclosure, as demanded by the Council of Trent, for women religious-in-community. On the one hand, it could be seen as the insistence of the archbishop on the enforcement of church laws and discipline. On the other hand, it was "new wine demanding, new wineskins," the first delicate steps of women religious-in- community, to establish themselves in ways on which the church laws of those times were still silent.

To avoid further scandal, the Dominican friars dispensed the beatas from their vows, and sought shelter for them as secular women, at Colegio de Sta. Potenciana. There, they were to "ask for absolution from the Archbishop" and to wait for the providence of better times for the resurrection of the beaterio .


Light broke through in 1706, in a series of persistent but docile petitions and negotiations by intermediaries and by the exiled beatas themselves. The Archbishop, restored to reason and good temper, finally gave permission for the reconstitution of the beaterio, observing the laws of the cloister, under the Third Order of St. Dominic. Thus did the beatas, led by Francisca, come home at last, restored to grace, rekindled in their holy zeal, raised to a fuller life of service and sanctity.

This new springtime saw the growth of the beaterio as a most reputable colegio for "young native girls to educate them better in the mysteries of our holy faith... and in perfect Christian life."

Francisca mothered the beaterio-colegio through these trying years, pursuing "spiritual perfection for herself and her spiritual daughters... governing , the beaterio with great prudence and fidelity... making the Eucharist the sublime center of the community's spiritual life.

This is instanced by another display of her God-inspired ardor. She laboriously pleaded with archbishops and religious superiors, for the construction of a corridor to connect the beaterio to the oratory of the neighboring Colegio de San Juan de Letran. By prayers to God and petitions to men, she bridged across physical obstacles and moral objections to gain access to constant adoration of their Divine Spouse in the Eucharist.

As with all stories of greatness, this one did not end with the death of Francisca on 24 August 1711. For as splendidly shown in her life, widows are transformed from being victims of death to heroines of life, to champions of holiness, by God's irresistible will and by his most abundant grace.

The grace lives on.

For the tree of goodness has born fruits of goodness, in the Congregation of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, her true daughters in the faith; in the works for "the young, the sick and the poor" that are carried out in virtuous imitation of her; in the holy memory kept of her by a grateful Filipino people; in emulation of her as fore-mother of women empowerment; in celebration of her sanctity as flower and fruit of consecrated life... to the praise of God, and to the blessing of people, to the preaching of the Gospel


MADRE AND MINDANAO

War makes men. Men make war. And in the long history of their making, a whole world is unmade - death and destruction, loss and lessening of things and truths which make for sincere innocence, for a just peace, for a still honest humanity. Amid the blasts of weapons, and the barrage of angry and opposing voices, the war and men who are making and unmaking the Mindanao of today beg for something, for someone other than war, other than men.

Here comes woman, here comes mother ...to sober us up from the madness of macho militarism, to bind up the wounds of our hellish hatred and division, to gather us into the hearth and heart of the home, which we call Pilipinas, to make us again children of peace, children of God.

What's Madre Francisca got to do with Mindanao? Begging the answer is as persistent as begging the peace. But a woman's sanctity bears the silent lessons across the stretches of time and the span of distance (Intramuros 1696 to Mindanao 2000), to bring forth fruit for all seasons, holy significance for all races, blessings for all religions, for men who make war, and women who build peace.

The Madre is presence brave and true wherever, whenever. As Francisca was a blossom in the adversity of her own time, so the madres of Mindanao, are flowers of power, grace under pressure, beauty beheld by war-weary eyes. The Madre is the paschal event re-lived. Francisca bore the pains of exclusion, of losing face, of leaving home. The madres in Mindanao now dare embrace separation and seclusion, face fear and intimidation, live amid the leavings of shattered hopes and homes.


The Madre is promise of fullness and life. Francisca nurtured her sanctity through the barrenness of widowhood, the strictures of society and church, to fructify in the Beaterio, a home of wholeness and holiness. Today, the madres after her, build amid the ruins, plant amid the barren, cultivate and nourish. To the warriors, she is teacher and preacher, to the wreckers, she is homemaker, to the wounded, she is healer. To the men of war, she is the woman of blessing.

The Madre and the madres continue to be the sign contradicted, their own hearts pierced by the sword. Yet they remain, by God's irresistible will, the silent Amen of heaven to the breathed pleas of earth. While men wrought war, the madres in Mindanao make for one more reason, one more prayer to save and to salve, to cease from firing and to seize the peace, which our faith preaches, our hope longs for, our love begets.

The Madre and Mindanao thus is not just some sterile petition to some distant irrelevant intercessor. No, the madre and Mindanao is a call to a courageous peace, to authentic reconciliation, to divine love. It is challenge. It is project. It is the vocation to what is best in all of us: humanness as holiness, begotten of mothers, begotten of God.

Madre Francisca, pray for us. Madres de Francisca, pray for us.