A Challenge
Three hundred years ago
when women were powerless
when no native of a colony would ever dream of bold initiatives a simple woman
IGNACIA DEL ESPIRITU SANTO broke the mold. She challenged the society and the Church of her time
and guided by the Spirit
opened new paths on Philippines soil.
Three hundred years later
the challenge remains as vital and vibrant as ever.
How can we, each of us
-men and women alike-
imitate her courage?
What can we, each of us
-men and women alike-
DO to challenge the society and the Church of our time?

Pedro S. de Achutegui, S.J.
The RVM at the Service of Evangelization within the 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines | by: S. Ma. Anicia B. Co, RVM

The Congregation of the Religious of the Virgin Mary (RVM) joins in the celebration of the 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines in joy and thanksgiving for the gift of Catholic faith in our country. The history of the RVM congregation is very much connected with the history of the Christianization of the Philippines. This year, 2021, marks the 337th year of the existence of the RVM congregation, formerly the Beaterio de la Compañia de Jesus, founded in Intramuros, Manila, by a native-Chinese mestiza, Mother Ignacia del Espiritu Santo.

Mother Ignacia del Espiritu Santo (1663-1748) and the Beaterio de la Compañía de Jesús
The foundress of the Religious of the Virgin Mary, Mother Ignacia del Espiritu Santo was born, lived and died during the Spanish colonial era in the Philippines. The few primary sources and historical documents available yield enough information to reconstruct the story of Mother Ignacia and the community she founded, the Beaterio de la Compañía de Jesús, now known as the Congregation of the Religious of the Virgin Mary.

The precise date of her birth is not known but her baptismal record shows the date and place of her baptism, the name of her parents and godparent and the priest who baptized her. Her parents, Jusepe Iuco, a Chinese convert to Catholicism in 1652 and Maria Jeronima, a native, were residents of Binondo, the place where the Chinese Catholics were settled by the Spaniards to separate them from the non-Catholic Chinese. Because of the threat of the invasion by the Chinese pirates in 1662, the church in Binondo was demolished together with the other stone structures, convents and churches in Manila upon the order of the Spanish Governor General so that they could not be used as bastion of defense or offense by the Chinese pirates in case of attack. Thus, Jusepe and Maria Jeronima brought their first child to the Holy Kings Church in Parian where she received the sacrament of baptism from Fray Alberto Collares, OP. At her baptism, she was given the name Ignacia del Espiritu Santo. The significance of this name would become manifest in the course of her life.

The historical context in which Ignacia grew up was characterized by conflicts and discrimination. Every now and then, there were conflicts between the governor-general and the archbishop, and some conflicts among the religious orders. The society which Ignacia knew was a colonial pyramid. At the top of the society were the Spaniards who came to the country from Spain (the peninsulares). They considered themselves to be the legitimate inhabitants of the islands and held top government positions. Next in rank were the Spaniards born in the islands (insulares or creoles). They belonged to the ruling class but were also discriminated against by the peninsulares. Below these ranks were the half-breeds (mestizos/mestizas) and the natives (yndios/yndias). As a Chinese-yndia mestiza, Ignacia became aware of the ambivalent attitude of the Spaniards toward the Chinese. They praised the Chinese for their industry and contribution to the economy but treated them with suspicion and taxed them heavily. The natives, on the other hand, were engaged to work for the Spaniards and their interests. Some were subjected to forced labor in the shipyard of Cavite and other places as well. Others were recruited as sailors and trained to fight with the Spaniards against any invading force. The roles of men and women in the society were delineated. For women and girls, social acceptability meant developing characteristics of shyness, discretion, restraint and timidity.

Ignacia grew up as an only child from age six because her siblings, Rafaela, Santiago and Juana dela Concepcion all died in infancy. She learned her first prayers from her mother who also taught her the basic tenets of the Catholic faith and the practice of Christian piety. Her faith was nurtured in the family. With her parents, Ignacia followed the practices of piety common during her time: praying the rosary and other devotions, particularly devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary, joining processions, assisting at Mass, receiving Holy Communion and going to confession.

Like the other native and mestizo/mestiza children, Ignacia received education in the parish which was mostly doctrinal. Although there were already two educational institutions for women and girls, Sta. Potenciana established in 1595 and Sta. Isabel in 1632, these were reserved for Spanish girls and women.

In 1684, when Ignacia was twenty-one years old, her parents wanted her to marry. She felt there could be another way of life for her. She desired to dedicate her whole life to God. Torn between the desire to please her parents and to follow the stirrings deep within her heart, she went to make a general confession and seek the advice of Fr. Paul Klein, a Jesuit priest from Bohemia who arrived in Manila in 1682 and became known by his hispanized name Pablo Clain (1650-1717). Fr. Clain gave her the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola to help her discern the will of God for her. After this retreat, she went home to tell her parents about her decision “to remain in the service of the Divine Majesty and live by the sweat of her brow.”

She left home, supported herself by needlework, and lived a life of prayer and penance in the house located at the back of the Jesuit College of Manila. Mother Ignacia centered her life on the suffering Christ and tried to imitate him through a life of service and humility. She prayed earnestly to God and performed penances to move God to have mercy on them. Her spirituality of humble service was expressed in her capacity to forgive, to bear wrongs patiently and to correct with gentleness and meekness. This spirituality was manifest in peace and harmony in the community, mutual love and union of wills, witnessing to the love of Christ and the maternal care of the Blessed Mother.

Her life of prayer and labor attracted other native women who also felt called to the religious life but could not be admitted into the existing congregation at that time which only admitted Spanish women. Mother Ignacia accepted these women into her company and the first community was born. They became known as the Beatas de la Compañía de Jesús because they frequently received the sacraments at the Church of St. Ignatius, performed many acts of devotion there and had the Jesuit fathers for their spiritual directors and confessors.

As they grew in number they felt the need for a more stable lifestyle and a set of rules. They set down in writing their community practices and drew up their daily schedule. Mother Ignacia and her companions were involved in retreat work and helped the Jesuit Fathers by preparing the retreatants to be disposed to the Spiritual Exercises. They also admitted young girls as boarders and taught them Christian doctrine, reading and writing as well as sewing and household arts and skills. Mother Ignacia did not make any distinction of color or race but admitted yndias, mestizas and Spanish girls to be educated in the beaterio. She also opened the beaterio to women even Spanish women who wanted a place of solitude and stay as recogidas. The beatas became known for their devotion, humility, application to work and the spiritual exercises.

Encouraged and assisted by the Jesuit Fathers, Mother Ignacia finally completed the writing of the rules of the Beaterio which defined their group as a community of religious women. Their rule of life was based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola and inspired by the spirit and example of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mother Ignacia submitted these Rules to the archdiocesan office. With the Archdiocese being sede vacante, the fiscal provisor approved the Rules in 1732. Sometime after, probably in 1737, Mother Ignacia requested to be relieved of her position as Rectora and the leadership passed on to Sor Dominga del Rosario. The community observed the process of electing the Rectora as provided for in the 1726 Constitutions and Rules. The Beaterio of Mother Ignacia will go down in history as the first group of Filipinos to exercise the right of suffrage through secret ballot.

Mother Ignacia lived the rest of her life in the Beaterio as an ordinary member without seeking honor or privilege as the foundress of the community. Murillo Velarde saw in this act of relinquishing her position of Superior of the house a sign of her great humility. Mother Ignacia did not cling to power and privilege. All she wanted was to serve God in humble service. Murillo Velarde described her as “so humble…a truly strong woman….mortified, patient, devout, spiritual, zealous for the good of souls.”

Two months before Mother Ignacia’s death, the Archbishop initiated a process of securing the royal protection for the Beaterio. The Archbishop wrote his letter to the King based on the report of the visitation of the Beaterio. The letter reached Spain only two years after.

On September 10, 1748, Mother Ignacia died without knowing the response of the Spanish king to the petition of the Archbishop. But, she left behind a community that was in expectant hope for what the future might hold for them, trusting always in God’s providence as Mother Ignacia taught them by example. Murillo Velarde observed the honor and acknowledgment given to Mother Ignacia by the the civil and church leaders who carried her coffin during her funeral.

The Beaterio de la Compañía de Jesús: Survival, Challenges and Developments (1748-1898)

Seven years after the death of Mother Ignacia, the Beaterio learned from the Archbishop the response of the King of Spain to his letter. King Ferdinand VI’s decree of royal protection dated November 25, 1755 officially acknowledged the beaterio but explicitly defined it as a secular association. The King ordained that the house “or Beaterio of native women continue to enjoy its present status supporting itself…without, however, becoming a convent or a foundation, but only a house of retreat exempt from cloister…said women and other persons living with them in the house are not to be molested in the practice of their pious exercises.” The decree ensured the safety of the residents of the Beaterio but it denied the nature of the beaterio as a community of religious women. A year later the King required a report on the statutes of the Beaterio. The royal cedula of 1761 ordered the beaterio to be placed under the direct supervision of the governor-general, and to formulate a new constitution that would define it as a secular institution. The Jesuit Provincial, who was asked to assist the Beatas in formulating the new constitutions, clarified that the Jesuits did not exercise any authority over these beatas who “are seculars” and “their voluntary pronouncement of the simple vows as approved by their confessors does not violate the law.” What the beatas did was simply to mark with asterisks the numbers in the 1726 Constitutions and Rules that the King ordered to be deleted. Even without being recognized as religious women, the beatas continued to live the religious life according to the spirit and charism of Mother Ignacia del Espiritu Santo.

When the Jesuits were expelled from the Philippines the beatas lost their spiritual fathers, directors and confessors. The 1767 decree of King Charles II of Spain ordering the expulsion of the Jesuits from all his dominions including the Philippines was immediately executed when it reached the Philippines in 1768. Thus, from 1768 until the return of the Jesuits to the Philippines in 1859, the Beaterio thrived on its own and continued the retreat work even without the Jesuit priests. The Beatas were not totally without any support because they enjoyed the solicitude of the Archbishop and other churchmen who helped and supported them even in their retreat works. The beatas carried on the education and formation of young girls in the beaterio and offered hospitality to women who wanted a temporary place of seclusion and solitude.

Even with these apostolic works, the beaterio had to deal with the demand of the King to keep them from developing as a religious community. In order to satisfy the king, the Beatas produced in 1795 a copy of their constitutions with a note “expurgado segun el edicto de 1747” on its cover. The 1795 Constitutions, however, was exactly the same as the 1726 Constitutions and Rules of Mother Ignacia. The numbers that indicate the religious character of the beaterio were not deleted but only marked with asterisks.

The succeeding Rectoras of the Beaterio were keen in insuring that the beaterio retain its original nature according to the spirit and vision of Mother Ignacia. The continuing support of the Archbishop who did not fail to send a delegate to preside over the election of the Rectoras of the Beaterio and to make the necessary appointments of officials when the need arose was a tacit approval and recognition of the nature and importance of this Beaterio.

The Beaterio which reached its one hundred and sixty-six years of existence since its foundation was recognized as a teaching institution in 1850’s Buzeta’s Diccionario Geografico, Estadistico, Historico de las Islas Filipina and in the weekly publication, La Ilustracion Filipina, in 1860. Its September issues featured the Beaterio of Mother Ignacia among the Beaterios de Manila under the title “Educandas del Beaterio.” The beatas managed to keep the retreat movement going by inviting available priests to give the retreat and helping in explaining the points and translating them for the native women.

In 1874, about fifteen years after the return of the Jesuits to the Philippines, the Jesuits who were given the Mindanao missions and had already ransomed slave children in Tamontaca, appealed to the Beaterio for help to take care of the girls. Three recogidas volunteered to go to the missions. They begged the Rectora to be invested with the holy habit and the grace to be missionaries in Mindanao. These three became the first missionaries of the Beaterio of Mother Ignacia. They were given charge of the girls in Tamontaca, Cotabato while the Jesuits took care of the boys. The beatas taught reading and writing as well as household arts of sewing, washing and ironing clothes, even farming. The spiritual and religious formation of the beatas were taken care of by the Jesuits.

The missionary life of the beatas in Tamontaca inspired some beatas in Manila to volunteer for the Mindanao missions. Soon beaterios were opened in places where the Jesuits had their missions, in Dapitan, Dipolog, Zamboanga, and Butuan (1880-96). The beatas distinguished themselves in educating young girls and pioneered the retreat movement in these areas.

The rise of the mission beaterios in Mindanao posed a problem to the Beaterio in Manila. When an article was published in La Ilustracion Filipina in 1893 that featured Mother Ignacia del Espiritu Santo and the work of the beatas in Manila and in Mindanao, the status of the Beaterio in Manila was questioned. Since it was not canonically a religious institute, it could not have daughter foundations. The matter was resolved by requiring the beatas going to the Mindanao mission to renounce their membership to the Beaterio in Manila. The beaterios in Tamontaca and Dapitan were to be independent beaterios and were allowed to admit novices and train them for religious profession of vows. Even with these conditions, some beatas from Manila still volunteered to go to Mindanao. They renounced their membership to the Manila beaterio and the right to return to it.

At the outbreak of the Philippine revolution against Spain in 1896, the beatas in Manila saw the danger of their staying in the Beaterio. The former Jesuit establishment across the street had become a Spanish barracks since the Jesuit expulsion. Only in 1898 when the American forces arrived did the beatas evacuated the beaterio upon the order of the Archbishop. The beatas moved to Malabon, then to Paombong and Hagonoy. Wherever they went they gathered the little children and taught them.

Some of the beatas went along with General Emilio Aguinaldo’s army and ministered to the wounded soldiers. They not only acted as nurses but also gave good counsel and encouragement to the soldiers. For these services, General Aguinaldo expressed his immense gratitude to the beaterio when the war was over.

The mission beaterios of Mother Ignacia was the way to the fulfilment of the dreams of native women long before Ignacia was born. Clara and Isabel Caliman of Butuan and Maria Uray of Dapitan wished to belong to a religious community of women but they did not have that opportunity. They lived and died as solitary beatas.

The troubled times did not prevent the beatas from carrying out their mission of sharing their faith not only by teaching children and helping in retreat but also by nursing the sick and wounded and giving consolation to people who were in sorrow and affliction. The beatas also became part of the shaping of the Filipino identity.

From Beaterio to Congregation (1899-1948)

When the lives of the Jesuit missionaries and the beatas were endangered because of the coming of the revolutionaries from Manila, the Jesuits decided to evacuate the beatas and the children from Tamontaca. The children were distributed to some families and the beatas of Tamontaca, Zamboanga and Dapitan together with the Jesuit missionaries sailed to Manila in 1899. Upon the request of the Jesuit Superior of the Mindanao mission, the Archbishop allowed the Mindanao beatas to occupy the beaterio which was turned into a hospital by the Spaniards and were now taken over by the American army. In 1900 when the Manila beatas who evacuated the Beaterio returned, they were surprised to see the Mindanao beatas there.

The end of the Spanish colonial rule and its Patronato Real meant the freedom of the beaterio of Mother Ignacia to live its true identity as a religious community willed by God to be at the service of the mission of the Church. The beatas petitioned the Archbishop for the reorganization of the beaterio and the return of the Jesuit spiritual direction. Approving both requests, the Archbishop recommended the revision of the constitutions to include provisions that would respond to the situation. With the permission to profess the vow of poverty, the dream of Mother Ignacia for the community to be recognized as a religious community was fulfilled.

The first general congregation held in 1902 elected the first Superior General Mother Maria Efigenia Alvarez and the members of her council. The revised constitutions were submitted to the Archbishop with a request for assistance to have the beaterio recognized as a congregation by the Holy See. The congregation was canonically erected on July 31, 1906 and received the decree of praise from Pope Piux X on March 17, 1907. This was the first recognition by the Holy See of the religious community founded by Mother Ignacia. The Sisters complied with the required reviews and revisions of the constitutions and on March 24, 1931 the Congregation received the decree of approbation from Pope Pius XI. From Beaterio de la Compañia de Jesus, the name was changed to Compañia de las Beatas de la Virgen Maria and to Congregacion de Religiosas de la Virgen Maria in 1932.

As the Congregation was undergoing the process of becoming a pontifical institute, it continued to expand its apostolic endeavors. The missions in Mindanao were incorporated into the Congregation’s mission after the reorganization. Sisters were sent to the missions established before the Philippine Revolution and new mission houses and schools were opened not only in different parts of Mindanao but also in Manila, Bulacan, Pampanga, Cavite and Laguna. As the missions of the Congregation expanded, the school of the Beaterio in Manila which became known as the Colegio del Beaterio was formally incorporated in 1912. The Colegio upgraded its facilities and curriculum. The name was changed to St. Mary’s College in 1939. The elementary and secondary courses of the Beaterio were formally recognized. The Junior Normal College was opened to prepare the Sisters for the teaching apostolate.

With the opening of new houses and schools from 1920 to 1930s the Congregation established itself and became known as a teaching congregation. It still continued its dormitory ministry and by 1930 it had three dormitories, one in Cebu and two in Manila. The Sisters continued the Congregation’s retreat apostolate and catechetical ministry.

The Second World War (1941-1945) posed another challenge to the Congregation. Classes were suspended, schools were closed in Manila and different parts of the country. The Sisters had to evacuate Intramuros. This time there would be no more possibility of returning. The buildings were razed to the ground during the liberation of Manila in 1945. The lot in Quezon City which was acquired for the Novitiate in 1939 became the new Mother House of the Congregation of the Religious of the Virgin Mary.

The Sisters re-opened the schools and accepted new missions from 1946-1948. Even with the needed repairs of school buildings and upgrade of facilities as well as financial constraints, the Sisters managed to continued their apostolic works.

On January 12, 1948, with the definitive approbation of its constitutions, the Religious of the Virgin Mary (RVM) received the distinction of being an apostolic institute of pontifical right. Two hundred years after the death of Mother Ignacia, the beaterio she founded was officially recognized by the Church as a community of religious women.

From an All-Filipino Congregation to an International Congregation (1948-2020)

By the grace of God, the Sisters were able to pursue their mission of evangelization despite the many challenges of the post-war era. As the Congregation accepted new invitations to run schools in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, it also continued its retreat and dormitory apostolates and allowed Sisters to work in the hospitals to care for the sick.

The Congregation kept abreast with the changing times and implemented the renewal called for by the Second Vatican Council. This meant another review and revision of the Constitutions based on the original spirit of the foundation of Mother Ignacia del Espiritu Santo, the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church and the needs of the times. The Sisters took to heart the spirit of the renewal of Vatican II.

Besides retreat, education and dormitory, the Congregation organized and accepted new types of ministries. The Social Action Ministry was organized in 1972. Later on, the different social action programs were integrated in the school’s community involvement programs even as the social ministry continues to have its own thrust. The Congregation sent Sisters to respond to the needs of the Church through various forms of services, in the seminary apostolate, catechetical centers of the diocese, bishops’ residence, in EAPI, CBCP, PMAS, finance office of the diocese, Cebu Caritas, Archdiocesan Archives, nunciatures, teaching in schools of theology, administrative work in diocesan schools. These were grouped together as the Special Ministry of the Congregation.

The Congregation also responded to the call to overseas mission. The first RVM missions outside the Philippines were opened in Sacramento, California (1959), Honolulu, Hawaii (1971), and Indonesia (1977). Several mission houses were started in Papua New Guinea (1980), Rome (1980), and Ghana, West Africa (1982). Other foundations include Islamabad, Pakistan (1992), Canada (1994) and Pago Pago, American Samoa (1995), Taiwan (1996). From 2009 to 2020 new communities were established in Rome and Canada.

Today, the RVMs serve God in different fields of apostolate (school, dormitories, retreats, seminaries, social ministry, formation and special ministry) in several parts of the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan, Ghana, West Africa, Rome, Canada and the United States. Education is their main apostolate. The RVMs manage 50 schools and 2 affiliate schools in the Philippines, 8 schools and 10 affiliate schools in the overseas mission. They also serve through the dormitory and retreat apostolate and are strengthening their social and pastoral ministries. Through the Special Ministry, the Congregation serves in various capacities according to the needs of the Church.

The growth of the beaterio into a Congregation and its response to the apostolic challenges of the times show the vitality of the spirit of Mother Ignacia. Indeed, her lamp continues to shine as her daughters courageously strive to respond with zeal to the call of mission in different contexts.

The story of the Congregation that has grown from the small Beaterio of M. Ignacia continues to unfold. It bears witness to the enduring vitality and strength of the foundation, the spirituality of M. Ignacia. The lamp she lit to guide the path of native women aspiring to the religious life and the maturity of faith continues to shine. It remains undimmed.

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