— Poor Clares from Assisi
Upon the arrival of Sor Jerónima de la Asunción and her group of Clarisas into the Walled City of Intramuros, their primary benefactress, the childless Doña Ana de Vera, took care of them, assisting in their corporal needs as well as relishing them praises and devotion. The Archbishop, the Governor General, civil authorities and other people from all walks of life, visited the nuns in the house of de Vera, wishing them well and congratulating them after the tedious year-long travel. The next day, the nuns were brought to de Vera’ ranch in swampy Sampaloc for more rest and recovery where they were to stay until two of De Vera’s houses in Intramuros can give way to the nuns’ monastery.
Finally, on the vigil of Todos los Santos of 1621, the contemplative nuns moved into their monastery complex inside the Walled City. Their monastery was the first of its kind in the entire of Asia, and became the model of all contemplative houses thereafter. With the official title of Real Monasterio de la Inmaculada Concepción de la Madre de Dios de las Monjas de Sta. Clara (Royal Monastery of the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God of the Nuns of Sta. Clara), the monastery, within two months, already accepted twenty (20) Spanish maidens into its cloister, forever vanishing from the world. The first superior was none other than Sor Jerónima de la Asunción, whose rule was not without turbulence. Issues such as the revision of rules to adapt to the tropics, admittance of natives and other things, which included a complaint filed by Manila’s bachelors for the convent’s supposed act of depriving Manila men of maidens (Perez 1963, 38-43, Ruano 1991, 39-43, Santiago 1982, 109-11). The superior of the Monasterio de Sta. Clara, however, would be the only the Philippine colonial Church’s female prelate, entitled to a ring, pectoral cross and crosier.
Records detail the mystery and sheer silence that pervaded from the monastery. Since it was the monastery of a an extremely contemplative order, and also a beneficiary of Royal Patronage (hence it’s title of “Royal Monastery”), the Monasterio of Sta. Clara became refuge to so many Manilans and even people from the province but also became the object of malicious intrigue and gossip. The monastery had very solemn practices and rites and also employed unique practices such as the admission of very young girls aged 5-10 years old. The archives of Sta. Clara only record the dates of birth and dates of entrance of the girls, without mentioning neither their places of origin nor the names of their parents. This practice, shrouded in mystery, was believed to have been conceived to take care of the daughters of Franciscan friars from relations with women, presumably, native ones. These girls died inside the monastery and were never known to have existed by the entire world. There was also the practice of admitting laywomen into the cloisters who served the nuns as servants. The reasoning behind this was, in order for the Poor Clares to devote more time to prayer and work, they had to have ladies who would take care of the little girls they admitted. Called “Nanas”, the considered domestic helpers of the monastery became fixtures in the life in the cloister. A section of the Claustro de las Angustias (Cloister of Agonies) was devoted to these women (Carmen Jaime 1948, 2:43, 45).
And as for the rituals surrounding the entrance of ladies into the Monasterio as perpetual monjas?
According to an account by a British traveler, the rite was moving and highly emotional, steeped in solemnity and drama. The woman seeking admission would go, with her entire family, to the church of Sta. Clara in wedding finery. Accompanied by weeping bridesmaids, the prospective nun engages the Abbess of Sta. Clara in a poetic dialogue that goes:
“My daughter, what seek ye here?”
“Mother, I seek admission to your sacred house.”
The Abbess would then seem to rebuke the woman, warning her that the cloister is a place of mortification and penance, and that the “sinful pleasures and gaieties of the world are not so much as named among us.”
However, the prospective nun would insist and answer humbly “…I am a supplicant for admission, and quite prepared am I to give all for that holy calmness and peace of mind I have faith to believe will be found among your sisterhood, and which I have sought in the world in vain.”
The Abbess would then hold back and say who is she to deny such a godly intention. She would then brief the girl seeking admission that after one year of novitiate, she is free to leave the monastery if she deems she is not made for the cloister, provided that she will not speak of what transpires inside. If she, however, receives the grace of continuing the religious life as a sister, then by all means, she may stay and be one with the rest of the nuns for eternity.
The eager girl seeking admission then responds with ‘Mother, with heartfelt thankfulness, I do.” (Ellis 1859, 257-63, Santiago 2005, 75-77).
And with that, the girl enters the cloister, with a procession of black-veiled nuns holding candles singing “dolorous hymns” ushering her into the dim monastery, no longer to be seen by the world, possibly for one year or if ever, forever.
The lives of the nuns, following by the First Rule of Saint Claire, are of discipline, rigor and prayer. However, during the Spanish conquest in the Philippines, it would become the richest religious house for women in the whole archipelago. The “Poor” Clares became the owners of the entire encomienda of Porac, Pampanga and the Hacienda de Sulucan of Sampaloc, which was eventually bought by the Dominican friars for the new site of the University of Sto.Tomás. Today, UST stands on the said hacienda. The nuns also owned some parcels of the haciendas Marilao and Buenavista, both found in the province of Bulacan (Santiago 2005, 74).
According to Fr. Rene Javellana, SJ, the Monasterio de Sta. Clara was considered “living death” because as one enters the enclosure, one was separated from the rest of the world with a 30-foot high windowless wall. The only sign that there were women inside Sta. Clara would be the occasional hymns heard along the street as one walked by their monastery. In the entire history of Sta. Clara, there were only two times when the sisters were forced to leave the premises: during the British Occupation and the Second World War. When the British were looting the city, and since the monastery was found beside Fort Santiago, where soldiers slept, the nuns were fortunately assured safe passage to the Sta. Ana Church by no less a British commander. The terrified nuns were provided escorts so that the British would not go down in history as mere barbarians and pirates.
The latter “disturbance” proved to be the monastery’s worst experience. During the raging “Liberation of Manila”, the nuns, who were still enclosed in the monastery, tasked of praying for the world, became victims of indiscriminate American carpet bombing. I have yet to encounter records of Japanese assault on the sisters though. Locked up in their virtual cage, the nuns had to scamper around the convent when the Americans were heavily bombing the Walled City in an attempt to rid the historic city of stubborn Japanese soldiers. Some nuns were sadly killed, especially the elderly and sick. The 300 year old original Real Monasterio de Sta. Clara was forever erased on the face of the world. The surviving sisters, as I learned from an interview I conducted two years ago with the sisters, appeared scathed and disheveled with some missing veils, others with holes on their habits, from the ruined walls of the monastery to the modern world, ruined by the last War and horribly scorched by the Japanese and the Americans. Traumatized by the death of fellow sisters by heavy artillery they were never exposed to and the destruction of their beloved monastery, the nuns were at least consoled by the fact that the tomb of their beloved foundress, the venerable Sor Jerónima de la Asunción was intact.
In 1950, the Poor Clares were finally able to put up a new Monasterio de Sta. Clara. But this time, like all the original religious orders who used to be found inside the Walled City, the nuns have moved away from that sad place full of memories of pain and cruelty, building their new refuge from the world in Cubao, Aurora Boulevard, Quezon City. The nuns were still actually lucky since not all of them from the Intramuros monastery were murdered; their Franciscan Friar brothers living in the San Francisco convent were all killed.
In the 1990s, the nuns were again forced to move because their monastery was “in the way” of the C5 bridge that connects Santolan to Diliman. The nuns were compensated and built a large church-monastery complex at the opposite side of their former site. Today, the Real Monasterio de Sta. Clara stands proudly, always flocked by many devotees to seek Sta. Clara and Sor Jerónima de la Asunción’s counsel and intercessions. With a majestic view of the Marikina Valley, the lives of the silent monjas of Sta. Clara are courageous witnesses to the moving and reassuring love of Christ, His Mother, Mary and His saints and blesseds.
When I heard Mass yesterday there for the feast of Sta. Clara, many, many pilgrims, some old ladies wearing the brown devotional dress of the Venerable Orden Tercera or Third Order, with the white cord tied around the waist, to some nursing students, and the usual groups petitioning for clear skies with offerings of eggs, I realized the beauty of this relentless group of early feminists, women of deep faith and conviction, piety and dedication. Today’s fast-paced and shallow world needs to look and gaze at the peace and serenity of Sta. Clara, a little nook of heaven.
The values, ladies and history of the Real Monasterio de Sta. Clara de Manila hicieron ayer.
Santiago, Luciano P. R. 2005. To Love and To Suffer. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila
Ruano, Pedro. 1991. Jerónima de la Asunción. Quezon City: Monasterio de Sta. Clara
Santiago, Luciano P.R. 1982. Doña Jerónima. Filipinas Journal 4:109-11
Pérez, Lorenzo. 1963. Compendio de la Vida de la Venerable Madre Sor Gerónima de la Asunción.
Manila: St. Paul
Archivo del Monasterio de Sta. Clara- Carmen Jaime de San Miguel Arcángel, OSC. 1948. Destrucción de Real Monasterio de Sta. Clara. 4 cuadernos