DAVAO CITY – A Davao-based congregation of Catholic nuns known for their thrust of “transformative and socially-active” education reached a milestone by turning 25 last April 1.
The Missionaries of the Assumption (ma), administrator of the Assumption College of Davao, hosted a celebration with faculty, members of the alumni, and network of nuns, priests and non-government workers. Davao Archbishop Emeritus Fernando Capalla also joined the celebration.
The ma sisters was formed in 1989 after 29 nuns from the Canada-based Daughters of Mary of the Assumption (FMA) separated from the order to form a new congregation .
Founding members Sisters Mila Gimeno, Concepcion Gasang and Luz Mallo, and former school director Dr. Iris Melliza took time with Davao Today to discuss how they started this journey from being FMA sisters towards forming a new congregation which they said contextualized the Vatican’s “option for the poor.”
Sr. Gimeno recalled it all started with their involvement in issues during Martial Law mold their awareness to become active with the poor.
“In 1975, I was still a novice, we were protesting against (President) Marcos, the US bases, joining immersions in the community. Some were working in justice and peace desks, with human rights in Task Force Detainees. There was something growing in us,” Gimeno said.
While the FMA was an apostolate focused in administering schools in Davao Province, Gimeno said they were thinking of expanding their calling outside of the walls of the schools.
“We asked how can we become effective when we are serving the schools, such as in Monkayo, Nabunturan, Maco and Compostela. One of our questions that time was is Christian education the essence of our congregation,” Sr. Gimeno said.
During those tumultuous times of the dictatorship, sectors from church and educators joined in protests and also wanted more involvement from their sectors.
Sr. Gasang said there were Davao-wide formations with teachers and school administrators under the Education Forum and the FOSARE (Forum of School Administrators for Relevant Education) with Melliza leading this formation.
Gimeno said that in 1982 the congregation underwent a “soul searching” to make their school relevant to the times.
“I remember in 1982, the whole school community was made to undergo a seminar called education for transformation. We came up with a regional statement from the sisters to the employees, calling us to become aware of the situation our country is in, and we have to participate in social transformation. That was the start of transformative education,” Sr. Gimeno added.
Melliza, now retired, recounted how the nuns were “stirred” by the times into action.
“It was a tumultous time under Martial Law. There was disparity of (social) classes, and clashes among the people that highlighted the inhumanity,” Melliza said.
“It was at this time that Vatican II was popularized. This perhaps struck the Filipina FMA sisters and they were stirred by society as well,” she added.
The Vatican II has been referred as the most important document of the Catholic faith in the 20th century as it stirred the church’s direction and involvement towards social issues and the practice of “the option for the poor.”
In 1984, the Assumption sisters allowed funeral services for slain journalist Alex Orcullo to be held inside the school.
Gimeno added that these experiences made them reflect their true essence as a congregation. “We though education is a historical task of the congregation. But our essence is love for the poor, the option to serve them as we followeed Jesus who accompanied the poor; so that is our charism.”
But their involvement did not sit well with their superiors.
“I remember they asked us why do we have to go to Agdao? Why don’t you wait for them to come,” Gimeno said.
Sr. Mallo said they had to go to where they found their relevance among the poor living adjacent to the school compound in Cabaguio Avenue.
“The people and the church in Agdao were very much consolidated, especially the GKK (Gagmay’ng Kristohanong Katilingban, or basic ecclesiastical communities). There were many issues such as demolition and (military) zoning,” Mallo said.
Gimeno said they found meaning when people in the communities turn up to them for strength.
“If we go there, we talk about their issues; they feel happy and find strength with our presence,” she said.
“Our thought then was we don’t want to live like princesses, to just give dole-outs. That’s not us. We need to be involved,” she added.
Even after EDSA I, the Assumption sisters continued with their advocacy, with issues such as rights violations brought by President Cory Aquino’s total war and Alsa Masa vigilantism haunting the city.
Military at the gates
One unforgettable experience the sisters had was when the school was sieged by soldiers and Alsa Masa vigilantes in the mid-1980s. The soldiers earlier dispersed a rally and were chasing farmers who sought protection from the sisters.
“They came in, they were hundreds of them. My thought was my God, here’s an incident; my students have to be safe, my teachers have to be safe. But the marchers also have to be safe,”Melliza recalled.
Melliza said she had to announce through the public address system instructions for the teachers to secure the students.
“I told the teachers, stay with your students, close your rooms. Keep the kids safe, don’t let them out unless the parents come and fetch them,” she said.
She said after securing the students, she turned her attention on the rallyists.
“The Escalante massacre was fresh in my memory, and I thought this shouldn’t happen here. The soldiers were already coming in, the farmers were just sitting in our grotto and they were dead ducks,” she recalled.
She remembered telling the soldiers and paramilitary to refrain from touching the farmers.
“I told them, ‘Please remember Ecalante, doing something like this will not solve the problem. You will not be heroes by killing these people,” she said.
The tension was diffused when the city mayor came and made the troops leave.
The sisters said this incident did not deter them from continuing their mission.
But in time, most of the sisters who were heavily involved in the community thought it was time to form a new religious order. That came in 1989 when 29 out of the 40 FMA sisters came out and formed the Missionaries of the Assumption.
“We called it loyal dissent because we were trying to be true to Vatican II,” Mallo added.
Gimeno said the process was long and was “bitter” on both sides at that time.
“This wasn’t done overnight. There were many times of discernment. We wrote to our mother general to express our questions on our vows on poverty, apostolate life, and social involvement,” she said.
Melliza also recalled the strong bond of the 29 nuns who broke from the FMA.
“It was a painful separation. They loved the FMA, but I understand that for them it is not enough anymore. They had to consider justice a priority, they chose evangelization and justice, which they carried in the school,” she said.
With their separation from FMA, they were given the keys to the Assumption College of Davao.
The sisters also decided to exercise their option to not wear habits. Sr. Gasang said it was option they chose so that people felt the Assumption sisters were like one of them.
“They don’t feel we are above them, they felt we are one with them,” Gasang said.
Melliza said the Assumption sisters learned to draw strength from each other, and also from experiences of other congregations that regrouped and re-tooled their curriculum.
The sisters opened extension schools for indigenous peoples in Malabog, Paquibato district and San Luis, Agusan del Sur and set up a community base in Malawi, Lanao del Norte.
Melliza also said they worked to develop the school’s curriculum with four thrusts: integral evangelization, education for justice, contextualization and transformative education.
The Assumption thrusts of community exposures and joining rallies left an influence on one of their alumna, Joefel Soco-Carreon, who now works with the children’s advocacy group Kaugmaon (The Future) Foundation.
“I remembered my first ever rally when I was in grade six, it was with the school’s protest at the office of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (in Lanang). We protested the implementation of IFMA that were encroaching Lumad areas,” Soco said.
She also shared her vivid experience during their community exposure in Kibalatong near Malabog in the summer she was entering senior year.
“I had vivid memories in Kibalatong. We stayed for nearly a week. We were assigned to stay with families, share meals with them. I was not very reflective then at 15, all I thought was adventure and the love for nature. When I was up there I would feel the power of the universe and peace. Then, you will think why the people here are poor,” Soco said.
She said those experiences served as an eye-opener, as well as lectures that helped her with the perspective on issues.
“It galvanized my option to serve, and my sense of what is fair, what is justice and injustice. Part of that was instilled in the curriculum, that component of service and leadership. I would say a big part was the school that set my life’s purpose,” she said.
Recently, Soco helped her batch mates pool resources for relief operations for Typhoon Yolanda. She said even with her classmates who are into other fields or in other countries, they would always had time to talk and act on issues.
Melliza said the Assumption has always wanted to imbibe a curriculum that puts words into practice.
“They wanted a curriculum that would make the students one with the marginalized. With theoretical things they also have action component,” she recalled.
“With action, it could be understood, it could be comprehended. It becomes an attitude, and then its practiced. Once it is practiced, it becomes a habit. When it’s a lifestyle, it becomes a culture,” Melliza said.
Melliza said other schools are now doing this transformative education in a “less dramatic” way, but she said none had carried it like the Assumption College of Davao and the Assumption sisters.
“To work for transformation, to be counter-tradition, one should always be ready to continue on with difficult times. But when you are making your actions close to what Christ wants, at the end you have peace,” Melliza said.
The Assumption College of Davao recently campaigned against the construction of a coal-fired power plant in the city. It also joined the call for justice for slain Italian missionary Fr. Fausto ‘Pops’ Tentorio and the ban of plastics and junk food in the campus. (davaotoday.com)