At the proclamation of the Decretum Virtutibus of Venerable Ignacia del Espiritu Santo on February 1, 2008, the historic Binondo Church in the heart of Manila’s oldest district, overflowed with presence of the Sisters of the Religious of the Virgin Mary, the students of RVM-led schools, their collaborators in the ministry, supporters and friends. Many as they were, the significant crowd represented only a part of the RVM community and its extended family that now stretch beyond Philippine shores into foreign lands.
In 1684, when the determined young woman of 21 named Ignacia, the daughter of a Chinese merchant and a Filipina, left the safety of hearth and home, and plunged into the unchartered realm of religious life, she couldn’t have known the burgeoning fruits that her pioneering solitary act would engender. The young woman was focused on her goal to devote herself to God in prayer and humble service and decided to live alone in a house at the back of the Jesuit College in Manila, taking only a pair of scissors and a needle by which she might “live by the sweat of her brow.”
This exemplary life of piety attracted other young women and Ignacia welcomed them, soon forming the first community known as the Beata de la Compañia because they frequented the Church of St. Ignatius to receive the Sacraments, listen to the Word of God, and perform their acts of devotion. The Jesuit Fathers heard their confessions and directed them spiritually.
The Finger of God
The community grew with beatas who were Yndias, mestizos and Spaniard recogidas. When Mother Ignacia presented a set of Rules and Constitutions to the Archdiocesan office in 1726 so it could gain the ecclesiastical approval for their religious life, the diocesan official who reviewed the document, said, “Digitus Dei est hic! (This is the finger of God). In 1732, the Archbishop of Manila approved the rules.
After gaining this approval, Mother Ignacia decided to give up her responsibility as superior of the house and gave way to the leadership of a younger member, Dominga del Rosario. Shorn of her prime role she slid into the life of an ordinary member, a move that proved her humility. Quietly as she had lived her whole life Mother Ignacia died on September 10, 1748 at the age of 85.
“Unless the seed falls to the ground and dies, it does not bear fruit.”
King Ferdinand IV of Spain granted proteccion civil to the Congregation on November 25, 1755, a petition formally sent by Archbishop Arizala of Manila to the king two months before her death.
Shortly after the death of Mother Ignacia the beatas explored other places for their apostolic work, fanning out to other areas in Luzon. In 1874 sisters set sail for Tamontaca in Cotabato in the island of Mindanao and the nuns, despite dangers to their life because of the hostile culture they faced, spread out to Dapitan in 1880, Dipolog in 1892, Zamboanga in 1894, and Surigao together with Lubungan and Butuan in 1896.
After the Revolution and the Spanish-American War, the Sisters returned to their mission stations in Mindanao and opened new schools in Luzon and in the Visayas.
First Mother General
On June 21, 1902 Archbishop Martin Garcia Alocer, the apostolic administrator of the Manila archdiocese, approved the petition of the Sisters to have a gathering of all members to elect a Mother General. In the same year, Mother Maria Efigenia Alvarez, a native of Ermita, Manila, was elected the first Mother General in a General Chapter. She was succeeded in 1938 by Mother Maria Andrea Montejo, who was appointed by the Holy See.
On October 1, 1939, the Holy See granted canonical permission to the Congregation to transfer the Novitiate from Parañaque, Rizal to its present site at Quezon City. Pope Pius X, now St. Puis X, promulgated the Decree of Praise in favor of the Congregation’s Rules and Constitutions on March 17, 1907. Pope Pius XI granted the Decree of Approbation on March 24, 1931, which elevated the Congregation to Pontifical status. Finally, on January 12, 1948, the 200th anniversary of the death of the holy Foundress, Pope Pius XII issued the Decree of Definitive Pontifical Approbation of the Constitutions, which placed the Congregation directly under Rome.
In 1938, the Congregation had 26 houses throughout the country. World War II (1941-45) destroyed the Motherhouse at Intramuros together with nine other houses of the Congregation.
In 2007 the RVM Sisters work throughout the Philippine archipelago and several other countries in the world. They number more than 700 and have missions in America, Canada, Europe, Africa, Pakistan, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Taiwan. They administer more than 50 schools and several dormitories, retreat houses and social action centers. Indeed these are the sweet fruits of Mother Ignacia’s giving of herself to God.