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Mother Mary John Mananzan, OSB
What I've learned: The most important lessons are from women
Lifted from Philippine Daily Inquirer, March 14, 2010, Sunday
Posted: Friday March 26, 2010 03:55 PM

I am now a super senior citizen but I am still learning. And looking back on my life, the most important lessons I’ve learned have been from women. 

From my mother I learned extravagant generosity. In our house, we were forever sorting relief goods, old clothes, etc. to give to the poor. 

She was like a mother of perpetual help. All needy relatives, and even non-relatives, came to her when they needed material things and when they were in trouble–an unwed mother, a distraught parent trying to dissuade a daughter from marrying at 16, quarreling siblings among others. 

Today, when I have this strong urge to take someone under my wings (i.e. Jun Lozada, Nancy Gadian Dante Madriaga, Letlet, etc.), I am reminded of where I got this “virus.” 


When I was third year high school at St. Scholastica’s college, I had this fantastic sociology teacher who was only a few years older than us. 

Connie Lopez (later, Mrs. Reyes) was always in the Directress’ office because she wore sleeveless dresses and her classes were noisy. Under her, we had group discussions, unheard of at that time. We all had a crush on her, especially my gang of four. 

When she asked us if we wanted to have a study club, we, of course, said yes. I learned more there than I did in the classroom. 

Around a marble table under an acacia tree, we studied logic, epistemology, cosmology and later on the characters of the Reformation and the like. My mind simply exploded and I was infected with intellectual curiosity that would stay with me for life. 

Ms. Lopez also taught us non-intellectual skills. Typing, for instance. She was so strict we had to retype a page if there was a single mistake. This served me well years later when I wrote my 365-page doctoral dissertation in Rome. 

What I learned best from her was how to be a teacher who was not only a mentor but a real friend. 

In college, three nuns stood out as mentors. 

Sr. Ma. Liguori del Rosario was a tall, manly-looking, externally gruff but genuinely caring sister whose shoes looked like boats. 

From her, we caught a glimmer of understanding of chemistry, but not before she would exclaim in boxer’s language, “I am about to throw in my towel,” which left us even more perplexed because what did towel have to do with chemistry? 

She taught us to love St. Paul. In her theology class she waxed ecstatic over the “Letters of St. Paul,” almost like a woman in love talking about her lover! 

We also learned unflinching honesty and self-directed discipline. As dean, she introduced the honor system in the college department. Violations of school rules earned demerits depending on the gravity of the offence. 

We voluntarily reported our own demerits to the dean’s office and, after 10 demerits, we had to “do campus” on Saturdays, which meant doing odd jobs in school (like helping out in the library) without any monitoring. 

Like a giant 

Another formidable nun in our lives was Sr. Caridad Barrion, who was only about five feet tall but seemed like a giant to us. The most unruly college girl became meek as a lamb under her dark, piercing stare. Most of us had a love-hate relationship with her. 

From her, we learned German discipline. She easily “out-Germaned” the German nuns who were our teachers. 

She was our history teacher and, at one time, our dean. She taught us how to make perfect term papers, with no typing mistakes, and with complete card catalogues of our research. For every hour, our paper was late, our grade went down one level. 

She would bring us on the weapons’ carrier truck we inherited from the Americans to the slums in Culiculi, Pandacan, Welfareville, and other underserved places where we taught catechism and distributed packages collected during an annual Christmas drive. 

We had “immersions,” “exposure programs” and “socially-oriented” activities–words unknown at that time.

She also taught us to look at problems in context by asking ourselves: “What is this in the light of eternity?”

Backbone of steel 

Sr. Soledad Hilado was a diminutive nun with a backbone of steel who had the looks of 1950s movie star Tita Duran (mother to the late well-loved rapper Francis Magalona). 

From her I learned to hold my head above the water by remembering the first article of the creed: “I believe in God the Father Almighty.” 

If God is my Father and He is almighty, who can vanquish me? This thought helped me survive the crises in my life. 

I used to go to her office presumably to look at her beautiful calendars of landscapes and end up sitting before her discerning my vocation. So I entered the nunnery right after college graduation at the age of 19. 

The one who shaped me into a Benedictine sister was a tall, beautiful German whom we imagined to be a former Bavarian princess–Sr. Assumpta Filser, our Magistra. 

I owe her a spirituality based on the Scriptures and the Holy Rule, steeped in compassion but with no sentimentality or saccharine piety. Though she was a physical education teacher, her solid theological teachings and deep insights into the Holy Rule made a lasting impression. 

Social activism 

Fast forward. Where did I learn social activism? 

After five and a half years of study in Germany and Rome for my Ph.D. in philosophy, major in linguistic philosophy, which had absolutely no relevance in the years of Martial Law, I taught at the Ateneo and enjoyed writing theological papers with the members of the Interfaith Theological Circle we had formed. 

Then some sisters, who had a telephone brigade for La Tondeña workers who went on strike, brought me to Tondo to show solidarity with the workers. 

I had my first encounter with military brutality when the soldiers came, beat up the workers and forced them into buses that would bring them to Camp Crame. 

Women activists became my mentors, particularly Tina Ebro Carlos who became my secretary-general in the Citizens Alliance for Consumer Protection. She taught me how to “arouse, organize and mobilize.” I learned how to negotiate with the police during a rally and to talk before thousands of people on such issues as, say, oil price hikes. In other words, I became a street parliamentarian. 

When I went to Venice on the invitation of the world Council of Churches to attend a seminar on Women and Human Rights, I met Agnes from Chile. Our discussions made me realize the gender perspective was lacking in our struggle back home. 

Upon my return, Remy Rikken, Ging Deles, Irene Santiago and I formed Filipina, the first consciously feminist organization in the Philippines. With Girlie Villariba, I established the Center for Women Resources and later, with other women’s organizations, Gabriela. 

As an administrator, I’ve learned from my feminist friends that there is a woman’s style of management–participative, transparent and base don collective decision-making. So, I never decide important matters by myself. We have regular meetings where we discuss issues and decide by consensus. I have found this most fair and effective. 

And for those who believe one is never too old to learn, I’ve established the Life Long Learning program in our Institute of Women’s Studies. It offers art appreciation, journal writing, Shibashi, mental health, acupressure, and even ballroom dancing. 

Sr. Mary John Mananzan is Prioress of the Missionary of Benedictine Sisters in the Philippines; executive director of Institute of Women’s Studies at St. Scholastica’s College; chair of the Women’s Crisis Center; and lifetime honorary chair of Gabriela.


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