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Calls within a Call

 By Sr. M. Soledad Perpiñan RGS

“Who of you will become a nun?”  My young dying mother lovingly gazed at her five daughters from her death bed.  I was 17 then followed by Aida, 15, Thelma, 13, Vilma, 11, and Edna, 8.  We smiled at her but no one answered.

Mama was my vocation promoter and Dad my vocation formator.  The milieu was a very happy mixed marriage of a fervent, upright Protestant and a no-nonsense Catholic who did not have the usual trappings of pietism.  Both were highly educated.  Dad had his Ph.D. from Iowa State University and M.A. from Columbia University, New York.  Mama, unlike her sisters who were “colegialas” of convent schools, had a thoroughly public school education up to college and masteral studies at the University of the Philippines.  But they were genuine persons, authentic Christians, so

much in love with each other and with a God who blessed them with compatibility and real friendship.

 
Photo: Norma Marina Remedios Perpinan (Sr. Soledad) with parents Soledad de Leon and Jesus Perpiñan.

Dad inculcated in me a spirituality reflective of post Vatican II.  My prayer life did not begin with memorized prayers but with the ease of conversing with God.  Having a very good and loving father made it easy to do so.  The Bible came alive every time my Dad would put me on his lap and tell one story after another.  He taught me contemplative stillness when he brought me with him to the harbor of Manila Bay and we would sit side by side waiting in silence for the fish to bite the bait on our fishing rods.  As I grew up I was deeply impressed by the integrity and statesmanship of my role model.

 

At 15, High School Graduate,
St. Theresa's College, Quezon City

Mama was a gentle woman, a favorite in her circle of extended family.  She was a feminist who made sure that we always

carried her family name, at least the initial “L.”  Fulfilled professionally, she taught Biology to augment Dad’s meager earnings as a professor in the university.  I saw her being a working mother not as drawback but as a factor that made her so wholesome, so fully present to all of us at the end of each day, so allowing and liberal.  She like having our friends frequent our house and hold jam sessions there.  I started dancing at an early age.  Mama enjoyed sewing party dresses for me, waiting for me to come home, and entertaining the guys who would call on me afterwards.  Funny, but the more fun I had, the more I fell in love with the Lord of the dance!


What deepened my spiritual growth was the whole milieu of school and parish.  I lived just around the corner from St. Theresa’s College, Quezon City, and two blocks away from Our Lady of Lourdes Church.  The Belgian Sisters inspired me from as early as age ten to become a daily communicant and a little apostle to the poor for they fetched me every week-end to go to the slums.  They encouraged me to be active in the parish as a junior member of the Legion of Mary and a regular “angel” in Marian processions.

 

Setting targets became my lifestyle.  In grade school I had a secret mission to win graces for Dad to embrace Catholicism.  I fancied that my guardian angel would give a golden check for each step I took up and down the hills of Apo Street to and from Sta. Teresita Church on Mayon Street.  Soon after, this target was met in a dramatic way.

 

At 19, College Graduate,
St. Theresa's College, Manila

For some reason which I cannot remember, I thought I would live only up to my senior high.  My target then was to be as good as can be throughout my 15th year in life.  But I survived!  The result was I had formed the habit of having a regular confessor, Fr. James B. Reuter, S.J., and in college of seeing a spiritual director, Fr. James F. Culligan, SJ.

 

The next target was to give my youth to God.  Mom’s suggestion of entering the convent was actually the articulation of God’s call.  And I took it seriously.  The defining moment was when I was led to the Good Shepherd Sisters by the Jesuits and guess what, by my boy friends from the Ateneo.  I could not get over the fact that these young men were full of praise for the very human and charming nuns of St. Bridget’s College, Batangas City, who spoiled them whenever the Ateneo Glee Club and Drama group sang and performed.


I was convinced that the best gift I could give to my orphaned sisters was the example of pursuing one’s vocation early in life.  First of all, they did not need my financial support and I felt that this higher call was of greater importance.  Besides I trusted that God and His Mother would take care of them far better than I ever could.  And that was what happened.  No one went astray, thank God.  Aida (H.S.’55, Coll.’59) and Thelma (H.S.’57) also offered their lives to God as members of Notre Dame de Vie and St. Paul de Chartres, respectively.  The last two, Vilma (H.S.’59) and Edna (H.S.’63) have been happily married.

 

At 24, First Profession of Vows, Los Angeles

To bring me to the realization of my vocation, I had to go to the States. And this I did by winning a Fulbright travel grant and a graduate assistantship at Fordham University, New York.  I assisted Fr. John F. Gilson, SJ, the vocation director of the New York Archdiocese, and I saw Fr. Philip O’Neil, SJ, for my discernment process.  I ended up with seven choices and after a December Novena of Grace to St. Francis Xavier, I made up my mind and applied for admission to the Good Shepherd novitiate in Los Angeles.  At the end of a second Novena of Grace in March, I received on March 13, feast of the original St. Euphrasia, my acceptance from Mother Lourdes, the Provincial, and my Dad’s permission in a beautiful letter that began, “It is sunset and I am writing in tears….” And the sign of approval from heaven was a rose that someone gave.

 

I made my first profession in Los Angeles at the age of 24.  As “Sister Mary Soledad of Jesus” (my parents’ names), I returned with six other band mates to the Philippines, crossing the rough Pacific.  Batangas was my first assignment.  It was a glorious Juniorate Year under Mother Mary of O.L. Victory Walsh who made us feel so wanted and so good!  For instance, when I burned my brand new habit while ironing a back drop for a pageant I produced, “An Everlasting Love,” she told me, “Don’t worry.  Only those who don’t do anything do not get into trouble.”

 

Mother Mary liberated me from any misgivings and brought back the joy of light reading.  I remember The Anchorhold and Enid Dinnis and company.  As a young Sister, I had no fears and so I could follow freely the creative innovations in teaching and in handling extra curricular activities like visits to Bakahan, a red light squatter area;  founding the Genesian Guild and producing Light upon the Earth, life of Maria Droste zu Vischering;  forming Christian Life Communities in college and in the wider community (which up today exists).  Incidentally, I was able to nurture a number of good vocations through these activities.

 

I made my final vows at the age of 29.  Silly as this “age targeting” may be, I joyfully wrote Sister Mary Paul Waddell, my novice mistress in L.A., “Good news!  I’m making my final vows before my 30th year.”  I also remember how happy I was to celebrate my Silver Jubilee at the age of 49.  I was in the Generalate in Rome where I renewed my vows under Sister Gemma Cadena, Superior General, during the Eucharist presided by Bishop Bienvenido Tudtud.  Looking back, I have experienced both fullness and complete nothingness of life.  Zest and zeal have filled my cup.  But in the overflow, I also have undergone drastic emptying.

 

First, the fullness.  The trend has been to receive the first drops of whatever would later become a downfall for all.  In other words, periodically I would be called to pioneer, to go where there is no path, to start something and stick to it until the trail has been blazed for other to take over.  This was true of my life as an educator.  My students remember me for making life exciting for them, for opening vistas and going beyond their classroom desks.  This remained true in later decades.  In recognition of God’s bounty in giving calls within a call, let us cite some highlights.

 

The 70’s began with launching me into the seas of internationality.  First, there was the then unusual permission to go abroad and attend Christian Life Community meetings in Sto. Domingo, Dominican Republic in the Carribean;  in St. Ignatuis birthplace, Manresa, in the Pyrenes, Spain;  in the CLC headquarters, Rome;  in Augsburg, Germany, where I sowed a vocation seed (the young CLC member persevered and is now Sr. M. Ignatius  RGS, of Munich);  in Bombay, India, and in Hongkong.  The world trip was made memorable by my first home visit in years to my sister, Vilma, in Montreal, Canada, and to my first visit ever the to the Good Shepherd Mother House in Angers, France.  I also had extraordinary happenings in Paris and in London, some kind of interventions above.  And to make the trip a foreshadowing of the future, it was punctuated by our party of three (Fr. Ben Sim, SJ, Marlene Anabatic of Cebu and myself being stranded in Cairo, Egypt, because of what the States would now call as “terrorist” hijacking.

Anti-trafficking advocate

Second, there was my assignment to the Generalate in Rome in 1974 – 75.  Sr. M. Columba, secretary general, asked for me and I assisted her in preparing for the beatification of Maria Droste (Sr. Mary of the Divine Heart).  I learned languages then  - French from Sr. Columba and Fr. Clemen Guillon, the then Eudist Superior General and now a Bishop in France, Italian from school;  Portuguese by using as base all the Spanish I knew.  For the research I had to do, I depended on others like Sr. Caridad Banaag, S.Sp. S., for German translation.  I had memorable visits to Darfield and Munster, Germany, where I met the tall grandson of our Beata;  to Angers, France, where I read the original letters of the child Maria and the missionary, Mother Divine Heart;  and finally to Oporto, Portugal, where Irma Maria de Preciose Sangre showed me the relics of our Beata to be and gifted me with her handkerchief.  Little did I know then that I too would be suffering from bone affliction.  But above all, what I remember of this period was the course I took in the Gregorian University on Spirituality and the Theology of the Heart under brilliant mentors like Fr. Barnabas Ahern, CP, and Fr. Malatesta, SJ.  This somehow gave me a deeper insight into the mysticism of Maria Droste whom I was writing about.  The output of that sojourn in Rome was Yielding and Flint and Fire.

 

A turning point in 1972 before Martial Law was declared was the immersion I had with the sugar workers of Negros.  It was another defining moment that ushered in my work for justice.

 

I spent April and May learning about the plight of the hacienda workers.  The impact was indelibly engraved when I joined the women workers weeding under the heat of the sun and receiving a pittance of 45 centavos. I proudly went back to Manila with the battle scars of bruised hands. I knew that I could no longer join the international team of Fr. Lombardi’s Better World Movement because I had heard the deafening cry of the poor.  It was my first time to represent for a change of assignment and my Provincial, Sister Christine Tan, praised me saying, “ I expected that of you.”

 

Thus began my social action involvement in the 70’s.  If I were to go into details, it would read like a thriller under Martial Law conditions.  There are many things that still cannot be spoken of in this point in time.  Even my being “exiled” to the ruins of Rome provided me with the opportunity to pioneer in assisting overseas workers.  It began with a call in the late evening of 7 December 1974 to come to the aid of a Filipina who feared she was carrying a dead one-month fetus.  I responded immediately by bringing her to our Good Shepherd shelter in Naples early the next morning.  From then on I spent my free time, Thursday afternoon and Sunday, organizing the domestic helpers who frequented Collegio Filippino.  I continued this apostolate when I was in Paris for studies in 1977.

 

On 10 December 1980 the Third World Movement Against the Exploitation of Women was founded.  From then on to this day, I have been engaged in international and local policy advocacy, consciousness-raising, campaigns and direct services for survivors of the sex trade, incest, rape and all forms of violence.

There were other “firsts:”  the establishment of the National Directors of Vocation Office where I worked under the then Bishop Ricardo Vidal and wrote for him the CBCP Pastoral Letter on Vocation Promotion, coining phrases like “Search in.”  Then I heard an urgent call.  It was a choice between attending a vocation promotion meeting or going to Tondo to assist in the La Tondena strike, the first significant strike when this was forbidden under Martial Law.  I chose the latter and spent that fateful night handling communications.  And this was the beginning of my involvement with the urban workers.  I organized Friends of the Workers in Metro Manila, mobilizing religious and seminarians to be in picket lines in the ensuing strikes for better wages and working conditions.

 

I had my stint conscientizing Church personnel under the Association of Major Religious Superiors.  I did special studies in social analysis at INODEP in Paris and brought back Gramsci’s schemas. I launched into popularizing an alternative way of handling socio-economic, data through the founding of IBON which incidentally will celebrate its 25th year in 2003.  BALAI  (Building Asian Links Against Imperialism), an Asian journal on resources, was also the first of its kin in 1980, sixteen issues.

 

Anti-trafficking advocate

The decade of the exciting 70s ended with international study days in Brazil and a visit to the Holy Land.  As I passed the ruins of Magdala in Galilee, it was a premonition of the next call to take up the women’s cause, particularly that of the sexually exploited and abused.  On 10 December 1980 the Third World Movement Against the Exploitation of Women was founded.  From then on to this day, I have been engaged in

international and local policy advocacy, consciousness-raising, campaigns and direct services for survivors of the sex trade, incest, rape and all forms of violence.

 

Before “environment” and “ecology” became “in” words, as early as 1980 I was challenged by the question,” If Asia is rich, why are the Asians poor?”  The led me to publish BALAI, a journal on the resources of Asia, which came out with 16 issues, the topics of which were taken up by the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development, a humble precursor indeed.

 

To balance my women’s work, I had another network brought about by an unprecedented invitation to go to a peace conference in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1983, and to travel around the then U.S.S.R.  – Moscow, Kiev, Riga in the Baltic.  I went to Eastern Europe five times before the iron curtain fell.  The call was to bring the women’s perspective to peace matters such as militarization and its impact on women.  I also was one of the few women invited to participate in the Theology of Peace gatherings in Budapest. And then TW-MAE-W launched the global Campaign Against Military Prostitution  (CAMP)  which literally made me a CAMP follower of bases from Iceland to Mombasa in Africa. 

With Michael Christopher

had the audacity to seek appointment with the US military chaplains of all divisions – grounds, air, naval – in the Pentagon.  Fortunately, divine intervention through the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo took place in 1991 and put a temporary halt to the commodification of women by men in uniform.

 

With Michael Christopher

The 90s saw the growth of the direct services in the Philippines, my most meaningful grassroots involvement with those who are considered the scum of society.  I guess I had to pay a price and this was the emptying experience of being stricken with rheumatoid arthritis and its crippling effects.  When I had to give up a trip to the States, the exchange was a series of visits to the red light district of Ermita which was the birthing of the “Belen drop-in centers” followed by the shelters named “Nazareth Growth Home” and “Bethany Transition Home.”
 

I too had to go through the experience of being stripped of everything, literally everything twice!  The first time was just before my silver jubilee of first profession when I lost my attaché case with my ticket fare reimbursement and six directories of 10 years of networking and lately this May and June 2002 when Michael Christopher died near Lourdes, France, and all the money I had was stolen in the train back to Rome.  It was hard work when one’s health was at its ebb but I found out that in God’s time, that can be restored miraculously!  The loss of money too can come back in other forms.  But connections with people such as the listing of names and addresses and above all, the life of a dear person, a precious child who was a soul-mate for six years (from age to 8 ½ years) can be likened to the piercing of one’s heart!

Sr. Sol

All through these years I have been buoyed up by God’s ever faithful love manifested by the rich array of people and events that have made my life so colorful.  My parents, Dr. Jesus and Soledad Perpiñan, are now in heaven seeing to it that the vocations they nurtured will last till eternity.

 

  

 

(Sr. M. Soledad Perpiñan RGS wrote her Vocation Story in 2002, reflecting on her life as a Religious of the Good Shepherd.  Sr. Sol  was accepted to the Novitiate in Los Angeles on April 24, 1960. She had her first profession of vows two years later on April 24, 1962, feast of St. Mary Euphrasia, foundress of the Religious of the Good Shepherd. On May 9, 1967, she had her Perpetual Profession of Vows in Quezon City. At the time of her death on July 26, 2011,  feast of  Sts. Joachim and Anne, Sr. Sol  spent 51 years in religious life -- in the service of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. - RK)