Foundation of the Sisters of Mercy at Tacloban

A biography written by M Emmanuel Browne rsm

The Feast of St. Brigid, the first Irish nun, February 1, 1954 was a bitterly cold day in Cork. We, Sisters, were refreshing and warming ourselves with some tea, after a busy day in the Schools when Reverend Mother announced that a visiting Bishop wished to speak to us.

Little did we dream as we mounted the stairs to the Community Room that this visit of the Bishop was to usher in a new era in the history of St. Maries of the Isle, and alter the course of our destiny for some of us. As soon as His Excellency, Dr. Lino Gonzaga, entered the room we knew he came from another land. He excused himself for wearing his over-coat, and though we had two fires in the room, we realized that a visitor from the Tropics must have felt the cold very much indeed when even we ourselves were shivering. In a very clear and interesting address he told us of the great spiritual needs of his people far away in the Philippine Islands. He recounted his travels in America in search of Sisters to run his Catholic Schools. Everywhere he had met with refusal, and everywhere he had been advised to go to Ireland. And so he did. He was the guest of the Redemptorist Fathers in Limerick who brought him to Cork. Our Bishop, Most Rev. Dr. Lucey, gave him permission to take six of us if our Superiors were willing to accept the Mission.

The next day, Feast of Our Lady's Purification, we commenced a Novena to Our Lady, and on the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, February 11, the Superiors told us they had decided to make a Foundation in Tacloban and a box was placed at the foot of Our Lady's statue to receive the names of the volunteers. In the meantime, excitement grew to a great pitch among us. The Philippine Islands were the topic of conversation at every recreation. The Superiors wrote to every available source for all the necessary information, and visited the Columban Sisters at Cahircon to discuss materials for clothing and other important items. The state of the tension was very high until the six names of those selected were revealed. They were Sisters. Joseph Mary Corcoran, Superior, M. Gertrude Ryan, M. Assumpta Hayes, M. Emmanuel Browne, M. Canisius Murphy and M. Annunciata Desmond.

Farewell to St. Maries, to Cork, to Ireland

On the morning of August 12, 1954 Very Rev. Msgr. Scannell, V.G., Dean of Cork, came to our Convent to say Holy Mass and give us a parting benediction. Our Bishop, Dr. Lucey, was away in Spain. The Dean addressed a very touching and beautiful farewell to us, taking as his text “Going they went and wept, casting their seeds, but coming they shall come with joyfulness carrying their sheaves”. There were few, if any, dry eyes by the time he was finished speaking to us. Several priests said Mass in the Convent and many friends called for a last visit. Besides there was some last minute packing to be done, as the morning was a busy one.

Some time after two o’clock in the afternoon the whole Community assembled in the hall, and as many of our Sisters as possible came in from the Branch Houses, to say good- bye. The garden paths were lined with the Sisters, everyone very silent and lonely, as we entered the car which was taking us to the Railway Station about three o'clock. At the Station there was more silent leave-taking from dear relatives and friends, all very brave and cheerful, and soon the train was speeding with us to Dublin.

Back: Sister Gertrude Ryan, Sister Joseph Mary Corcoran, Sister Emmanuel Browne, Sister Canisius Murphy. Front: Sister Assumpta Hayes, Sister Annuciata Desmond

We were accompanied to Dublin by our Reverend Mother, M. Gabriel Breen, and our Mother Assistant, M. Oliver Reynolds. It was due to the courage of Mother M. Oliver that the Foundation had been undertaken. She was Superioress of our Community when the Bishop came and willingly agreed to send us here. In May her term of office as Superior expired, but she naturally continued to take an active and decisive part in all the plans and preparations that were being made. Great credit is also due to Mother M. Gabriel, who as Bursar first, until May, and then our Superior did all in her power with Mother M. Oliver and the new Bursar, Mother M. Joseph Lyons to provide for all our needs and render us every possible assistance.

On arrival in Dublin we were again surrounded by many relatives and friends who did not spare themselves in lavishing kindness and attention on us. They put their cars at our disposal and aided us in many ways. We stayed at the Hostel of the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, Henrietta Street, Dublin. Next day, August 13, we visited the first Convent of Mercy established by our Holy Foundress, at Baggot St., Dublin. The Sisters there gave us a very gracious and friendly welcome, and entertained us with a delightful and delicious repast. We knelt at the tomb of our Holy Foundress, Mother M. Catherine McAuley, and prayed to her for the success of our new work as Sisters of Mercy. The Sisters showed her room to us, and many relics they have of her. At three o'clock we joined the Community in the choir for our usual Friday Devotions. We had our last meal with our Superiors about six-thirty at Henrietta St. and left immediately afterwards in cars to catch the nine o’clock boat for England, at Dun Laoghaire, near Dublin. Our last farewells took place on this boat, the Cambria by name. We waved at our dear ones as they boat steamed out until they were no longer visible, and remained at the railing, in spite of drizzling rain, watching the lovely shores of Ireland fading into the greyness of the night.

Then we noticed that the rain had ceased. The moon, high in the sky, made a silvery path across the sea, and we were glad to think that the same moon that would light the far away Philippines at night, would light in its turn our native land. It was a lovely calm night, and at mid-night we docked at Holyhead, England. Soon we were through the Customs and speeding on an all-night journey by train to London.

The M. V. Hamburg

We left Holyhead sometime after mid-night and arrived at Euston, London much later than we expected next morning. There was no time for Mass or breakfast and after a hurried dash across London in taxis we found we had missed the train, on which reservations had been made for us for Southampton, and were just time to board another train as it moved out of Waterloo Station. At Southampton we were met by an old friend of St Maries of the Isle community, Rev. V. Allen, C.M. who secure a coach to take us to the Dockyards. There we met the five Redemptorist Fathers, Rev J Corr, Rev, J Scanlan, Rev. T. Burns, Rev. S. Mahony and Rev. P.O'Sullivan who were travelling to the Philippines with us on the M. V. Hamburg. As soon as we got through the Custom, we boarded the tender which was taking us out to Ship, and at last we got a slight repast of tea and sandwiches to appease our hunger as we had eaten nothing except a few sweets, since our last meal in Dublin the evening before. Southampton harbour looked beautiful in the mid-day sunshine as we stood on the deck of the Hamburg, viewing the Isle of Wight on one side, and the lovely coastline of Portsmouth on the other. While the baggage and cargo were being loaded on we set to tour the beautiful new ship which was now commencing its second voyage. Our cabins were air-conditioned and most comfortable. We had some photographs on deck and about one o'clock p.m the lunch-gong announced that it was time to say farewell to our good friend, Fr. V. Allen - our last link with Ireland.

We enjoyed a good lunch in the luxurious and beautifully decorated ship's dining room, and met there some of the all-German crew, who were to prove themselves most courteous and attentive all during our long voyage. By dinner time that night, the rolling of the Ship had deprived most of the Sisters and other passengers of their appetites. It was Saturday, August 14, 1954, and arrangements were made for our first Mass at sea in the Ship's Library next morning. Our memories of this, our first afternoon on the Hamburg are rather vague. Everything was new and strange, and we had just to make the acquaintance of the other passengers, most of whom being English and non-Catholics were not too sure of the prospects of a trip with so many Fathers and Sisters on board. However, we had become friendly with everyone after a short time at sea.

The Philippines

"The Philippines" - how often we had heard that word in the past six months, and what a great change it had brought into our lives! There was a slight drizzle as the Islands were sighted, but it did not deter us from going on deck to see this new country which was to be our home and the field of our labours for many years to come.

At long last it was announced that we were entering Manila harbour. The rain had stopped and we were agreeably surprised that the heat was not unendurable, even in the noonday blaze on deck. On the ship the usual excitement of coming into port prevailed but this time we were amongst those who were having our baggage, and so on, seen to in preparation for our disembarking. There were more formalities to be gone through here with Officials than at any other port, so it was quite a while before all our papers were settled up and we were ready to say good-bye to the ‘Hamburg’. At every port we had parted with people with whom we had become friendly, and the same was true of Manila.

On the docks below a crowd of relatives and friends awaited the arrival of the travellers, and among them we saw two Good Shepherd Sisters who had already waited hours in the blazing heat to receive us. Rev. Fr. Wilmann and members of the Catholic Welfare Association helped us safely through the Customs, and did all in their power to assist us through the formalities at the Immigration Office next day. They were extremely kind to us.

It was September 18, Feast of Our Lady of Dolours, when we first set foot on Philippine soil in Manila, and once more we felt ourselves in Our Lady's hands, specially as the ship had arrived in harbour two days before scheduled to reach it.

As soon as we were clear of the Customs we were speeding along the grand wide tree-lined roads of lovely Manila to Quezon City. Here a great welcome awaited us, and the Good Shepherd Sisters proved themselves real Angels of Charity to us during our stay with them and ever since. They took care of all our laundry which had accumulated, especially during our last few days at sea, made our mosquito nets and did all in their power to help us. We spent a very happy week with them, during which time some of us did some shopping and other business.

It was September 23, the eve of our great Feast of Our Lady of Mercy, 1954, when we were summoned from our cabins to the Captain's deck to see the school children and others lined up on the wharf at Tacloban to welcome us. At first we had to use binoculars, but soon we could see with the naked eye, the neat lines of girls in blue skirts and while blouses waving blue and white flags. We also saw the white-robed figures of Irish Redemptorists and some Fathers of the Divine Word together with many other citizens. Large placards told us that the Legion of Mary, the Student Body, etc. gave us welcome to our new home. In spite of ourselves tears welled up in our eyes, but we quietly brushed them aside.

As we stepped down from the boat’s gangway the Faculty and some Senior Students came forward to adorn us with bouquets. We caught a quick glimpse of Tacloban City as we were driven to Santo Nino Church for the solemn intonation of the Te Deum. This was the first thoroughly Eastern City we had seen. All the others had been more or less westernised, and in some cases did not differ in ways from European cities. In the Church, where there were many lights to greet us, we knelt on prie-dieux in the Sanctuary. On leaving it we went at once to our new home, Holy Infant Academy.

Here a great number of the students' parents had assembled to welcome us in the school library. On our way upstairs we passed by two rows of the younger pupils, dressed in blue and white uniform and waving small flags. These had awaited us here, while the other girls went to the wharf. Several Filipino and Redemptorists Fathers and Fathers from St. Paul's College came also to the library to meet us, as well as some S.V.D. Fathers from Tanauan with a large group of Seminarians.

When we had taken some refreshments in the Clausura we all proceeded to the Hall for the Welcome Program Though the boat had been expected early in the morning we did not arrive until about two in the afternoon, hence we had little time to spare between our arrival and the Program. We appreciated the great reception we received very much.

Holy Infant Academy

It was with mixed feelings that we saw this building for the first time. Back in Ireland and often on the journey here we had wondered what was like. We had been told it was a good edifice, and the first glimpse we caught of it as the cars drew up confirmed that statement. We were glad to find it well-equipped with school requisites, including a well- stocked library, pianos, typewriters and so on. The pretty little chapel charmed us all, and we settled in quickly to our private quarters in the Clausura, though it was different from our conception of a Sisters' Convent.

In a short time we became acquainted with the Faculty, Students and faithful friends of our School, among whom were such notable personages as Msgr. C. V. Urgel, Vicar General of the Diocese, Rev. F. Santiago, the Parish Priest, The Fathers of San Gerardo and St. Paul's College, Dr. I. Cinco, the City Mayor, Atty N. Romualdez, Jr. Judge Z. Redona, and many others, some of whom welcomed us formally and entertained us well at the Welcome Programme.

Needless to relate the Redemptorist Fathers are among our staunchest supporters and advisors. Being Irish too they understand us, and having worked so long in the Philippines and learned to love its people they can guide us well in adapting ourselves to new customs and a new manner of life.

One who certainly deserves special mention also is Miss Elvira T. Jimenez, former Directress of this School. The Bishop made a very wise choice when he selected her to run the school after the Benedictine Sisters had left, until such time as he would succeed in procuring new Sisters for it. In spite of great difficulties and many obstacles and privations she kept on the onerous task, and carried her responsibilities successfully and bravely for more than three years. Thus she saved this Catholic school, the only one that is exclusive for girls in the city, from being abolished. That in itself was a great achievement for a young girl, working almost on her own, and something for which Catholic population, both parents and students, should be eternally grateful to her. She very graciously handed over the Administration of the premises to the Sisters, and has been their chief advisor and helper in all School matters ever since. We have learned to value her highly and appreciate her worth. Besides her work as Directress, and later as teacher and Adviser of the Student body, she is a very active member of the Legion of Mary and has a part in the Catholic Action function of this City. Holy Infant Academy will be forever indebted to her for the part she played in preserving and advancing it, and we, Sisters, acknowledge that we would have been at a great loss without her assistance and guidance, her generosity and patience.

We have found too a great spirit of co-operation and self-sacrificing devotedness among the members of the faculty, and the children, our Students, from Kindergarten to Fourth Year have endeared themselves to our hearts.

A New Life Begins

Our first day at Holy Infant Academy was the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy, titular of our Congregation and celebrated with great rejoicing by the Sisters of Mercy throughout the world. It was September 24, 1954, the Marian Year, Holy Mass was celebrated in our chapel and after that many visitors called to wish us a happy Feast day, and we received gifts of rice cakes. At three in the afternoon we went to the chapel with lighted candles in our hands to recite the Act of Consecration to Our Lady in union with our Sisters in St. Maries and all the world over. In the afternoon, too, the Students entertained us to a lovely playground demonstration of dancing and drill, under the direction of their splendid teacher, Miss A. Soledad.

During the next few days we settled down to our new life and surroundings, but found it hard to grow accustomed to the armies of ants, and to the fact that the rats were devouring cakes, etc. left on the table. Water was very scarce too. Father Power, CSSR tried to solve the rat problem by bringing us a cat, but we opened the box too suddenly and the animal escaped and was never seen again. We learned to fight the ants by standing the legs of the tables and presses in tins of oil, and a copious use of D.D.T.

On September 27 His Excellency, the Bishop was to welcome us and arranged to say second Mass here the next morning. He appointed Rev. F. Topfe, SVD., Tanauan, as our Confessor and Rev. J. Collins, Rector of San Gerardo as our Extraordinary Confessor.

Foundation Day September 28, 1954

As the twenty-third of September is a vigil, and the twenty-fourth a great Feast day, we decided to make the twenty-eight, the day on which the Most Blessed Sacrament was installed in our chapel by Rev. F. Santiago our Foundation Day in the Philippines.

Settling Down

During the ensuing days we attended some of the functions being held in the City in honour of the Marian Year. The Congress closed with Pontifical High Mass in the evening of October 1, in St. Paul's College. Some of us attended this Mass, and had our first experience of listening patiently (?) to a long sermon in an unknown language. Afterwards we were invited to the Convent to meet His Excellency Archbishop Rosales who also paid us a visit the following day at Holy Infant Academy.

The first week in October we all went to visit the Benedictine Sisters in Carigara at the Bishop's request. There we visited their school and it was decided that Sisters. Joseph Mary and Assumpta should return there for a week to observe and study school management according to Filipino regulations.

Joyfully in Mercy

This is a brief history of the Religious Sisters of Mercy in the Philippines as taken from the Annals written by Sister M. Emmanuel Browne, one of the six Irish Sisters who started the Foundation. It is with joyful remembrance that we recall the events of the Foundation as we celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the Religious Sisters of Mercy in the Philippines in September 2004.