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Naga Carmel celebrates 70 years

His Grace Most Rev. Rolando Octavus J. Tria Tirona, OCD, DD, Fr. Mariano Agruda III, OCD, from Rome, the current Definitor of the Carmelites for the Asia Pacific Region, Most Rev. Jose Rojas, D.D., Bishop of the Diocese of Libmanan and Most Rev.R ex Andrew Alarcon, D.D., Bishop of the Diocese of Daet and 46 priests concelebrated at the thanksgiving mass to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the foundation of Naga Carmel. (Photo Credits: Naga Carmel)

Seventy years ago, in 1949, two American sisters left Manila for Naga City. This is the day they consider as the Foundation Day of Naga Carmel.

Idea of a Carmel in the Philippines

In Baltimore, Maryland the idea of the foundation began. Mother Theresa of Jesus (Ma Mere) had asked Msgr. Shanley (who was the U.S. Army chaplain in Manila in 1946 and also chaplain of the Carmelite Sisters in Manila) if he could convince the Carmelite Fathers in Washington to come to Manila and attend to their needs. The Carmelite Fathers welcomed the idea and eventually five Fathers and one Brother came but they settled in Infanta instead of Manila. Once settled there, the Fathers thought it was also necessary to bring the Carmelite Sisters to their territory. Thus, Fr. Peter Thomas, when he went to Baltimore Carmel on a pastoral visit as the Father General of the Carmelites, had asked if anyone might be interested to make a foundation in the Philippines.

Sr. Aloysius of the Passion Margaret Mary Cecilia Smith and Sr. John of Jesus and Mary, Dorothy Irene Frances Wise, both American Sisters of the Carmel in Baltimore, Maryland volunteered to go to the Philippines. Sr. Aloysius, Margaret Mary Cecilia Smith, was born on September 8, 1904 and entered Carmel in 1924 at age 19. She came from a family of farmers and had wanted to enter as a lay Sister but was told to be a choir nun. She was an eager worker and had qualities that fit her for mission work. She volunteered for the missions at age 43. Sr. John, Dorothy Irene Frances Wise, was born on August 29, 1920, the only girl in the Wise family; her mother was actually from Germany. She entered Carmel at 17 and early on, she wanted to become a missionary. When the opportunity came, she volunteered for the Philippines at 27 after much thought and uncertainties.

Journey to the Philippines

On July 2, 1947, the feast of the Visitation, Sr. Aloysius and Sr. John left for the Philippines in a freighter from San Francisco. This was the only way they could cross the Pacific because passenger ships were not allowed to take in American passengers as the war with Japan had just ended and there was no truce yet. It was late afternoon of August 17, 1947 when they arrived in Manila and saw how Manila was destroyed by the war.

The Sisters stayed in Manila Carmel for a few days and would have gone to Infanta. However, the Carmelite Father, having known the situation in Infanta, thought it was too soon to have them establish a convent there. But God truly works in wondrous ways.

Prior to their coming, Msgr. Pedro Santos, then Bishop of Caceres, already sent a letter inviting Baltimore Carmel to open the new foundation in the Diocese. He wrote Mother Mary Magdalen on March 22, 1948, a few years before Caceres became an Archdiocese.

The approval for the foundation in Naga was finally issued on September 8, 1949. Our Lady had performed the miracle just in time for Our Lady’s birthday! It was also Sr. Aloysius’ birthday and the anniversary of Sr. John’s entry to Carmel!

The first community was then composed of: Sr. Aloysius; Sr. John; Sister Mary of the Holy Wounds; Sr. Francisca of St. Joseph; and Sr. Rosario Alberto, postulant.

The two American Sisters left Manila for Naga on October 10, 1949. This is the day they consider as the Foundation Day of Naga Carmel. They stayed with the Daughters of Charity at the Colegio de Santa Isabel while they cleaned up the old convent. Bishop Santos had offered the old convent of the Peñafrancia shrine as the temporary quarters for the American foundation while they build up their community. The Bishop had already partitioned the top floor so that the Sisters could have the enclosure from the very start. The nuns would have their own little chapel with the Blessed Sacrament and holy communion could be brought to them before, within or after the Mass. The Sisters were to assist at Mass in the choir loft of the shrine. The choir loft would be locked to prevent others from going up to the place and ensure absolute privacy. It was agreed that the Jesuits at the Ateneo would be their chaplains and confessors and if in case the Jesuits could not celebrate Mass, the Bishop promised he would be willing to come to say Mass for them.

Fr. James Reuter, S.J. with his group of Ateneo boys, cleaned up the convent area in 3 to 4 days and made it ready for occupancy by October 14, 1949. The Sisters made it their temporary home, for the next 6 years. As planned, four applicants to the postulancy also arrived from Manila on this day, increasing membership in the community to nine.

On October 15, 1949, the feast of St. Teresa of Avila, Foundress of the Carmelite Order, the new community had their first Mass in the monastery presided by Bishop Santos himself. Henceforth, the nuns would hear Mass in the main nave of the shrine until the enclosure was finally sealed on October 29, 1949. The Bishop came and blessed the whole monastery and all that pertained to Divine Worship, followed by the singing of the solemn act of thanksgiving, the Te Deum, at the Peñafrancia Shrine and then the nuns went back to the monastery in procession.

A solemn benediction for the Blessed Sacrament presided by the Bishop concluded the whole ceremony, the enclosure was finally sealed. The Carmel of the Immaculate Heart of Mary is established. At last, the Immaculate Heart of Mary had triumped as she had promised. Naga Carmel was born! It was the first and only foundation of Carmel in the Philippines from the United States.

Life in Peñafrancia settled to some peace and quiet, though still far from the Carmelite ideal. The original community of five had increased to 18 by 1951 and had to depend mostly on alms and charity. Their cramped quarters were hardly conducive to the contemplative life and productive work of Carmel. More than ever, the need for expansion and a little self-sufficiency became felt. It was under trying circumstances that the intense life of the spirit went on – in solitude, in prayer, in penance, in the most ordinary actions of the day. The dream – a monastery suited to the life they embraced and a church rising to the sky – became a nagging obsession. They had to start somewhere.

Transition from Peñafrancia to Concepcion

As the year 1950 was ending, one year since the new Carmelite foundation was established at Peñafrancia, Mo. Aloysius started making arrangements for the eventual transfer of the monastery to its permanent site. Bishop Santos had offered a piece of land where the Holy Rosary Major Seminary now stands but she did not find it suitable for the monastery as it was too close to the main road. She was interested in a piece of property owned by Mrs. Socorro Abella Soriano, located at Barrio Concepcion just behind the HRMS seminary for it was far back and shielded from the noise of the main road. Mo. Aloysius wrote Mrs. Soriano on November 20, 1950 asking her if she could donate part of her property to the Carmelites as the permanent site of their monatery. Almost instantly, Mrs. Soriano gave a positive response and wrote​“…I consider myself lucky to have the privilege of being the donor of the lot of your future home. I hereby…willingly and with the full consent of my husband, cede to you the five hectares of land you want in my property in Barrio Concepcion, of the municipality of Naga.”

Mrs. Soriano allowed the Sisters to choose any part of her property which they preferred and she asked her property custodian Mr. Jose Nieves, to draw a sketch of the land. After the visual inspection and identification of the property area which the Sisters wanted, Mrs. Soriano agreed to donate the piece of property to the Sisters. She wanted to add 2 more hectares but the Sisters declined. The Sisters proceeded to have the ground-breaking ceremony and to have the property blessed in solemn rites presided over by Bishop Santos on December 8, 1950. It was also the day of the Silver Jubilee of Profession of Mo. Aloysius. Thus, one of the Carmelite Fathers, Fr. Herman Joseph Esselman, OCD, celebrated Mass with the community early in the afternoon. Fr. Reuter delivered the homily, while Bishop Santos officiated at the Silver Jubilee ceremony. After which, they proceeded to the new monastery site. All the nuns had permission to go out of the enclosure for the occasion. They went in procession from the main road to the proposed site, before the formal rites of blessing and groundbreaking. Five years later, on December 8, 1955, the Sisters transferred from Peñafrancia to their new monastery in Barrio Concepcion.

Considered as the powerhouse of prayer, the monastery of Carmel has been refuge of many Bikolanos requesting for prayers.

The 70th Celebration

The Carmel of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Naga City, Camarines Sur celebrated its 70th Foundation Jubilee on Oct. 3, 2019, Thursday at 10 a.m. at the Carmelite chapel in Concepcion Pequeña. The main celebrant at the Solemn Pontifical Mass was His Grace Most Rev. Rolando Octavus J. Tria Tirona, OCD. Fr. Mariano Agruda III, OCD, from Rome, delivered the homily; he is the current Definitor of the Carmelites for the Asia Pacific Region. Two bishops, Rev. Msgr. Jose Rojas, bishop of the Diocese of Libmanan and Rev. Msgr. Rex Alarcon, bishop of the Diocese of Daet and 46 priests concelebrated at Mass. Carmelite Nuns came from various Teresian Carmels in Baguio, San Fernando, Infanta, Angeles, San Pablo, Gilmore, Davao, Lucena, Lipa, and the Carmelite friars from Mt. Carmel Shrine Community in Broadway, St. John of the Cross Community and House of Studies in Q.C., St. Joseph the Worker Community in Jaro and Our Lady’s Hill Community in Baguio City. Five Carmelite nuns from Antwerp Carmel were also present. Three of them have chosen to be transferred from Naga Carmel to Antwerp as missionaries.

In the evening, there was a beautiful cultural and musical show from a local choral group, Camerata Kultura, organized by Mrs. Amelita Zaens. The group is composed of high school and college students who are on scholarship in various fields and who give their time to singing for audiences that love music! They have won various awards and it was such a pleasure watching them do an interpretative dance/music of the Voyadores and the medley of beautiful Filipino folk and love songs interspersed with a few Western music!

The celebration was all in the spirit of gratitude and thanksgiving to God for the gift of Carmel to Naga and the Bikol Region and the gift of vocations to the contemplative life. As Fr. Agruda III shared in his homily, the famous Australian writer Morris West wrote that, at age 70, a man need only two words to express in his life: THANK YOU! The Carmelite nuns express these same words with all joy and thanksgiving to God and men - friends, benefactors, the good people of Naga and the Bikol region, for the gift of Carmel and its existence in Naga.

“THANK YOU” expresses the gratitude and joy for the grace of the 70 years of trials survived and the joy of prayers answered. With deep faith and thanksgiving, the Naga Carmel look to the future for the help that God will always shower on this Carmel, the grace of continued existence and vocations and prayers for and with the people of God.

Carmelite Nuns of Naga City pose with nuns from Carmels in Baguio, San Fernando, Infanta, Angeles, San Pablo, Gilmore, Davao, Lucena, Lipa and Carmelite nuns from Antwerp Carmel. Most Rev. Rolando Tria Tirona, the Archbishop of Caceres, himself a Carmelite joins the Carmelite community in Naga for their thanksgiving celebration of 70 years in Naga. (Photo by Naga Carmel)

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