Brief Account on the life of Venerable Ignacia del Espiritu Santo
Venerable Mother Ignacia del Espiritu Santo, a Filipina, founded the Religious of the Virgin Mary (RVM), the first Filipino Religious Congregation for women in the Philippines, in 1684. Ignacia was born, lived and died during the Spanish colonial era in the Philippines. Her baptismal records mentioned only the date of her baptism, March 4, 1663. She was given the devotional name “del Espiritu Santo.” Ignacia was the eldest and sole surviving child of Maria Jeronima, an yndia (Filipino native), and Jusepe Iuco, a pure Chinese immigrant from Amoy, China, and a convert to the Catholic faith. Her family resided in Binondo, Manila.
When Ignacia was 21 years old, her parents wanted her to marry. With a hidden desire to join the Beaterio de Santo Domingo, yet not wishing to disappoint her parents, Ignacia sought counsel from Fr. Paul Klein, a Jesuit priest, who gave her the Spiritual Exercise of St. Ignatius of Loyola. After this period of prayer and solitude, Ignacia decided to “remain in the service of the Divine Majesty” and to “live by the sweat of her brow.” She left home and brought with her only a needle and pair of scissors. She started living alone in a house located at the back of the Jesuit College of Manila.
Her life of prayer, penance and labor attracted yndias who also felt called to the religious life but could not be admitted into the existing congregations at that time. Mother Ignacia accepted them into her company and the first community was born. Cristina Gonzales, her niece and two young girls, Teodora de Jesus and Ana Margarita, joined her small group which formed the nucleus of the Beatas de la Compañia de Jesus, which subsequently became the Congregation of the Religious of the Virgin Mary (RVM). They were known as the Beatas de la Compañia de Jesus because they frequently received the sacraments at the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola, performed devotional practices there, and had the Jesuit Fathers as their spiritual directors and confessors. Mother Ignacia and the beatas followed Christ in a life of prayer, service, humility, poverty, penance, love and harmony in community. They lived in great poverty, at times begging for rice and salt and scouring the streets for firewood. Trusting in Divine Providence, they supported themselves by the labor of their hands and occasionally received financial help from generous people.
Mother Ignacia and the beatas’ holy life of the beatas was very edifying so that young women were attracted to them and by 1748 the group numbered fifty. The growing number of beatas called for a more stable lifestyle with a set of rules. A daily schedule was drawn up and community practices were defined.
Mother Ignacia exhorted the beatas to live constantly in the presence of God, develop purity of heart, and practice charity in the community. Taking Mary as their model in following Jesus and dedicating the Beaterio de la Compañia de Jesus to her, the beatas drew inspiration from the Blessed Virgin Mother and strove to be her living image. From the first days of its foundation, the RVM Congregation has honored Our Lady of the Assumption as its Patroness.
Mother Ignacia gradually realized that God was calling the Beaterio not only to a life of prayer and penance but also to apostolic service. The Beaterio admitted young girls: yndias, Spaniards and mestizas as boarders who were taught Christian doctrine, reading, and the domestic arts and skills, such as sewing and embroidery. The beatas were also involved in retreat work by helping the Jesuit Fathers prepare the retreatants to be disposed to the Spiritual Exercises. Mother Ignacia is known to have initiated the retreat movement for women. Retreats and recollections for women were conducted in the Beaterio.
Mother Ignacia wrote the 1726 Constitutions and submitted it to the Archdiocese Office for approval. After its approval in 1732 by the Fiscal Provisor of Manila, she decided to give up her responsibility as superior of the house. She lived as an ordinary member until her peaceful death on September 10, 1748 in the Church of St. Ignatius in Intramuros, Manila. Fr. Murillo Velarde, a Jesuit historian and biographer of Mother Ignacia, saw this as a great sign of her humility. She has no desire to command or to control. Velarde praises her as a “truly valiant woman who overcame the difficulties she had met in the foundation from the beginning to the end. She was very humble, mortified, patient, devout, deeply spiritual, and zealous for the good of souls.” Little did Mother Ignacia expect that the Beaterio would become a religious Congregation and exist until today, more than 300 years after its foundation, with international membership composed of Filipinos, Indonesians, Africans, Americans, and Papuans. The growth of the Beaterio into a religious Congregation and its response to apostolic challenges shows the vitality of the spirit of Mother Ignacia.
The religious of the Virgin Mary (RVM) continues to serve God in various ministries, namely: retreat, education, dormitory, social and pastoral ministries, and wherever God’s greater honor and glory and the needs of the Church call them to serve. The RVM Sisters are spread throughout the Philippines and in overseas missions in the following countries: Indonesia, Taiwan, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Ghana-West Africa, Rome, Italy, Switzerland, American Samoa, Canada, and the United States of America.
The life of this humble yndia and the fruits of her spirituality and charism proclaim the immense goodness of God. Today, the RVM Sisters and all who know her await with anticipation the beatification of Mother Ignacia del Espiritu Santo. May God grant this favour and bless with the grace of having the first Filipino woman raised to the honors of the altars.