Hearing about someone celebrating their Golden Jubilee Anniversary in their profession seems unthinkable to a young person like me. In an age where priorities keep changing by the minute and distractions are present in every corner, staying in one job for fifty years – let alone five years! – seems like such a tremendous feat.
But Sister Teresita Perez did just that. On September 24, 2017, Sister Teresita celebrated her 50th anniversary as a Maryknoll Sister. That means fifty years of devotion and service to her calling. For me, it means fifty years of bravery.
As Miriam College launches its campaign, GIRLS BE BRAVE!, it is only fitting that we learn more about the life of this strong and spirited woman. I had the privilege of exchanging numerous emails with Sister Teresita to write this article. Every morning, I found myself opening her email first, because reading her stories was like being transported to another place and time. It was refreshing to read about her adventures as a Maryknoll Sister – what inspired her to join the order in 1967, teaching in the Philippines and Peru, and mostly her pastoral care experiences in Peru from 1969 to 1993.
The more I read, the more I felt Sister Teresita’s courage. Her life was spent doing things I never imagined doing myself – living alone as the only Filipina in community among other Maryknoll Sisters as missionaries, in a foreign country, immersing oneself in a completely different culture, and perhaps most difficult of all, showing compassion and kindness to strangers even when they themselves do not want to be cared for. In Sister Teresita I found a friend and an inspiration.
As I write this article, I realized that the best way for me to tell her story is to share it in her own words. I hope you “hear her voice” like I did. May it give you a glimpse into the blessed and purpose-filled life of a Maryknoll Sister.
Mian (M): Sister Teresita, congratulations on your Golden Jubilee of being a Maryknoll Sister! At what point in your life did you realize that joining the order was your calling?
Sister Teresita (ST): After graduating from UST in 1961, I taught at Our Lady of the Rosary Academy in Lipa City, Batangas. It was while I was teaching at that mission school administered by the Maryknoll Sisters, right after graduation from college in 1961. It was there that I felt the strong calling to follow Jesus by being one of them.
M: Why did you decide to join the Maryknoll order in particular?
ST: I saw how very happy the Maryknoll Sisters were. They seemed to enjoy life and whatever they were doing. I saw how they laughed with abandon. Their cheerfulness was like a flag that waved at me! I found them very dedicated religious missioners, and I was touched with their friendly and respectful way of relating with all kinds of people. Something in me was brewing then. Deep inside me, I thought, I would like to join them!
M: You spent a great deal of time fulfilling your ministry in Peru. What was it like working in a foreign country? Did you ever get homesick for the Philippines?
ST: I was so busy all the time, deeply involved in the peoples’ needs, problems and some in their chaotic lives; there was no time to be homesick at all! Working in a foreign country needed a lot of adjustments in their language (verbal and non-verbal), culture, customs, traditions, their faith life, their way of life, school system in formal education, food, idiosyncracies and many more.
We, missioners get acculturated and evangelized at the same time by the people we serve. Before I knew it, my life had adapted to most of their patterns of behavior and their values. They became my friends and I myself was counted by some as a member of their families.
M: Was it hard adjusting to the Peruvian culture?
ST: Peruvian people have been oppressed by their colonizers for so many years so they generally have a hard time trusting others, even their own people. In the beginning when I’d knock on doors for home visits, I get asked “?Quien”? (Who is it?) I’d answer, “Sr. Teresita, coming to visit.” “My mother is not home,” the children would say. I’d answer, “OK, I just dropped by to say “Hello. Goodbye!”. Then silence. I’d move to the next house, same dialogue. I never gave up on this routine. My persistence paid off when many months later, a surprise! I was finally let in. I was invited to sit and the mother finally came out and sat down with me. First I’d stay for 5-10 minutes, just to meet the members of the family and know their names. Later on, longer visits happened. After a while, I was invited to dinner to meet the whole family. The meal was good. We exchanged news about my family and our typical food in the Philippines. They were delighted to know about our “adobo” and “pancit”!
That first experience taught me that once the Peruvian becomes your friend, you are a friend forever! Sick calls, birthdays, weddings, baptisms, anniversaries, graduations, wakes and funerals – in all of these our ministry of presence was very important.
M: Among all the ministries you served, you spent the most time in clinical pastoral care. What was it about this ministry that appealed to you?
ST: I once attended a talk in Lima about the kind of Christ that we meet in the sick person. According to the presenter, (a Brazilian male nurse), the Christ that we usually know is of course present in the Eucharist, in the tabernacle, and in the Bible as we read the Word of God.
But the Christ in the sick is a very different Christ. This Christ is a very difficult Christ – a Christ who shouts, complains, gets angry, impatient, and is never satisfied. However, this Christ in the patient is also very fearful, anxious, suspicious, in pain and full of all sorts of problems about his or her illness and the treatment received. They suffer, especially among the poor, from lack of finances, and often does not get support from – or even are abandoned – by their family. It is a dirty Christ, smelly, disgusting and rude at times!
Maryknoll Sisters are pledged to commit ourselves in the Church’ preferential option for the poor. The sick are the poorest of the poor. Not just financially, but emotionally, psychologically, socially, culturally, physically and, yes, spiritually also! Some of them are angry at God or have refused to have anything to do with God, because of some past painful experiences suffered in the hands of (unfortunately some) insensitive members of the Church! With kindness, understanding, acceptance of them as they are, with friendship, and prayer, healing can happen. The encounter with the loving, gentle and forgiving Christ occurs. Reconciliation is achieved; peace and joy embrace them and Christ becomes present in their lives. A smile breaks in their beautiful faces and a sparkle in their eyes appears! The usual “abrazo” (embrace) cannot be missed, for a friendship is born!
M: So how did you deal with such a challenging ministry?
ST: The words of St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta kept ringing in my ears, “God has a way of hiding himself in the poor”. It is a challenging situation that requires one to firmly decide to deal with the patient with respect and patience. One saving grace that I drew from was the advice by one of my priest friends who was a Benedictine monk: “Teresita, before you go to the hospital, spend time in prayer.” So I did. Everyday I would spend an hour of silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament after Mass, asking God to accompany me to the hospital and take me to the patients whom he would liked to touch by his love, his forgiveness, his peace and his mercy. I would ask God to help me to listen with my heart, know when to speak, what to say and how to say it. Lastly, I’d add, “And, please, stay with me. Don’t leave me!”
I always held the patient’s hand when I visit them. That touch gives them reassurance, acceptance and makes them feel at ease. They open their hearts with trust and confidence knowing they will not be judged. I remember one patient, sick with cancer telling me one day, “Sister, God must have sent you to me today. Thank you for listening. I’m not sure why I was able to tell you what I have narrated, because not even to a priest have I shared what you heard from me just now. I’m very much at peace and I’m grateful.” Quietly I’d welcome those sincere words that came straight from their hearts. That particular patient was a Seventh Day Adventist. We’ve sung and prayed together. It was always a very humbling experience for me to be invited in the sanctuary of their hearts, where there are wounds that are at times deep and still bleeding. Arriving home late, tired and hungry, I would crawl to our upstairs chapel to tell God how my day was like and to thank him. It is a very demanding and emotionally draining ministry, but very fulfilling at the same time. I have to “re-charge my batteries” to be refreshed and be fully present to the patients.
M: What was your most memorable moment as a missionary tending to the sick?
ST: I had just visited two dying patients in the hospital and I was feeling very tired. On my way out of the ward, I noticed another patient looking at me so I smiled at her and she did, too. Something was drawing me to her, so I sat down when she offered a chair beside her bed.
She started telling me about how she attempted suicide by jumping in the Marañon River. I was looking at her, eye to eye, but I knew I was not really present. My mind was at the impending assignment I was hoping to receive for my second mission which I had been waiting for a long time. All of a sudden she grasped my arm so hard and said to me, almost scolding me, “Sister, you are not listening to me!”
I almost fell off my chair. She was very angry and I was shocked at her reaction. I was so embarrassed and told her the truth. “No, I wasn’t listening to you. I am very tired. I’m very sorry.” She said, “It shows how very tired you are. Why don’t you go home now and take your rest.” I thanked her and said goodbye, promising that she would be the first one I would visit the next day. She was so kind and let me go. I have never had an experience like that!
That moment made me realize that patients need full attention. When I get distracted in prayer, God does not shake me up like that and tell me that I’m not listening! God is very patient, kind and understanding, “slow to anger, rich in mercy and always forgiving”. I have met God in many of the patients I have ministered to, as well as in my students, and among many other different kinds of people, I have dealt with in my life as a Maryknoll Sister. I hope I have “made God’s love visible to them”.
Sister Teresita Perez presently resides in the Maryknoll Sisters Center in Ossining, New York and continues to joyfully and bravely serve in mission in the neighboring areas as a Volunteer around the Motherhouse.