Saturday, May 5, 2012

Crowns of flowers, thorns for Sr. Flor Maira Basa

                                                    (First of two parts)

Thrust recently into public consciousness because of her family ties to protagonists in the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato C. Corona and because of the pronouncements she had made to uphold a party in the skirmish, Sr. Flor Maria Basa of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (FMM) has become a much sought-after figure by the paparazzi.

Here is a nun who has quietly lived her religious vocation for 65 years suddenly coming out, with guns blazing so to speak, to shoot down what she believes is not the truth. Speaking truth to power, one might call it.

Sharp memory

Sister Flor Maria (Flory to her next of kin) shuns public attention, but circumstances—divine providence, she calls it—pushed her into unfamiliar terrain. Ah, but she is far from being discombobulated, disoriented or confused—as some critics might want her portrayed. Her steps may be slow but not the flow of her words. Her memory is as sharp as a middle-lifer, her reasoning sharp, her handwriting elegant, her reflections confounding and her humor endearing.
THE NUN’S STORY. Sr. Flor Maria Basa, FMM, at her convent’s chapel in Cavite with a reproduction of the Cross of San Damiano in stained glass in the background. The question is, will she be summoned to the witness stand? Photo by MA. CERES P. DOYO

She does not wear distance glasses, she does not use a hearing aid, she does not need a cane. A recently discovered ailment does not faze her. She is ready for flight. She pores over newspapers and watches the impeachment trial on TV. When the Inquirer came one Sunday morning for a scheduled interview, she had already read the day’s banner story and spoke about it. She is not your typical nonagenarian.

“Oh, is that so?” is her calm reaction when told about unflattering text messages about her. And where should these come from? she asks, as if begging the obvious.

Will Sister Flor Maria be summoned to the witness stand? That remains to be seen. FMM provincial superior, Sr. Josefina Fernando, assures the public that the FMM keeps abreast of developments in the trial.

To make light of it, if your honors please, Sister Flor Maria might stump the court with bursts of, esto, Spanish or French that would spice up her English and Filipino. Levity aside, this nun had been formed in the old school, she minds her Ps and Qs and is not prone to making flighty utterances. “I grew up in that era when children were seen and not heard,” she chuckles.

Truth and charity

“Teach us truth and charity.” These are the last lines of the invocation recited daily these past three years by the FMM who are celebrating their century of presence in the Philippines this year.

Ninety-year-old Sr. Flor Maria Basa, FMM, takes this prayer to heart and strives to live it. To the prayer, she lately added one more virtue to beg for—justice. That the world may be steeped in it. This she prays in this final season of her missionary life.

Sister Flor Maria was born in Sampaloc, Manila, on Dec. 6, 1921, to Jose Maria Basa and Rosario Guidote. Shortly after her birth, the family moved to a house on Lepanto Street (not far from the controversial Basa-Guidote property that is the subject of arguments in the impeachment trial).

Sister Flor Maria’s grandfather, Jose Ma. Basa, her father’s namesake, was a renowned Filipino patriot who, along with national hero Jose Rizal, fought Spanish rule. Many streets have been named after him. He was exiled to the Marianas Islands for many years but later was able to move to British-ruled Hong Kong where Sister Flor Maria’s father was born. Sister Flor Maria can talk lengthily about historical vignettes related to her grandfather’s odyssey and struggle for Philippine independence from colonial rule.

How Sister Flor Maria’s parents met, wooed and wed was a love story in itself. The nun relishes telling the story. At that time, her father held a good position at Compania Maritima. Sister Flor Maria is the fourth of five children. Her siblings, now all deceased, are Sister Concepcion, FMM, Mario, Asuncion (nicknamed Monina) and Jose Ma. III (Peping). Born on the feast of St. Nicholas, Sister Flor Maria recalls being sometimes teased and called Colasa. “My mother named me after a character in a Spanish novel she had read,” she explains, and because her mother loved flowers and the Virgin Mary.

Death in Barcelona

Sister Flor Maria’s father died when she was 9 years old. “He was only 47,” she recalls sadly. “He was brought to Spain for treatment and we were all there with him. He was supposed to go to a Madrid hospital but he died in Barcelona.” Sister Flor Maria remembers the long sea voyage to and from Spain and the pain of loss the family endured.

Her husband gone, Rosario raised all five children by herself. Sister Flor Maria remembers coming down with typhoid fever and how her widowed mother sought treatments for her. “Mama made me drink freshly squeezed sugar cane juice and that helped me get well,” she says, marveling at it now. There were difficult times but the Basas were not exactly penniless.

Sister Flor Maria and her sisters attended St. Theresa’s College, run at that time by Belgian nuns, while the boys went to Ateneo de Manila. She also studied at Loreto Parochial School, Holy Ghost College (“For Fine Arts, to please Mama”) and later, briefly at the University of Santo Tomas. Her eldest sister, Concepcion, went to the University of the Philippines where she took music lessons under the famous Francisco Santiago. She later went to Spain to study.

The call

Even in childhood, Sister Flor Maria recalls, she already felt drawn to the spiritual life. “I had my first communion in Grade 2,” she narrates. It could have been earlier but her father advised her to wait because he thought she was too young to understand. Looking back, Sister Flor Maria considers that quite revealing and appreciates her father’s wisdom. “That was despite the fact that maybe he still had antifriar sentiments.”

It was during her first holy communion that the young Flor Maria felt the call. “I can never forget Jesus calling me for Himself.” After that, she says, she would often find herself running to the school chapel to be with her beloved. As a young adult, she had her share of admirers but she knew in her heart that she was meant for something else. “The Blessed Sacrament magnetized me. I wanted intimacy with Jesus.”

At first, she thought she might be called to a contemplative life and end up with the Pink Sisters (Sisters Servants of Perpetual Adoration). “But there was another call,” she confides. She learned that the FMM had a contemplative side to them and spent time in prayerful adoration. “What appealed to me was this was not going to be just the Lord and me, but I will bring the Lord to the people and the people back to the Lord, in adoration.” She was attracted to the Franciscan simplicity and the life centered on the scriptures and the Blessed Sacrament.

And so she decided on the FMM. With her eldest sister in the convent abroad and her other sister Asuncion married, she wondered what it would be like to leave her mother. There were twists and turns on her way to the convent. How she finally entered the novitiate (then located on Legarda Street) with only the clothes on her back was a story in itself. The day after her entrance, the entire brood came to see her wearing an old hand-me-down postulant’s garb that got ripped in the joyful frenzy. The year was 1947.

Bold nuns

Sister Flor Maria’s eldest sister Concepcion (then called Sr. Divino Amor) had joined the FMM ahead of her and was sent to Rome for formation. With World War II raging in Europe, Sr. Divino Amor and other sisters from countries under the Allied Forces were sent to the United States for safety. She was later assigned to follow up war damages compensation for the destruction wrought by US bombings in the Philippines.

A first cousin, Sr. Caridad Guidote (aunt of artist-activist Cecile Guidote-Alvarez), had also joined the FMM. (Sister Caring, as she was called, became a known anti-martial law activist and intellectual who, after her studies in Paris, lived in exile in the United States for several years until Philippine democracy was restored. Her dissertation in French was considered subversive and could not be published at that time.)

When she received her religious habit as a novice, Sister Flor Maria was given the religious name Sr. Blanca Azucena. (Like many missionary nuns, the two Basa sisters would revert to their baptismal names in the late 1960s after Vatican II.) She then continued her formation at the new FMM novitiate in Tagaytay City. The clean air and cool climate did wonders to her weak lungs. The war over in 1945, it was “peace time” once again and the FMM sisters were back in their respective assignments. (Several foreign sisters had been interned by the Japanese in concentration camp during the war.)

Like duck to water

Sister Flor Maria made her first vows in 1948 and her final vows in 1953. According to Sr. Maria Asuncion Borromeo, FMM, retreat and vocation directress, FMM sisters making their first vows are crowned with flowers and on pronouncing their final vows, receive a crown of thorns which they take with them wherever they are missioned. Religious life in the 1950s, unlike now, was very strict. “One never questioned,” Sister Flor Maria recalls. And some biblical imperatives—humility and poverty, among them—were practiced to the letter.

The FMM is among the many Franciscan congregations inspired by the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi who renounced wealth and embraced poverty. Because of his love for nature, Pope John Paul II declared him patron saint of the environment in 1982. The FMM was founded in 1877 in India by a Frenchwoman, Mother Mary of the Passion (now a “Blessed” and, hopefully, on her way to canonization) who envisioned an international institute of contemplative-active missionaries. The FMM consider their “cradle” the first foundation in Ootacamund in India. (This writer was a guest there many years ago.) With almost 7,000 sisters of 80 nationalities serving in 75 countries, in six continents, the FMM is presently one of the biggest women’s congregations in the world.

Twelve FMM of different nationalities sailed from France and set foot in the Philippines on Dec. 10, 1912. Fast forward to 2012: serving in 16 communities in the Philippines are 161 FMM sisters, mostly Filipinos; 34 Filipino FMM are missioned in 16 countries. The FMM sisters serve in many fronts and frontiers—indigenous communities, hospitals, schools, catechetical and spiritual formation, the urban poor, rural poor, farmers, workers and children of patients with leprosy. Close to a hundred FMM in the Philippines have gone to their eternal reward.

Sister Flor Maria took to the Franciscan life like duck to water. Leaving the convent never entered her mind. “I always said that where I am sent, that is where Jesus is waiting,” she reflects. “There is a saying that if a garment was made for you, it will fit you.”

A ‘bouche-trou’

She had worked in many places in the Philippines. One of her longest stints—10 years—was in Jerusalem where she took care of children of displaced Arab families and managed a spiritual center for pilgrims. “I was the only Filipino in our international community,” the nun says, “and I often had to speak French.” During breaks, she was sent to Rome for courses in spirituality, spiritual direction and discernment.

“Whenever there was a need somewhere, I would be pulled out and sent over,” Sister Flor Maria says with a smile. She was, as the nuns would say in French, a bouche-trou, panakip-butas or a stop-gap. She was a missionary to the core, who walked in the steps of the bold and daring FMM foundress who braved the wilds of India and whom Sister Flor Maria fondly calls in French, Maman Passion.

The Franciscan way of life was, for her, the only way.

(To be continued)