The first two of the four pioneer Cluny Sisters, Sr. Elizabeth Browne-Russell from New Zealand and Sr. Marie Stella Thenganakunnel from India, together with the Assistant Superior General from Paris, Sr. Morag Collins, arrived in the Philippines on 12 March 1994 at the invitation of the then dynamic and youthful Filipino bishop, +Jesus Cabrera of the Diocese of Alaminos in Northern Luzon. Prior to their arrival,2 Sisters (Sr. Gabrielle O'Neill and Sr. Josephine O'Kelly) had come out on a fact finding mission. They chose this diocese because it was just newly created. Formerly part of the bigger Lingayen-Dagupan Diocese, the new Alaminos Diocese was poor, lacked personnel, resources and finance. The sisters welcomed the opportunity to be part of the Bishop’s evangelical co-workers in helping to build up this diocese of 400,000 Catholics. This year (2005) there are 6 Cluny Sisters and 55 other women Religious from different congregations serving in the Alaminos Diocese.
The Cluny Sisters began that task of starting from nothing. For the first 3 months, they lived in the Bishop’s compound, eating at his table along with other church workers and sleeping in the convent of Franciscan Sisters close by because there was no convent ready for them. Later they moved to a small town of Aguilar in the compound of a benefactor, Attorney Leonardo Jimenez and his wife Doctor Fe, until their simple convent of split bamboo and concrete was completed in October of the year 1994. By then the two other pioneer sisters, Sr. Gertrude Tang Kai from Trinidad, and Sr. Candida Thottathil from India had arrived in the country. An Irish sister from United States Province, Sr. Angela Mannion, had come earlier for 3 months to help out, and was especially instrumental in helping Sr. Stella Thenganakunnel set up the Kindergarten. The Bishop asked the sisters to upgrade the standard and to take over the management of kindergarten formerly run by the Catholic Women’s League. The high school was housed in a termite-eaten, bat infested old ‘convento’ and the kindergarten held classes in the sacristy of the church.
The Sisters set out to renovate an old building for the Kindergarten and Elementary Department, which opened in June 1994. A new wing was added. The Kindergarten and Elementary Department of Aguilar Catholic School (formerly San Jose Learning Center) flourished and today it is fully recognized by the Department of Education, Culture and Sports.
In January 1995, the Sisters began the construction of Phase 1 of the new Aguilar Catholic School building with the help from the Congregation and other aid agencies especially from Germany. Sr. Gertrude Tang Kai was its project co-ordinator. Half the student body were able to move into this new building in school year 1998 while the rest remained in the ‘convento’. The strong earthquake of 12th of December 1999 forced everyone to evacuate the now condemned building an all the high school students squeezed into the new building. For lack of space, two classes were forced to have their lessons under the trees.
The Elementary Department, which was occupying the downstairs floor of the condemned convento also left it and went on a shift system. Despite inadequate funds the elementary started their new building in January 2000.
In March 1995, the newly-elected Superior General Sr. Marie Noel lefrancois and Councilor Sr. Rosalie Cota came on an official visitation to the Philippines. This special event at the beginning of our Philippines mission strengthened our unity with the Mother House and with the rest of the Congregation.
In 1995, at the Bishop’s request, the Sisters took over the Mangatarem Catholic School and progressively became involved in the management of its Kindergarten and Elementary Department. The latter, then known as "St. Raymund de Penafort Learning Center" was likewise set in an old ‘convento’ and was founded by the Marriage Encounter couples of Mangatarem. Again the Sisters set about putting the School on a professional basis. In 1999 Mangatarem Catholic School Elementary department attained full recognition. After the earthquake of 12th December 1999, it too had to evacuate part of the old convento and the pupils were put on a shift system while the school started fund-raising for a new building.
St. Columban’s School in Labrador was likewise added to the Sister’s responsibility in June 1995. The high school was formerly under the directorship of the Columban Sisters who had withdrawn that year. After request from parents, the Elementary Department of the school was started in 1996 and received full recognition in 1999. The Sisters lived in Aguilar and commuted to the two schools in Mangatarem and Labrador.
In 1995, the 4 pioneers Sister then found themselves in the situation where they were managing 3 of the 7 high schools in the whole diocese, together with Elementary Departments attached.
Sr. Marie Berchmans Malenkandathil’s arrival from Darjeerling in March 1998 swelled the number of Sisters from 4 to 5. She took over the responsibility of overseeing the finishing work on Phase 1 of the new Aguilar Catholic School building. Unfortunately, due to ill-health, she had to return to north India in June 1999.
On 15 July 1998, the second Cluny community was established in Labrador in the former Columban Sisters’ convent. Sister Elizabeth Browne-Russell, Sr. Marie Berchmans Malekandathil and Sr. Lorna Tenderro Rosario, formed the community. Sr. Lorna from Aguilar, was our first Filipina Sister. She had made her novitiate in Trinidad and was professed in Aguilar on 11 July 1998. She began her ministry as a parish pastoral worker in Labrador. Later in November 1998, a young Irish Sister, Mary Shiels who had arrived in the Philippines in September of the year, joined this community and worked in the St. Columban’s School.
Aguilar witnessed another Cluny profession when our second Filipina Sister, Natividad Mendoza, received her vows on 29th May 1999 having made her novitiate in Trinidad. Her assignment was the management of Mangatarem Catholic School Elementary.
From its foundation in March 1994, until December 1999, the Philippines mission came directly under the Generalate Group and had the privilege of receiving a visit from the Assistant Superior General twice a year. Sr. Morag Collin’s last official visitation to the communities here took place in September 1999. In preparation for the handling over of this mission to the care of the New Zealand province, its then Provincial Leader, Sr. Francis Kelly joined Sr. Morag Collins in October 1999 during this visit.
In January 2000, the Philippines became part of the Province of New Zealand, Fiji and Cook Islands and Sr. Francis Kelly, its Provincial Leader, made her first official visit to the communities in January 2000. It was at this time that another member was added to the Philippine Mission, Sr. Marie Cecilia Shen from the Province of North India. She replaced Sr.Elizabeth Browne Russell as Directress of Aguilar Catholic School secondary department and was entrusted with the construction of Phase 2. By April Sr. Elizabeth bade farewell to Aguilar and Labrador and left for New Zealand for good. Her post in St. Columban School as Directress was filled by Sr.Lorna Rosario and Sr.Mary Shiels succeeded her as community leader there.
The following year saw another sister, Sr. Anselm Alunkal, also from North India arrive in the month of April 2001. Before taking up her assignment in Labrador, Sister spent some months in Manila learning Tagalog, the national language. February 2001 saw the arrival of Sr. Lawrencia Williams from New Zealand who served the mission till June. Sr. Lorna went to New Zealand for her sabbatical in preparation of her final vows in February 2002. She returned earlier than expected due to health reasons. In her absence, Sr. Anselm took over the post of Directress in the school. In the month of May 2002, Sr. Mary Shiels returned to Ireland having completing four years of fruitful service in St. Columban School as English teacher. The responsibility of the community in Labrdor was then passed on to Sr. Anselm.
On 12th July, 2002 we had the joy of witnessing the Final Profession of Sr. Lorna Rosario, our first Filipina and the following year on the 29th of May 2003, that of Sr. Natividad Mendonza’s. The latter took a year’s sabbatical, in Baguio and Manila in preparation for her final commitment which took plac Towards the end of the year in December 2002, yet another sister from India, Sr. Agnes Josephraj from Bangalore province, join the Philippine Mission. As Sr. Stella Thenganakunnel was away in Manila for a couple of years doing a course in Family Ministry in the East Asian Pastoral Institute, TOFFEL and Guidance and Counselling in Ateneo, Sr. Agnes took over the charge of the Aguilar Catholic School Kd/ Elem department.
The year 2004 March marked the 10th Anniversary of Cluny Presence in the Philippines. This joyful occasion was graced by none other that our beloved Mother General Sister Morag Collins and our dear provincial Sr. Elizabeth Browne Russell. The celebration drew the staff, students of the three Cluny schools also friends and benefactors in a thanksgiving concelebrated Eucharistic Celebration presided over by our Bishop Jesus Cabrera D.D. After Mass all were invited to the beautifully decorated ACS hall for a sumptuous lunch and camaraderie.
After completing her course successfully in Ateneo and having spent 10 years in the Philippine Mission, Sr. Stella Thenganakunnel returned to India on September 21st 2004, after taking a short break in Europe.
On the 12th of August 2004 Sr. Gertrude Tang Kai joined the Maryknoll Fathers’ Volunteer Service and taught English in the middle school in Zhanjiang, South China for a year, thus realizing her long cherished dream. Her work however, did not stop at just teaching English. She left no stones unturned to discover the place where our Sisters looked after a creche for abandoned children more than a century ago in Guangzhou, South China. After a year of dedicated service Sr. Gertrude returned to the Philippines on June 22nd 2005 to say her goodbyes. She left the Philippines for good and returned to her homeland, Trinidad on July 7th 2005.
On the 8th of September, Sr. Priscilla Shiny George Munjanattu from the province of North India joined the Philippine mission after a long wait for her visa. She is now a member of the community of Labrador.