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100 years of reaching out, the Maryknoll way


This year marks the 100th year of the Maryknoll Sisters, the first group of women religious from the United States to devote a life of service in a foreign country.

At the January 6 Mass launching the centennial, Fr. James Ferry said Mother Mary Joseph was a public school teacher when she founded Maryknoll Sisters. Together with James Anthony Walsh, founder of Maryknoll Fathers, they set up a society and a congregation that would bring “the Good News of salvation to others.”

Some 14 years after its founding, in 1926, the Maryknoll missionaries came to the Philippines, on the invitation of Manila Archbishop Michael O’ Dougherty, to train Filipino Catholic teachers.

Teacher training became the Maryknoll sisters’ flagship program, according to Dr.  Rosario Oreta Lapus, current president of what used to be Maryknoll College in Quezon City and is now known as Miriam College.

“They taught us, ‘Don’t be afraid. Go out into the world and serve it.’ This was our training—to be helpful, give people hope, serve them always,” she said.

Lapus added that the sisters “loved living with and teaching the people.” As missionaries who also happened to be Americans, the Maryknoll sisters, she added, “practiced the democratic traditions of equality.”

The congregation first founded Malabon Normal School in an old Augustinian convent, starting with a total of 300 pupils in grade school, high school and normal school. They also opened St. Mary’s Dormitory for women on Pennsylvania Street (now Leon Guinto) and administered St. Paul Hospital in Intramuros.

A year later, they established Maryknoll Convent, later known as Maryknoll Convent School, in Baguio City.

Surviving on tuition fees, donations and financial assistance from abroad, the sisters’ normal school had its first graduates in 1930.

Maryknoll Normal School, which moved to the Ermita area of Manila, became, in 1938, the only Catholic college to offer nursing.

Maryknoll Academy opened in 1939 in Lucena, while the Malabon school was renamed St. James Academy in honor of Walsh.


World War II suspended the expansion. In 1942, the sisters were detained in various places. Most of them would return to the US after the Philippines was liberated, but 20 remained and reopened St. James in Malabon, St. Mary’s Hall and Maryknoll College in Manila, Maryknoll Baguio, and Maryknoll Lucena.

The continued increase in enrollment called for a bigger school and the consolidation of Manila campuses. In 1952, the sisters conducted a fundraising program, complemented with lots of prayer, for the purchase of a lot in Diliman, Quezon City.

After one year, the high school and college were transferred. The grade school, as well as the Child Study Center for nursery and kindergarten, opened in Diliman in 1959.

Led by Sr. Miriam Thomas, the school adopted in 1956 the vision of promoting women leaders, who would be “spiritually vigorous, intellectually cultured, social-minded … one with the courage and heroism  to do what is right in the face of  those who disregard the examples and teachings of Christ.”

This was followed by the expansion of academic offerings and launch of social awareness programs.

In 1964 student volunteers undertook community work through a lay associate project, Maryknoll Mission Band. Three years later, the Maryknoll Adult Education program for out-of-school youth and adult learners was launched.

Winds of change

The American sisters also gradually transferred responsibility to Filipino colleagues in its provincial schools and hospitals. The change coincided with the Second Vatican Council in 1964. The sisters undertook a worldwide redefinition of the mission of community-based ministries.

Supervision of Maryknoll College was transferred to a lay all-Filipino board of trustees. On the school’s 50th anniversary in 1976, Dr. Paz V. Adriano, who studied in Malabon, became its first lay president.

A year later, lay administrators had complete control of the school. The deed of donation called for a change of name so the school could forge its own identity.

Thus, Maryknoll College became Miriam College in 1989 “as a most fitting tribute to two Miriams who have touched our lives—our Blessed Mother who was called this name in her lifetime, and Sister Miriam Thomas who had devoted 50 years of service to the college,” said researchers led by Dr. Victoria Apuan, who did a Maryknoll timeline.

Training women leaders

The 1956 vision of Thomas remained the cornerstone of the Miriam College vision crafted in 2000: “Forming women leaders in service.”

Today, Lapus, a 1958 high-school graduate of the Malabon school, upholds this vision.

“We try to cultivate service with four core values and advocacy centers,” she said. “Our mission is a way of giving the gift of education. Our priorities are research-based work, academic work and advocacy.”

Sr. Virginia Fabella, MM, eco-feminist and feminist theologian, said, although she was not an alumna of the school, she was drawn to the congregation because her Maryknoll nun classmates “were always so happy.”

The nun taught geometry, mathematics and algebra to sophomores from 1955 to 1965.

“The students who liked and appreciated my courses were precious to me,” she smiled. “I was happy here. When I see how they have done very well—two became presidents of Miriam, Dr. Patricia Licuanan and Dr. Rosario Oreta—I’m so proud. I also had three beauty queens like Gemma Cruz.”

Fabella now promotes environmentalism, with Laguna Lake Development Authority, among fisherfolk in Jala-Jala, Rizal.

Alumna Sr. Catherine Encarnacion, MM, who has an AB CDE (Bachelor of Arts in Child Development and Education) degree and who taught psychology and theology, said, “MC [Miriam College] is very accessible to students … As a student I felt part of one family…”

She is now with the Ecology Center of Maryknoll Baguio, a meditation shrine and “school” to educate the young on the integrity of creation. It was built in 1990 following the killer quake in the city. The school conducts workshops on solid waste management and on Miriam’s seven environmental principles.


Lapus added, “Our goals include helping students become better in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) via friendly discussions … and with resources for e-learning. We see computers as the tool for the 21st century.”

One other goal is faculty development through in-service training; graduate school scholarships at Miriam or at neighboring Ateneo de Manila University and University of the Philippines; giving time-off, if needed; and giving support like foreign travel grants.

Lapus said there would be new challenges when they establish in 2014 another campus in Nuvali, Sta. Rosa, Laguna, and implement in June the K to 12 curriculum, which “includes developing and meeting rigorous standards for precollege academics such as chemistry and other sciences.”

But Lapus confidently stated that Miriam was “K to 12 ready.”

She said the Maryknoll sisters tried to make their students feel like they had a family—the Asian way.

“We inherited their qualities of carrying people into the community with friendship, loyalty and courage, to use our talents and  develop ourselves  but also with consideration for others,” said Lapus.

Events to mark the centennial include a photo-exhibit and a concert by the Miriam College High School Glee Club at the Maryknoll Sisters Center in Ossining, New York.

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Tags: anniversaries , Education , Maryknoll College , Maryknoll schools , Maryknoll Sisters , Miriam College , Philippines

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