A nun’s way to live beyond 100: ‘I am happy’

Sr. Manuela Martinez's story is the real #Women Power—a life she barely had control of yet lived in faith and trust

Sr. Manuela Martinez
In a photo taken in 2020 for Inquirer by Jam Sta. Rosa, Sr. Manuela Martinez, ICM (seated) and Sr. Amelia David, ICM: “I will carry you. I will sustain you.”

After a long life lived in faith, Sr. Manuela Martinez, ICM, passed away March 1, 2023 at the age of 102. The author wrote the following for Inquirer Lifestyle in March 2020. It ends with a reprint of an introduction given by Sr. Amelia David, ICM, in January 2020 to mark Sister Manuela’s centennial.

March 2020

Sr. Manuela Martinez, ICM, walked in slowly, although not really in measured steps, her back neither ramrod straight nor bent. As she entered the room, she let go of her walker and took the few steps to sit beside us.

I could only exclaim, “Sister, you look so strong!” She looked at us, amused.

Sister Manuela has just turned 100 last January. Not only did she look strong and able, but she was also incredibly mobile for her age. And as we’d find out, her memory is still relatively good. She remembers life, especially the people she loves, like her parents.

In these days of panic, when we feel helpless and absolutely not in control, Sister Manuela’s way to longevity must not be kept a secret—a happy heart.

Yet, as Sr. Amelia David, ICM, wrote here, Sister Manuela’s life has been one she barely had control of. Rather, she’s lived it in faith and trust.

I was at the Queen of Peace Convent, the home of the retired Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (ICM) nuns, in the compound of my alma mater, St. Theresa’s College (STC) in Quezon City, visiting my former teacher and life mentor, Sr. Emma Vijandre, ICM. Sister Emma thought of introducing me to Sister Manuela that afternoon, so I could greet her a happy birthday, since she just became a centenarian that week. I was glad Sister Emma did.

To me and my former classmates like ballet teacher Malen Claravall, visiting our former teachers/mentors and now friends, the ICM nuns of St. Theresa’s, has a calming effect. Not only does it bring you back to your past, it also reconciles you, in a way, with the failures and triumphs of your youth.

A visit lets me listen to words of wisdom one hardly gets in my line of work. This is not to say the nuns led or lead spic-and-span lives. No, only God knows what turmoil and defeat their hearts hold.

But they somehow have a way of distilling life’s tragedies and comedies into their simplest forms. Theirs are back-to-basics values. Sometimes on our visits to them, we realize how simple life should really be at the end of the day, and how it must remain anchored on values that get us started in life and which see us through to the end.

After all, in the end, you can’t bring your conglomerate wealth or extravagance or tyrannical power with you. You bring to the life beyond, hopefully, only the love of the people you hold dear.

Our St. Theresa’s nuns pilloried us to books and more books, but they also hammered into us a strict sense of values

Our St. Theresa’s nuns pilloried us to books and more books, but they also hammered into us a strict sense of values—hard, rigid work (book report every week; pass your notebooks on Friday so they could check how cleanly you took down notes), ethics, piety, moral integrity, and honesty. Learning was a rigid regimen, and presumably, so was thinking. Yes, even if these values hardly work in the outside world; it’s as if you check them in at the restaurant counter as you come in. But still, in the long run, you realize, they’re all you would need to be at peace.

Values—and abiding faith.

As we face this pandemic during Women’s Month, it’s our St. Theresa’s nuns who come to mind and inspire. Theirs isn’t a life of publicized achievements or material fortune. Theirs is a life-long, tireless effort to mold others. How they tried.

So what is your formula of long life, we asked Sister Manuela that afternoon.

“I am happy. Jesus consoles me,” she replied quickly. And you know how our nuns speak—always with a quick definitiveness that intimidates us into instant acceptance, if not obeisance.

Feeling happy is the secret to her long life. “I also can’t believe it, if not for the numbers. I don’t feel it.”

One of 10 siblings, she talked about her parents from Ilocos Norte. “My parents taught me, whatever God sends is the best for you.”

We talked about her years as a novice, during World War II, which she spent in Belgium studying music. She’s lived abroad, notably London and Guatemala.

Her body and mind are still rather strong. Her heart is now weak yet happy.

Sister Emma now also has a very weak heart, yet every time we see each other, she defines, for me, many things. (Sr. Emma Vijandre passed away in June 2021, a year after this visit.)

“A happy heart is a beautiful heart filled with kagandahang loob,” she said. “The people of goodwill, like we always say at Christmas. They know how to love—if you can wish and will the good of the other to make him or her happy, that is love. That’s how you’re happy.”

In their twilight years, even given their weak voices and hearts, these nuns keep on giving us things, even without them knowing it.

Things such as a life of 100 years.

In 2020, before the lockdown, at the Queen of Peace Convent, Sr. Manuela Martinez, ICM (center), when she turned 100 years old, with Sr. Emma Vijandre, ICM, and the author. Sister Vijandre passed away in June 2021. (Photo by JJ San Juan)

In their twilight years, even given their weak voices and hearts, these nuns keep on giving us things, even without them knowing it

In a nutshell

Sr. Amelia David, ICM, the former dean of our college at St. Theresa’s, gave this introduction at the centennial Mass for Sr. Manuela Martinez in January 2020. An excerpt: 

“How do we capture in a nutshell a life lived for a century—100 years of rich life experiences summarized in five or 10 minutes? When I was asked to make this introduction—the only reason I got for their choice of me was that I happened to be the “firstdawter” among the former novices of Sr. Manuela.

“Sr. Manuela is the fifth of 10 children of the late Jose Martinez and Julia Agcaoili. The eldest was Fred, who became a Jesuit priest, followed by Julio, then Jose Jr. who died as a child. Marina was the fourth child and Manuela the fifth. Joseling was the sixth child who also became a Jesuit but died young in the tragic plane crash of the Philippine Boy Scouts’ delegation group on their way to an international jamboree. Jesus was the seventh child and was nicknamed “Pastilan” by the family. Inday or Teresita, who is now 95 years old, is her only living sibling and staying in Cebu, the eighth child. Ruben was the ninth, and Ruperta or Nita was the 10th.

“How do we explain coincidences in our life? Or can we see these coincidences as part of the unseen hand of God that directs our lives so His divine plan will be carried out?

“It was in May 1959 when Sr. Manuela was appointed to be the third novice mistress in the Philippine ICM Novitiate house in Pacdal. She was the first Filipina to be appointed as ICM formator. She took the place of Mother Marie Leonce (Mathilde Roeckaerts) who was assigned to be superior of the Sacred Heart School in Bauang, La Union. As I recalled, we were not ready for the change of superiors and there was no such thing as “consultation” or dialogue to prepare us for this big transition…when the news was given to us, I remember how we reacted with helplessness and much emotional outbursts that it needed the intervention of Fr. Al Proost to calm us down.

“We completely forgot the time when we saw sisters crying, after the list of new assignments was read in the refectory of the Novitiate…We found out much later that they were never consulted, and some did not anticipate the change of assignment. Again, a coincidence in our life, who knows? Little did we know that God was trying to shape us and mold us too at that early stage of our “noviceship,” to practice what we have been told in theory about obedience and conformity to the Will of God.

“That was our first real experience of the meaning of ‘obedience’ in the religious life.

“That was 62 years ago. Sr. Manuela was only 39, still very much at the prime of her youth! She was very idealistic and as she relates now, very fervent to do God’s will for her. She never told me if it was easy for her to discern God’s will, but as she recalled those years now, she kept repeating to me that all she wanted to do was God’s will for her. That seemed to be her obsession from her youth.

“She recalled that when her confessor told her that she had a vocation to the religious life and she knew she wanted to join the Belgian Sisters,’ she shifted her course immediately from the music department at St. Scholastica’s College, where she initially enrolled, and went to St. Theresa’s College in Manila. Thus, Sr. Manuela’s life of following God’s will took shape. She is among the few Filipinas who joined the ICM Sisters, then called Missionary Canonesses of St. Augustine, who had their novitiate in Belgium. She started her Novitiate in 1939 with Sr. Visitacion Avila. (Sr. Adela). They were novices in Belgium when World War II broke out, and so they had to stay for a few more years in Belgium after their first profession until after the Liberation of the Philippines. Because of this, they became very proficient in speaking Flemish and French. What a coincidence!

“When they came back to the Philippines, Sr. Manuela was assigned as head of the music department of St. Theresa’s College, Cebu. She recalled that she had always been assigned either to STC Cebu or STC Manila, and always in the music department. She must have been enjoying her ministry then, particularly because she was in her own city of origin in Cebu.

“It was then when she was pulled out for another assignment. She was to perform the task of playing a different kind of music in the Novitiate with young ladies like us, who were not necessarily musically inclined and who were out of tune most of the time, especially in the singing of the Divine Office. It was a completely new experience for her, and new learnings had to be made as well as adjustments to the different challenges and rhythm of life in the Novitiate. I am sure, looking back on those years, she can say, ‘It was not easy for me, but I trusted in God’s will for me,’ and she says that whatever mistakes she made were somehow corrected by God in His ever loving Providence.

‘I am sure, looking back on those years, Sr. Manuela can say, “It was not easy for me, but I trusted in God’s will for me”

“One gets to know a tree by its fruit. There were many prominent fruits in the ministry of Sr. Manuela among her novices in Pacdal, 57 sisters who have been professed. Many became zealous missionaries here and abroad. One became a member of the ICM General Council in Rome. Seven became ICM District Superiors in different ICM Mission Districts all over the world in the course of the years.

“The undaunted zeal of Mother Marie Louise was very alive in her spirit so that after her term in the Novitiate, she volunteered to go to the foreign mission after Vatican II. She was first assigned to Rome, then to London to work with the Filipina overseas workers. Later on she was assigned to go to Guatemala, since she spoke Spanish quite fluently. What Isaiah said is very appropriate for her:

“‘Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you.

I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you… (Isaiah 46:4)’

“Thus, quietly and without fuss, Sr. Manuela continued her ICM religious-missionary journey in her various assignments until here in Queen of Peace. Through the years, those around her could see that music continued to be her companion. Her regular piano playing filled the corridors and our days with beauty and joy. Not as visible though is her other ‘obsession,’ to always do the will of God. With the benefit of hindsight, it becomes evident that God has been putting her in places and events where she could be of service to God. No, these events are no longer mere coincidence, but a manifestation of God’s love for her. Her deep faith in our God who continues to love her has guided her life all through these years. Maybe that is the key to living to be a hundred years old in peace and serenity. We can all take inspiration in that. For us who are not musically inclined, God’s will continues to beckon us to deeper and more profound levels of trust and obedience.”

About author


After devoting more than 30 years to daily newspaper editing (as Lifestyle editor) and a decade to magazine publishing (as editorial director and general manager), she now wants to focus on writing—she hopes.

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