For her first assignment, Filippini Sister Ascenza Tizzano was a teenage nun assigned to Holy Rosary School in Jersey City when I was in second grade. Today, she is the Mother General of Maestre Pius Filippini in Rome, leading 700 nuns serving in eight countries around the world.
On May 14, she led an extraordinary Vatican audience with Pope Francis and 3,000 sisters, clergy, teachers, catechists and children from their schools and parish catechesis programs in Italy. Almost all of them were Italian except for the sisters from their missions around the world.
The occasion was the 350th anniversary of the birth of their founder, Lucy Filippini, in Tarquinia, Italy, who was canonized Saint Lucia by Pope Pius XI in 1930.
“The whole history of our institute, which spans more than three centuries, has been characterized by the special closeness and protection of the Holy See,” Tizzano told Pope Francis during a public address at the hearing. “And for this reason, we are privileged to be called the ‘Pontifical Institute of Filipino Religious Teachers’.”
Tizzano sent me the text of his speech translated into English.
Saint Lucia, Tizzano said, wanted to spread the love of God to every corner of the earth and the community is now seeing a growth in vocations in India, Eritrea in Africa and Brazil, with the largest number of sisters still in Italy, followed by the United States.
Tizzano then summed up so beautifully how the sisters are emulating the example of Francis’ papacy.
“We thank you for inviting us to reflect on synodality: to experience a church that embraces everyone, where every voice is welcome,” she said.
She quoted the pope’s love for the poor and immigrants “whom so many Maestre Pius educated in the countries of immigration” and mentioned his love for the earth and creation, “a gift from God, who is our commune house”.
Furthermore, she said, Francis called on all to be agents of peace and to walk with all our brothers and sisters.
Sister Mary Elizabeth Lloyd, secretary of the community and coordinator of the mission, noticed that Francis was particularly interested in Tizzano’s speech because he could detect that she was a novice in Italian and that she was trying to speak properly.
At first, Francis just sat thinking it was another Italian nun giving a speech in Italian, Lloyd said. Then she noticed the pope leaning forward to listen more carefully and actually referenced some of his comments in his remarks, which Tizzano emailed me.
Noting that “teacher” (“maestre”) is on behalf of their community, he said:
“A proverb says that one does not teach what one knows but what one is. We transmit to others what we are inside. It is not enough to fill the head with ideas, it is not to educate; to educate is to transmit life, and to be a teacher is to live a mission.
Francis mentioned that Santa Lucia is usually depicted with the crucifix in her hand or pointing at it.
“She knew how to teach so many people, first because she did not stop being a disciple of Jesus,” he said. “His educational mission was nothing but his mystical experience.”
Then to everyone present, he said, “There is one presence that we will never leave: God cannot cease to be my father. Carry this thought in your heart. Everything can fail, but not the tenderness of God.
And these two comments from the pope underline the effectiveness of the sisters as I knew them. I had sisters in all my classes except one.
I remember first meeting Sister Cecilia Rotondo, my first grade teacher, and she looked like any woman wearing just a black bonnet and wearing a long black dress, which differed from the appearance of most nuns of the time.
The sisters exuded a sense of family among themselves, which they engendered in their missions.
Before Vatican II, the Church of the Holy Rosary was the central gathering place for hundreds of families with the school as their second home. And the same could be said of the other Filipino schools in Hudson County: Mt. Carmel and Our Lady of Sorrows in Jersey City; Assumption, Bayonne; St. Anthony and St. Rocco, Union City; Our Lady of Libera, West New York. Unfortunately, all are closed.
In fact, the community no longer has schools in the Archdiocese of Newark but in other cities in New Jersey and in Brooklyn, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New England, and New Mexico for a total of 10 remaining schools. Among them are St. Augustine in Kendall Park; Holy Spirit, Pequannock; St. Gerard, Paterson, Paul VI High School, Haddonfield; and St. Jerome, West Long Branch. The Filipino sisters also run catechism programs in churches in Nutley, New Brunswick, Sayreville, Raritan, Peapack and Hamilton.
Teaching religion to poor Italian girls in the 17th century was Saint Lucia’s first mission. She and her early followers were so successful that Pope Clement XI invited them to open schools in Rome in 1707. I visited one on Via delle Fornaci, two blocks from the Vatican .
The sisters came to the United States in 1910 and began working in Italian neighborhoods in New Jersey. Their motherhouse spans 250 acres in Morristown, home to their much-loved Villa Walsh Academy. Their other sponsored girls’ school is also the excellent Villa Victoria in Trenton.
Tizzano ended her remarks by summing up Lucia as “a disciple of the Word, absorbed in the contemplation of the Cross, transformed into the Eucharist, faithful to the Church, a woman of her time and of our time, a light that still shines and a guide for the joyful proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
That’s the beauty of the Filipino sisters I’ve known.
Reverend Alexander Santora is the pastor of Our Lady of Grace and St. Joseph, 400 Willow Ave., Hoboken, NJ 07030. Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @padrehoboken.