It was like going to a wedding, a very big celebration of 14 sisters saying their final “I dos.” The spacious three-story convent of the RMI lay overlooking the Cascia Valley, a long suburb near Tomba di Nerone and in front of St. Pietro’s Hospital. It was in a green preserve and park area of a genteel section of Rome. It was not luxurious but simple, clean and very quiet. I had my own room, a stone’s throw from the neat dining room and right across a prayer and reflection space. The food was plentiful, lots of pasta and fresh vegetables, prepared by the sisters themselves. The convent grounds were surrounded by jasmine flowers, hydrangeas and well maintained tall pine trees. They had an organic garden that I could see from my large window.
From Los Angeles International Airport, I landed at the Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport in Rome and was picked up by an elderly Spanish sister and a Vietnamese nun. None of them spoke English; I had to wing some Spanish and try to converse with “grazies” and “pregos.” We were all jumping for joy upon my arrival; I was so glad they were there to find me, and they were happy that I was able to come at short notice.
Sr. Lerma Serdone was my mother’s protégé. We had a big household with my sisters and brothers living on the University of the Philippines campus at that time. My parents and family had lived in Area 17 since the mid-‘50s until the present. Lerma was only 19 when she came to my mother’s employ in 1996. She was from Lopez, Quezon. Her family, who subsisted on farming, became impoverished when she lost her father at age 9. Because her mother had to work, her younger brothers and sisters became dependent on Lerma. At a very tender age, she had to find rice to boil to feed herself and her siblings, with not even salt for flavor.
My mother sent Sr. Lerma to Miriam School, formerly Maryknoll. She attended classes at night and worked during the day. She was industrious and eager to learn, although she dreaded the practicums because they were during the daytime and interfered with her work.
My mother was so happy to have Lerma with her. She would talk about Lerma’s culinary achievements, but mostly her desire to finish secondary as well as her tertiary schooling. Lerma eventually finished college at the University of Santo Tomas and entered the novitiate in Sampaloc, Manila. My father and mother encouraged her to persevere, bringing her to school and picking her up late in the evening. They supervised her studies, and would give her free time to do her practicum during the day.
Sr. Lerma was sent to Spain after becoming a teacher at high schools and in the novitiate in Manila. The Religiosos Maria Immaculada was founded by St. Vicenta Lopez y Viscuna, a religious order that specifically established a place for young girls who were former household domestic helpers, girls who had been victims of human trafficking and those who needed to improve their stations in life. The mother house of the RMI is in Madrid, Spain. In the convent, Sr. Lerma learned to speak Spanish fluently. The courses in spirituality that they attended were mostly in Spanish and Italian. She was there for a couple of years before her final vows. Needless to say, her achievement was no feat for the fainthearted. She prayed, studied and worked her way to Rome.
The perpetual and final vows was at 6 p.m. on that balmy Saturday, the 13th of June. The convent was busy all day; the sisters sang from very early in the morning. But the 14 “brides-to-be” were kept incommunicado for a triduum. The flowers were arranged in a big room; an elderly sister was cutting pink anthuriums to decorate the chapel. The food was being prepared by the other nuns in a separate kitchen. The convent was packed. Visitors from all over the world were expected and were trickling in. I was the only one who came for Sr. Lerma, her parents have long been gone and even my mother passed away in 2011. I met relatives of the other sisters; some were from Jalisco, Mexico; Goa, India; San Salvador; Burkina Faso and Malta. I hung out with the Mexican contingent, relatives of Sr. Cynthia. Another sister, Indira, had 24 relatives who came for her “votos.” An Italian bishop, who was in charge of vocations in the Vatican, presided over the ceremony. It was a concelebrated mass with at least ten other priests in attendance. Sr. Lerma sang the solo rendition of Psalm 113. Her voice was sweet and melodic, it filled the hall that contained at least 400 people. All the other 30 nuns in the convent were present, they were all in their gray habits, well pressed and crisp for the occasion.
Another Filipina sister who lived with the Italian nuns knew the Filipino community in that part of Rome. Sr. Nina had invited the Filipino churchgoers to witness the ceremony. The Filipino contingent came in full force, mostly migrant workers who have become part of the Italian working class as domestics. They brought pancit and pan de sal for Sr. Lerma. We were all in tears after the ceremony. We were so delighted to see a Filipino nun among the celebrants.
They asked me if I was Sr. Lerma’s sister. I said, “A younger one!” I came all the way from San Francisco to see her say her vows. There must have been 15 of these kababayans who came, and we giggled and took note of where we came from, what our maiden names and surnames were and who our common friends were. Of course, we had the obligatory picture taking that took a very long time. Some of them spoke Pangasinan, “Mangantila!” I could relate to the pleasantries in Ilocano, “Awanan,” and some Tagalog, “Taga saan kayo sa atin?” They all spoke very fluent Italian, “Ti prego.” They invited us to come to their celebrations for Philippine Independence Day the following day. We unfortunately were not able to go since we went to see Pope Francis for his noon hour angelus at the Vatican.
The next Monday however, I walked towards the church to look for the Filipinos who came. All I had to do was to ask around at the fermatas (bus stops), and lo and behold, I found Norma Bulaquena, one of the elders in the Filipino community. She was retired and had lived in Italy for 35 years. She was meeting a close friend who had been in Italy for 40 years! Betty Linawen and Norma took me to the grocery store and bought all kinds of goodies for me to take home! I apologized for not showing up at their Independence Day festivities, and I wanted to thank them personally for coming to celebrate with Sr. Lerma. The two ladies invited me for a short merienda and coffee at Betty’s residence two bus stops away from the convent. I gladly obliged. Needless to say, I spent an afternoon with the two ladies, and it morphed into a dinner of adobo and an Italian tuna bean dish, green salad and rice served with wine and spirits.
I have kept touch with these ladies through Facebook and email. They were so hospitable and kind to me and to Sr. Lerma. They even sent adobo and rice for the nuns as take-home food.
On June 17th, a Wednesday, we had papal audience tickets to see Pope Francis again in a special forum at the Vatican. He rode his pope jeep and gave a plenary indulgence blessing. I had been in Rome exactly six days and I saw him twice. I had a very special time with the sisters in the convent and had a good time with Filipino compatriots. It was a lot of prayer time and camaraderie that felt like I was riding on a cloud, propelled by very happy angels.
Sister Lerma now is assigned to the RMI convent in Jaro, Iloilo, where she directs activities of the girls under the convent’s care. She handles the teaching curriculum for them. She raises vegetables and cooks delicious inihaw na bangus (broiled milkfish) and other seafood dishes for her sisters. The last photo she sent me was when she was at the International Eucharistic Conference in Cebu last February.
Candy Lagmay Bandong is a grandmother of two and a retired computer lab mentor from the San Mateo Union High School District in Northern California. She loves to travel and meet new friends. Her passion is art, music and technology. She is also an avid cyclist.