By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
LANSDALE – Constancia Alingasa, in religion Assumption Sister Marie Clemencia, who now lives in retirement at St. Stanislaus Convent in Lansdale, was baptized and confirmed when she was three days old, something very unusual for a Roman Catholic.
It was a different time and a different place; the Philippines 102 years ago to be specific.
To explain, prior to the Spanish-American War most of the clergy in the Philippines were Spanish and many went home after the U.S. took possession. The limited number of American missionaries who replaced them were overwhelmed. When Bishop Dennis Dougherty, the new Bishop of Jaro and future Cardinal Archbishop of Philadelphia, visited the Philippine municipality of Alimodian he confirmed everyone not already confirmed regardless of age because he knew he might not get back for a long time. That’s why, when he visited, he both baptized and confirmed little Constancia.
Her father died while she was a child, and at 12 she suggested to her mother that she go to the local orphanage. She did this, Sister Clemencia explained, because she liked sewing and could learn more at the orphanage and also, she could learn Spanish; at home only the local dialect, Visayan, was spoken.
There was no room at the orphanage, and the priest in charge made arrangements for her to go to the Sisters of the Assumption where she could assist by sewing and also learn how to embroider.
“I didn’t know the Assumption Sisters existed, and I didn’t want to be a nun,” she said.
God had other ideas. The product of an extremely religious family where daily rosary was a must, she became enthralled by the prayer life of the sisters, especially the recitation of psalms in their daily office. In 1929 when she decided to enter the convent it was with the Religious of the Assumption as a postulant. Two years later she traveled by boat, a three-month journey across the Pacific, through the Panama Canal, across the Atlantic to Belgium for her novitiate, and she made her first vows in 1933.
Most of her active career was spent teaching sewing, embroidering and crocheting and personally making many hundreds of communion dresses, baptismal robes, sisters’ habits as well as Mass vestments and other garments. As an Assumption Sister she was also missioned to the Canary Islands and to Madrid, Spain.
It is not entirely coincidental that she ultimately came to America and the diocese of Bishop Dougherty, who baptized and confirmed her as an infant. One of his first acts on becoming archbishop of Philadelphia in 1917 was to invite the Assumption Sisters, who he knew from the Philippines, to the diocese to take charge of the new Ravenhill Academy, and from there they spread to a number of other dioceses.
Sister Maria Clemencia was sent to Miami in 1946, where she remembers meeting the aging cardinal.
Since 1977 she has been living in the Philadelphia area, first at the Assumption Sisters convent in Merion and now in Lansdale.
During these long years away from Alimodian, she certainly learned Spanish and added French and English as well. It was her joy to travel to Rome in 1975 for the beatification of Mother Marie Eugenie Milleret, her congregation’s foundress.
For most of her years in Philadelphia, in addition to her sewing, she was the convent sacristan. Time takes its toll. Four years ago when Blessed Marie Eugenie was canonized she could not attend. In spite of failing eyesight, virtually by memory, she knitted about 25 distinctive scarves for all of the other sisters to wear in Rome, which they still treasure.
For Sister Clemencia at 102, life is still well worth living.
“My joy is prayer, praying the liturgy of the hours and the psalms,” she said.
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.