Mother Ignacia del Espiritu Santo lived during the Spanish colonial era in the Philippines. The precise date of her birth is not known but the record shows the date of her baptism on March 4, 1663. This confirms the statement of Pedro Murillo Velarde, biographer of Mother Ignacia, that she was 21 years old in 1684. Ignacia was the eldest and the sole surviving child of Maria Jeronima, an yndia, and Jusepe Luco, a pure Chinese immigrant from Amoy, China. Her father was converted to the Catholic faith in 1652 and resided in Binondo, Manila.
When Ignacia was 21, her parents wanted her to marry. Heeding a call deep within but not wanting to disappoint her parents, Ignacia sought counsel from Fr. Paul Klein, a Jesuit priest from Bohemia who arrived in Manila in 1682. The priest gave her the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. After this period of solitude and prayer, Ignacia decided to “remain in the service of the Divine Majesty” and to “live by the sweat of her face.” She left home and brought with her only a needle and a pair of scissors. She started to live alone in the house located at the back of the Jesuit College of Manila. Her life of prayer and labor attracted yndias who were also called to religious life but could not be admitted to existing beaterios at that time. Mother Ignacia accepted these women into her company and the first community was born. They became known as the Beatas de la Compañia de Jesus because they frequently received the sacraments at the Church of St. Ignatius, performed many acts of devotion there and went to the Jesuit Fathers for spiritual direction and confession.
Mother Ignacia centered her life on the suffering Christ and tried to imitate Him through a life of service and humility. She prayed earnestly to God and performed penances to move God to have mercy on them. Her spirituality of humble service was expressed in her capacity to forgive, to bear wrongs patiently and to correct with gentleness and meekness. This spirituality was manifest in peace and harmony in the community, mutual love and union of wills, witnessing to the love of Jesus Christ and the maternal care of Mary our Blessed Mother.
This spirituality sustained the beatas in their moments of difficulties especially during times of extreme poverty, when they even had to beg for rice and salt and scour the streets for firewood. The beatas continued to support themselves by the labor of their hands and sometimes received some financial help from pious people. In all these, they did not cease to thank God and to trust in His divine providence.
The growing number of beatas called for a more stable lifestyle and a set of rules. A daily schedule was drawn up and community practices were defined. Following the spirit of St. Ignatius, Mother Ignacia exhorted her beatas to live always in the presence of God and to develop great purity of heart. She also emphasized charity in the community which was dedicated to the Blessed Mother. The spirit of Mary runs through the rules that were written for the guidance of the beatas. In defining her style of leadership, Mother Ignacia drew inspiration from the Blessed Virgin Mary. She strove to be the living image of Mary to her companions and exhorted them to take Mary as their model in following Jesus.
Mother Ignacia gradually realized that the Beaterio was called by God not only to a life of prayer and penance but also to apostolic service. The Beaterio admitted young girls as boarders who were taught Christian doctrine as well as works proper to them. Mother Ignacia did not make any distinction of color or race but accepted yndias, mestizas and Spaniards as recogidas. The beatas were also involved in retreat work and helped the Jesuit Fathers by preparing the retreatants to be disposed to the Spiritual Exercises.
Mother Ignacia submitted the 1726 Constitution of the Beaterio to the Archdiocesan officer for approval. After the approval was given in 1732 by the Fiscal Provisor of Manila, Mother Ignacia decided to give up her responsibility as Superior of the house. She lived as an ordinary member until her death on September 10, 1748. Pedro Murillo Velarde saw this as a great sign of her humility. She had no desire to command and control. In his estimation, Mother Ignacia was a “true valiant woman who overcame the great difficulties which she met in the foundation from the beginning to the end.” She was “mortified, patient, devout, spiritual, zealous for the good of souls.”
A few months before her death, the Archbishop initiated a process of securing royal protection for the Beaterio. Mother Ignacia died without knowing the response of the Spanish king but her long life in the Beaterio must have taught her to trust in the providence of God. Little did she expect that the Beaterio would become a congregation and continue to exist until today, more than 300 years after her death. This congregation, now known as the Religious of the Virgin Mary, is a living testimony to her life as God’s handmaid who opened the door of religious life to native women in the Philippines. She proved that God is the God of all peoples, of whatever color or race.
The royal protection granted in 1755 guaranteed the safety of the beatas but it did not recognize the beaterio as a community of religious women. It was ordained to remain as a pious association. The beatas, faithful to the spirit of their foundress, Mo. Ignacia, lived the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as religious women even without being recognized as such. The expulsion of the Jesuits in 1768 was another blow to the beatas. They lost their spiritual guides but they continued to enjoy the solicitude of the Archbishop of Manila and other Churchmen. In the spirit of M. Ignacia, the beatas lived by the sweat of their face and persevered in the service of God through education and retreat work. Despite attempts by the Governor-general to change the nature of the beaterio, the beatas remained faithful to the vision and charism of M. Ignacia and survived the dark years.
The growth of the beaterio into a Congregation and its response to the apostolic challenges of the times show the vitality of the spirit of Mother Ignacia. Indeed, her lamp continues to shine as her daughters courageously strive to respond with zeal to the call of mission in different contexts. The story of the Congregation that has grown from the small Beaterio of Mother Ignacia continues to unfold. It bears witness to the enduring vitality and strength of the foundation, the spirituality of Mother Ignacia. The lamp she lit to guide the path of the native women aspiring to the religious life and the maturity of faith still shines. It remains undimmed. The life of this lowly yndia and the fruits of her spirituality proclaim the immense goodness and unbounded mercy of God.
An article of the weekly paper, La Illustracion Filipina, September 7, 1893 issue, described Mother Ignacia as “the genuine product of the highest order of the nation and a fitting model of womanhood. She was foundress of a religious institution that still lives its pristine spirit vigorously two centuries after its foundation.” The Philippine National Historical Association gave recognition to Mother Ignacia del Espiritu Santo as the first Filipina to start the first Filipino congregation for women in the Philippines, the female organizer of retreat movements for women throughout the world and one of the pioneers of Christian education of the youth in the Philippines.