Sister Maria Carmencita Gabriel, MM

Born: January 10, 1910
Entered: November 21, 1933
Died: November 30, 1998

Our gathering song, “All My Days,” was a beautiful beginning for our celebration of the life of Sister Carmencita Gabriel. The refrain, “Till the end of my days, O Lord, I will bless your name, sing your praise, give you thanks, all my days,” exemplifies the life of Sister Carmencita. On Monday morning, November 30, 1998, as she was preparing to attend the 7:00 a.m. Eucharistic Liturgy in our main chapel, she died. She was 88 years of age and had been a Maryknoll Sister for 65 years.

Carmen Borja Gabriel was one of five children and the only girl born to Carmen Borja and Dr. Proceso Gabriel in Manila, Philippines on January 10, 1910. Carmen received her elementary and high school education at Holy Spirit Convent School in Manila, and later pursued her studies at the College of Education at Holy Spirit where, in 1932, she received a Bachelor of Science degree in Education. As a student, Carmen was inspired by the mission stories she read in the Little Missionary magazine published by the Holy Spirit Sisters. She was touched with compassion and dreamt of going to China to care for abandoned baby girls. As the seed of her vocation grew, she began to discern which community God planned for her. She admired her teachers, the Holy Spirit Sisters, but didn’t feel attracted to join them.

While in college, Carmen and several of her classmates went on a summer holiday, mountain climbing, in the city of Baguio. Carmen’s father arranged for them to stay at the Maryknoll Sisters’ guest house. That introduction to the Maryknoll Sisters made such an impression on Carmen that as she left Baguio City she knew in her heart which Congregation she would eventually join. It was not easy for Carmen to convince her parents to let their only daughter leave home but after Carmen completed a year of aspirancy in Malabon, she gained her family’s consent to continue her life in Maryknoll. Carmen traveled to the United States with Maryknoll Sister Philip Bergeron and entered the Congregation in New York on November 21, 1933.

At Reception, Carmen received the religious name of Sister Maria Carmencita, the name she retained throughout her religious life. She made her First Profession of Vows on June 30, 1936, at Maryknoll, New York, and the following year was assigned to Hawaii. Her assignment brought great joy among the Filipino community of St. Anthony’s in Kalihi, on the island of Oahu. At the reception held in her honor, she was welcomed with these words: “It is seldom, if ever, that the Filipinos in these islands have had the pleasure to welcome a Filipino missionary. It is fitting and proper that the coming of our Sister Carmencita should be an occasion for thanksgiving for it brings a train of pleasant memories and thoughts that lift us from the commonplace to the infinite, if only for a moment.” For two and a half years, Sister Carmencita thoroughly enjoyed doing home visiting and social work in this multi-cultural parish. As she herself wrote, “Meeting so many people of different nationalities during our daily home visits kept us busy. We learned so much of the simple and complicated lives around us which helped us grow in understanding and compassion.” Her next assignment was to Wailuku on the island of Maui where she taught catechism, gave piano lessons to beginners in school and continued home visiting in another parish named for St. Anthony. While in Wailuki, she made her Final Vows in 1939.

In 1940, Sister was assigned to the Philippines which was to be her home again for the next fifty-three years. Shortly after her arrival, World War II reached the Philippines. In 1945, Sister Cannencita, together with Sisters Mary Hyacinth and Una and their good friend, Maryknoll School gardener, Gregorio, escaped from the violence in the Baguio area, with other evacuees, hiking over treacherous mountain paths to a safer zone in Tubao, La Union. The unforeseen disappearance of her companion, Sister Hyacinth, during this five-day trek remained a mystery and sad memory for Sister Carmencita throughout the years.

Returning to Baguio after the war Sister Carmencita taught Kindergarten for ten years, became very active in an ecumenical reflection group as well as in a Community Development Volunteer Service Group and then was Principal of the Atab Free Primary School for indigenous Igorot children for five years. From 1975 to 1991, she dedicated herself to offering spiritual guidance in prayer groups and was very involved with the Legion of Mary. She also served as Chaplain in the Christian Family Movement, and visited homes, hospitals and prisons.

A quiet, gentle woman, Sister Carmencita was impressed by the faith and trust in God of the simple people, especially the poor with whom she prayed. In Baguio Hospital, she formed prayer groups among the patients and the staff. She wrote of a woman who worked in the hospital laundry: “She is a dynamic, spiritual leader. I think that the gift of healing in the hospital is as much in the Spirit-filled laundress, Carmen Quitola, as in the doctors and nurses.” Sister Carmencita strongly believed that her apostolate in her later years was “part of the development of a self-sustaining Church in the Philippines with a strong, prayerful laity.”

On July 16, 1990, her life was abruptly interrupted by a terrible earthquake. Sister described that “unforgettable Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel” in these words: “That afternoon was a quiet one. Only Sister Nenita Tapia and myself were left to hold the fort in Baguio. Suddenly the earthquake struck with full force. My impulse was to get out of the house but the tremor was so strong. I was thrown on the floor. Within a few seconds the hallway to the stairs was covered with broken glass from the hall mirror and books that had fallen from the huge bookcase nearby. The bookcase itself had tumbled down. The debris blocked our way but we managed to get out the side door into the drenching rain.”

Together with approximately 187 friends and neighbors, they took refuge in Marishan School.

The next few weeks were occupied with the business of survival. Carmencita was the “matriarch” of the refugee center, ministering to the rest of the group by her presence, consoling them, playing with the children, leading prayers, being the contact person with relief agencies and medical teams, directing salvage workers where to put things, and being an invaluable resource person whenever decisions had to be made. Carmencita’s aura of serenity, inner strength and quiet leadership qualities were highly valued both in trying times and in everyday living.

Moving to the Burgos house in Quezon City after the earthquake, the Sisters welcomed and supported her with their love and care. Three years later, Carmencita prepared to leave her beloved Philippines for retirement in Monrovia, California. As she prepared to leave, she wrote to the Sisters: “I can only echo Mary’s song – My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in You, my Savior.”

At Monrovia, Sister continued to be active in apostolic work and visited nearby nursing homes. Her time in Monrovia was cut short, however, due to illness. She returned to the Center in 1995. Upon leaving her Monrovia Community she wrote: “I have discovered a deeper and inner beauty in my Sisters of this loving and caring community. As Mother Mary Joseph says, the spirit of joy, love, tenderness and  interest in one another, all help to make community what it is and adds to the beauty of Maryknoll. In countless ways you manifest that unique Maryknoll spirit.”

At the Center, as a resident in Assisted Living, Sister continued to show her loving concern, thoughtfulness and affection for all. She read to some Sisters, wrote letters for others and visited others. She was there for all.

We welcome Sister Carmencita’s family and friends. We also welcome our Maryknoll brother, Father Richard Agustin, who will preside at this Liturgy of Christian Burial as we thank and praise God for the life of our Sister Carmencita Gabriel, a woman who lived life gently and died as she lived – gently.