God's Messenger to Asia
Religious life is a lifetime
life in Italy is rich in customs
and festivals being held during the feastdays
of the Madonna and of various saints, during harvest season, weddings, baptisms,
etc. It is in this milieu that a child was born to a farming couple on April
9, 1912, in Cariano, Verona, in Northern Italy. She was the second in a brood
of seven, composed of two boys and five girls. The child was baptized and
was given the name Elisabeta. At home, she was fondly called Beppa. She grew
up to be a lively, fun-loving, yet responsible child, giving her share in
domestic duties and helping in the field tilled by her father.
At an early age, Beppa began to nourish a desire to consecrate her life to
God and be a missionary. However, she did not stay away from parties and dances
which fascinated her. She even preferred to go dancing than join the evening
praise (vespers) in her parish church. But soon, she felt a knock at the door
of her heart. She found herself, one day, kneeling before the altar of the
Blessed Sacrament and promising Jesus that she would consecrate her life to
A life for God
On September 20, 1930, at the age of 18, Beppa entered the Congregation of
the Daughters of St. Paul (FSP) in Alba, Italy. A period of formation followed.
She made her first religious profession on August 20, 1935 and was given the
name Maria Cleofe. She dedicated herself with enthusiam to the dissemination
of the Bible and related religious literature and in her heart she continued
to hope that she would be sent to China as a missionary, a desire she had
expressed to her superiors while she was still a novice.
Two years later, as a response to her desire, she and Sr. Elena Ramondetti,
were chosen to go to China. They set sail on January 10, 1937, accompanied
by Sr. Edvige Soldano, a Sister ahead in religious profession. The boat had
a week-long stopover in Manila, Philippines, where the International Eucharistic
Congress was being held.
China, the dreamland
On February 9, 1937, they reached the shores of Shanghai. Sr. Cleofe wrote
in her diary: "Although we were fully aware of our poverty and insufficiency
in everything, we know that God was with us and we were at peace." When
they arrived, they received a message from the Society of St. Paul (a brother
congregation with the same apostolate) who were sent ahead of them in China
not to join them because they themselves were not accepted by the bishop.
But the Sisters were not discouraged. Their goal to make "Christ known
to the Chinese people" kept burning in their heart. After about six months
of searching for a place Bishop Yu Pin of Nanking received them in his diocese.
But soon the war between China and Japan broke out. What were they supposed
to do? Flee from the country, like many others? Amazingly, the three brave
missionaries opted to remain. Only when the Italian embassy in Beijing ordered
them to leave did they sail for India with a stubborn promise "We shall
India, another mission land
The Sisters proceeded to New Delhi to join the Society of St. Paul (SSP).
Unfortunately again, the priests were just being tolerated to stay. Nonetheless
the Sisters stayed put. Posing as domestic helpers for the priests, they looked
so inconspicuous in their secular clothes, going around the city in bicycles.
Wasn't that an enjoyable experience? They were already used to that kind of
life when Mother Thecla, superior general, told them to go to the Philippines,
but with a promise that after the war they could re-enter China. The three
left India on Sept. 30, 1938 hopeful in God's provident ways.
The hidden plan of God
October 13, the three missionaries arrived in Manila and were welcomed by
the Benedictine Sisters at Vito Cruz. After a month they moved to Lipa City,
Batangas, where other members of the Society of St. Paul (SSP) had already
established themselves. They assisted the priests for more than a year. When
the SSP moved to Pasay City in 1941, they ceded their convent to the Sisters.
A life-long commitment
Sr. Cleofe used to tell the Sisters about an experience she had when she was
new in the Philippines. Once, when she took the bus for Manila, the young
man seated beside her started a conversation with her. She had yet a very
limited knowledge of English but they understood each other. At a certain
point, a man said: "When will you finish your work in the convent. I
want to marry you." Having understood him, Sr. Cleofe touched the upper
part of her habit and gladly told the man: "Everlasting." With that
he stopped pestering her. From her answer he learned that religious life is
a life-time commitment.
Writer, leader, builder, magnetizer
was in Batangas, during the World War II, that Sr. Cleofe witnessed the spiritual
ignorance of the people. She had little eduaction but she wrote a leaflet
entitled "The Seed," a simple treatise on the knowledge and love
of God. It was followed by a pamphlet with the title "Things a Catholic
Should Know," a short summary of the Catholic Doctrine, morals and worship
in a concrete and astonishing effect on the people would later be translated
into the different Philippine local languages.
After the war, the life of the fledging Daughters of St. Paul community started
all over again. Sr. Elena became provincial superior of the combined province
of India and Philippines and had to reside in India. It became the role of
Sr. Cleofe to give life to the Philippine community.
being a leader and a writer, Sr. Cleofe was endowed with the gift of constructing
buildings for the community. In Lipa, it was she who managed the construction
of two buildings. When the bigger community moved to Pasay, she also directed
the construction of other buildings in the compound, and the beautiful sanctuary
of the Queen of Apostles.
Sr. Cleofe had a short sojourn in India (then an independent province) as
provincial superior. Then in 1975 she was sent back to the Philippines to
be provincial superior. During this period she again managed to construct
another residence and apostolic building for the Sisters. But she did not
only build those lifeless structures. She attracted young vocations that would
be sheltered therein. It is an undeniable fact that Sr. Cleofe's graciousness
captivated many girls to enter the congregation.
What was her secret? First of all, it was her great faith in God. In all her
projects, she started with nothing, but she trusted in the providence of God.
Financial help always came pouring in from sources she never expected. Her
prayer life was exemplary and she accompanied it with a witnessing that was
always worthy of emulation: love for God and for her Sisters, love for the
congregation, love for the apostolate, kindness and friendliness towards others.
Sr. Cleofe found a strong support in her blood sister, Sr. Bianca Maria, who
also entered the congregation and came to the Philippines after the war. Their
leadership and generosity stimulated the stamina of the growing community.
A Missionary for Life
After her term as provincial superior, Sr. Cleofe was called back to Italy
for good. She once confided to a Sister: "It seems that the Divine Master
is telling me that in order to fully live my Pauline vocation I must practice
detachment from people, from things and from the countries where I have worked
for so many years... so as to adopt the attitude of Mary
in a spirit of humility and availability to God... I am at your disposal,
Advanced osteoporosis of the knees, added to her weakening strength, confined
her to the wheelchair. She spent many years in the FSP hospital in Albano
(Rome) Italy, where in silence and prayer she renewed daily her covenant with
Despite her sufferings, Sr. Cleofe was always zealous in her resolve to be
useful: "From this wheechair I can continue my apostolate of evangelization
and help prepare vocations for China. I can help the Philippine province through
my sufferings. They are small but they are true apostolate."
Sr. Cleofe died on August 4, 1998 at the age of 86. We can be assured of her
prayers to make this long-time dream of bringing the Gospel to China come