At her birth, her father was greeted with a jubilant “Don Vicente, you are twice a father!”
What this happy salutation meant was that Don Vicente had, in an instant, become the father of twin girls, namely Pilar (who later became Mother Margarita) and her pair, Leonor.
The Maturana twins arrived into this world on July 25, 1884. They were born on the 3rd floor of house No. 52 on Tenderia Street in the town of Bilbao, Spain. The twins were the youngest of five children born to Doña Juana Ortiz de Zarate (related to governors of Rio de la Plata) and Don Vicente Lopez de Maturana. Preceding the twins were Maria Dolores the eldest, followed by Felicia, then a brother, Vicente Jr.
According to early accounts, the twins were inseparable from each other. They grew up sharing everything, not only materially but in spirituality as well. Their love for Christ and their ardent devotion to the Mother of God led them both to enter the convent. They almost joined the same Mercedarian Order except that Leonora, after having given the matter some scrutiny, decided otherwise.
Leonora’s decision to join another religious order was prompted by her desire for detachment. She wanted to separate herself from her inseparable twin sister so she could render a complete sacrifice of herself to God. It was not without a struggle that she decided instead to join the Carmelites of Charity while Pilar, on her 19th birthday, entered the novitiate of the Mercedarian Monastery of the “Vera Cruz” of Berriz on Aug. 10, 1903. As was the practice at the time, she chose “Margarita” for her religious name signifying a “new person” and a “new life” in the service of God.
The Mercedarian charism
When Mother Margarita first entered the convent at Berriz in the northern part of Spain and about 22 miles from her birthplace of Bilbao, she joined an order founded by St. Peter Nolasco in the 13th century. The religious organization was called the “Order of Our Lady of Mercy” and its members were referred to as “Mercedarians.” They vow to accept captivity by the Mohammedans (Muslim) in exchange for the ransom of Christian prisoners.
After the Moors’ threat to Christianity ended, the nuns then retired to their monastery to lead a contemplative life, still retaining, in addition to the three evangelical vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the fourth vow that gave the Mercedarians its distinctive charism.
This fourth vow states that its members will “remain in the missions even when there would be danger of losing one’s life” in order to ransom people from captivity. Although there is no longer a need to ransom Christians from the Moors in our century, Mother Margarita’s far-sighted vision still saw the need to ransom modern man from the captivity of today’s ailments to his soul such as from lack of faith, secularism, pornography, drugs, family violence, etc.
The missionary spirit of Mother Margarita emanated out of her love for the Church. She wrote to Leonor: “Don’t forget what I told you about being very zealous for the interests of Jesus Christ and His Church.” At another time she stated: “To work for the missions, to try to extend the reign of Christ in souls is to enter into a kind of partnership with the Redeemer of the world.” To her, this task was a real honor and joy.
Even as a cloistered nun, Mother Margarita was already a traveling missionary in spirit and in prayer. Again, she confided to her twin-confidante that every evening at seven o’clock, she prays for missionaries everywhere to be given zeal and courage.
This burning love for the missions first took root in Mother Margarita’s soul when two passing missionaries, a Carmelite priest returning to the missions in India and a Jesuit laboring in China, visited the school where she was teaching and later became its principal. The missionaries shared stories about their work in the missions and fervently asked for prayers. The tales of these missionaries and others after them sparked such an interest among the students and Mother Margarita herself that they formed an association to be co-missionaries through prayer and other activities.
Mother Margarita’s special love for the missions and its missionaries became her “dream,” consuming her entire being. In fact, it was this intense love and desire for the missions that pushed her to take the boldest step yet and made the switch from the cloistered contemplative to the active, missionary life for her order.
“There are moments in life of special importance such as when the Lord shows us the way to be followed and then leaves it up to our will to respond,” she once said. Mother Margarita truly believed that redirecting her community from cloistered to active was God’s way of showing her that this was His will for her and it is up to her to respond to this challenge.
To be sure, executing such a drastic change in her community would have seemed like an insurmountable challenge, evoking endless skepticism from many. But Mother Margarita would not be swayed nor discouraged. She explained: “…after looking at Christ, at His Mother, and at the Church, the irresistible desire of becoming missionaries was born.” With abandoned simplicity to God’s will, she followed her heart and permitted nothing to get in the way of her dream.
Crossing continents and oceans
In September 1924, Fr.Inocencio Lopez de Santa Maria, Superior General of the Order of Mercy, visited Berriz. Jumping at the opportunity, Mother Margarita, along with her superior, Mother Nieves Urizar, and the rest of the community requested Fr. Inocencio to present their case to the various offices in Rome and to the Holy Father himself, Pope Pius XI. Their petition was to change their religious status from passive contemplative to active missionaries.
Rome’s response was very positive and on Jan. 23, 1926, permission was given for the order to go to the missions but only on an “experimental basis. This meant they were “missionaries” but still “cloistered.”
For Mother Margarita and her community, however, this was all the news they needed to hear! Imagine the excitement-filled convent as each sister freely volunteered herself, nervously hoping and praying that she would be among the chosen to be sent out to the fertile grounds of mission lands where the harvest is plenty but laborers few.
In the next three consecutive years, there would be three waves of missionary expeditions sent out by the order. The first wave left Berriz on Sept. 19, 1926, bound for Wuhu, China. This consisted of six Mercedarian nuns. They arrived in China on Nov. 5 of the same year.
The second missionary expedition departed Berriz on Oct. 30, 1927. After four long months of rocking, dizzying waves and pelting winds, the “new” missionaries arrived on Saipan on March 4, 1928, most probably seasick and ragged looking after such an arduous journey!
The arrival of the Mercedarian Sisters on Saipan happened as some sort of “accident” even though one can still see the hand of God at play here in the person of Msgr. Santiago Lopez de Rego, S.J., later to be named bishop.
The original destination of the second expedition was for the island of Ponape, not Saipan. But for good reason, Msgr. Rego changed plans and he wanted the sisters in this missionary trip to first drop anchor on Saipan and settle here. His plan was for the sisters to build a school and commence the work of religious education right away. His reason for this abrupt change was a) to see how the sisters would manage and b) how they would be accepted by the Japanese government, the administrators of the Northern Marianas at this period.
Providence was clearly at work here since this action by Msgr. Rego ensured that the Marianas had their missionaries while Ponape in the Carolines also had theirs, thanks to the insistence of financier Doña Victorina, who insisted that the Carolines not be denied their missionaries!
A local gentleman, Antonio R. Deleon Guerrero, better known as “Tun Antonion Apa,” gave a written account in Chamorro of the historical arrival of the Mercedarians to the Marianas.
According to Tun Antonio, there were five Mercedarian sisters who arrived on Saipan early Sunday morning. A Jesuit priest, Fr. Luis Carlos Fabier, procurator of the Jesuit Order in Japan, accompanied the sisters. The sisters came with the approval and blessing of Msgr. Santiago Lopez de Rego, at that time the Apostolic Vicar of the Marianas, Carolines, and the Marshalls Islands.
In the softbound copy written by Ma. Isabel Artadi, MMB entitled History of the Institute (based on historical investigation by Laura Fernandez Vega, MMB), the first Mercedarians to have set foot on Marianas shores were Srs. Loreto Zubia, Inocencia Urizar, Pilar Lorenzo, Maria Teresa Cortazar, and Aurora Chopitea. To this day, there are still a number of Chamorros and Carolinians on Saipan who do remember these Mercedarian pioneers.
Tun Antonio said that, upon arrival on Saipan, the sisters “matutuhon i checho niha. Man mamanague doctrina catholicu. Yan cantan gima yuus, mangge letran romano, man lagse, man borda, typewriter, kuentas, mamenta, musica siha” (upon arrival the sisters got down to work right away, teaching Catholic doctrine, church hymns, Roman letters, sewing, embroidery, typing, math, painting, and music.
Of the Mercedarian houses on Saipan and Ponape, Mother Margarita wrote: “I am well impressed by the houses of Saipan and Ponape. The Mothers are very enthusiastic and there is a great field there to work in with great zeal, and in a very hidden way, only for love of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Yet in another writing about the beauty and serenity of these islands, Mother Margarita also expressed her love of quiet and silence. Of Saipan she penned poetically: “…you feel that these islands of the South Pacific are at the very end of the earth. It isn’t something you know theoretically. You feel, you experience the silence and the solitude. Here is the end of the earth, the end of all noise, the end of ambitions, news, knowledge and everything that changes. Here is absolute rest, deep peace…”
“If you want to give the most to God….”
Of her great love for the missions, Mother Margarita issued this challenge to her sisters: “If you want to give the most to God, go to the missions.” No doubt this was heeded seriously by her sisters in many and varied ways.
The third missionary expedition set out, this time headed to Ponape. The sisters left Berriz on Aug. 5, 1928, and arrived on Ponape on Nov. 11, 1928. Bringing this particular batch of missionaries was Mother Margarita herself, who was just named Superior of the Monastery of Berriz the year before (April 16, 1927). This was Mother Margarita’s first missionary trip. Before her death, however, she would have twice gone around the world on mission trips.
For four years altogether, the motherhouse of Berrriz has been exporting missionaries all over the world. They were still, however, officially considered “cloistered.” Finally, on May 17, 1930, the Sacred Congregation for the Religious finally gave its approval for the official transformation of the Mercedarian Monastery of Berriz into a Missionary Institute. A year later, on July 30, 1931, the first General Chapter of the Mercedarian Missionaries of Berriz elected Mother Margarita Maturana as its First Superior General.
After the first missionary expedition to China, many of Mother Margarita’s friends who really meant well and perhaps had sincere concerns for her health, urged her not to think of undertaking any more mission establishments. But the fire within her could not be quenched.
After China, Mother Margarita sent out two more expeditions to the Pacific, to the tiny islands of Saipan and Ponape no less!
In defense of her choice to send missionaries to these small, thinly populated islands, Mother Margarita explained at a lecture she gave in Bilbao on the Mariana and Caroline Islands dated March 26, 1933.
“I know that many missionologists believe that if we were to compare nations like China or Japan with these small islands, the latter are not important. But the huge and the small territories as well are a wealth for the apostles: souls to save, souls that are God’s and who hunger for Him. The missionary embraces the big and the small, regardless of people’s judgment. Without Jesus Christ, who was destroyed out of love for us, who could be as crazy as the missionaries to risk everything for the good of some unknown people?” In short, when it comes to saving souls for Christ, each soul matters whether it be from a big country or a small island. The worth of man’s soul to God is totally precious and loved in His sight.
Madre Margarita, pues adios asta ki
In her small book entitled From The Cloister To The Carolines, Sr. Patricia Cody, MMB wrote: “Mother Margarita, even as a girl, had never enjoyed good health. From about 1922 on, she began to suffer from serious stomach ailments and feel an ever-increasing weariness. The cause of both was a duodenal ulcer which was eventually to turn into cancer and bring about her death.”
Three short years after having been elected Superior General, Mother Margarita succumbed to cancer after having undergone two operations. She died on July 23, 1934, at 12:15am in San Sebastian in the province of Guipuzcoa, Spain. She was 49.
In her book Twice Around the World, written by Maria Soledad Fernandez-Arroyo, MMB, she said that even before Mother Margarita died, she was seen as a likeness of St. Therese of Avila and even more so after her death. She also quoted Vatican Radio as saying that Mother Margarita “had her heart set on heaven, her eyes fixed upon the times in which we live, and her feet planted firmly on the ground.”
In life, Mother Margarita expressed: “I want to make good use of the time God gives me and be ready when He finally calls me to cast myself into His arms forever; in an act of supreme abandonment. What a joy! So be it.”
Madre Margarita, pues adios asta ki and si yu’us ma’ase, muchas gracias, ghilisow, salamat po, and thank you for the gift of your Sisters among us. Pray for us. (Jess R.A.Sonoda)