Although women had played important roles as priestesses in pre-Hispanic Filipino society, their transition into Christian institutional life proved difficult. On the one hand, Catholic monastic values such as personal sanctification and perfection, removal from one's own family, obedience, poverty, and celibacy were alien concepts to indigenous women. On the other hand, the Spanish church and civil authorities resisted the acceptance of native women into religious orders. Thus the Royal Monastery of the Immaculate Conception of the Poor Clares (Real Monasterio de Sta. Clara), a community of the Second Order of St Francis established in Manila in 1621, was exclusively for women of pure Spanish heritage, whether born in Spain or in the colony. This remained the only community for nuns in the Philippines until the twentieth century.
It was only towards the end of the seventeenth century that the first quasi-religious communities came into being for indigenous women and women of mixed ethnicity (mestiza) who sought lives of spiritual perfection. These pious women, many ofwhom had been accepted as tertiaries by one ofthe mendicant orders, had hitherto lived in solitude or with their families. Opting for lives of rigorous penitence and contemplation, these women, known as beatas ( 'blessed women'), also assisted with the poor and sick, with the instruction of girls and with various menial tasks for the church. Eventually, the beatas were permitted to wear a habit and profess what in effect were private vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. These communities, known as beaterios, were never recognized as religious congregations under canon law but were simply considered as 'pious unions', that is, 'associations of the faithful founded to further some work of piety or charity'.4
The tentative beginnings of a permanent beaterio in the Philippines can be traced to the early 1680s when two childless young widows, the sisters-in-law Antonia Esguerra, widow of Captain Simon de Fuentes, and Francisca de Fuentes, having received the tertiary habit of St Dominic, began to meet with other women - Spanish, creole, and native - in the Esguerra home in Manila. As beatas, they involved themselves in works of charity and invited other pious women to join them in their spiritual endeavours, including Sebastiana
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