It’s a question that Sister Bubbles Bandojo and Sister Susay Valdez of the Religious of the Cenacle hear often: “Sister, dapat ba magaling ka kumanta to join the Cenacle Sisters?”
The two nuns laugh about it being their “karma”: Despite having no musical training whatsoever, both have become well-known for their angelic voices, performing frequently with choirs such as Bukas Palad and the Jesuits’ own Himig Heswita.
They’ve even recorded two inspiring CDs with the Jesuit Communications Foundation Inc. (Jescom)—“Prayers from the Upper Room” (2003) and “Sing of Him: More Prayers from the Upper Room” (2007)—featuring beautiful hymns sang with the Jesuit Music Ministry.
“Of course not!” Bubbles clarifies. “But whether we like it or not, we do get associated with music.” Anybody who has attended Mass or joined a retreat at the Cenacle Retreat House in Loyola Heights, Quezon City, will attest to how big a part music plays in the religious order’s ministry of giving spiritual direction.
It seems only fitting, then, that as a long overdue fund-raising event for the congregation’s ministry to the poor, formation, and especially for the care of elderly Cenacle nuns, the concert “Beloved: A Journey of Love” will be staged on Sept. 26, Saturday, 6 p.m. at the B.F. Rooker Auditorium, St. Paul College, Pasig City.
Bubbles and Susay happily take third billing, however, after special guests, music icons Basil Valdez and Noel Cabangon, and share the stage as well with old friends from Hangad and Himig Heswita, the Bukas Palad Music Ministry and the Ateneo Chamber Singers—all of whom are performing as “a labor of love.” The concert is being mounted with help from Jescom, with musical direction by Mike Bulaong.
Why the intriguing title? People have long been wanting to help the sisters raise funds, but one “regular,” a marketing professional, offered to conduct a mini-branding workshop for the group. “We were trying to understand what was at the core of the Cenacle experience,” Bubbles recounts, “and the common experience was that of being loved, in a place you can keep coming back to.”
The Cenacle Sisters, named after the Cenacle or “upper room” where the Holy Spirit descended on Mary and the Apostles, have helped countless people as retreat directors and spiritual advisers. Although it is work that cannot be quantified or easily understood unless you have gone on a retreat experience, the number of “regulars” who have come, gone and come back again attest to the attraction of the spiritual experience and the call to get closer to one’s god.
The order was established by St. Thérèse Couderc in Lalouvesc, France, in 1829, when she transformed a mission house and hostel for pilgrims into a house of prayer for retreatants. Since then, the Cenacle Sisters, who wear no habits but dress modestly and simply, have “specialized” in retreats, with special attention to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. The day of the concert, Sept. 26, is St. Thérèse Couderc’s feast day.
The costly care of their elderly sisters is an urgent concern, says Bubbles. There are 23 sisters in the region, which covers the Philippines, Singapore and Macau, and 11 of them are aged 70 and above. Though they continue to attract young women to the vocation, it is a decision that takes time to make.
Bubbles admits she is not from a musical family, and discovered she could sing only in third year high school, with Jacqui Magno’s “Tao Rin Ako” as a perennial favorite. It was, however, a religious family—an older brother is a priest—and she had long had an attraction to a life of service. The turning point was an eight-day silent retreat in the last year of her Literature course at the Ateneo, when she truly felt the call, leading her to seek spiritual guidance from a Cenacle sister.
It wasn’t until Bubbles helped give a retreat for high school girls herself that the vocation of the congregation became clear to her. “What a privileged place to see the unfolding of God in the lives of young people,” she recalls. After teaching for a few years, Bubbles joined the Religious of the Cenacle in 1987 and took her final vows in 1997. She also co-hosts the show “Usapang Kapatid” on DZMM Teleradyo every Saturday night, with Jescom director Fr. Nono Alfonso, S.J.
Susay, meanwhile, has music in her genes. The renowned composer Sister Maria Anunciata Sta. Ana, SPC is her aunt, while Basil Valdez is her uncle. “Since we were kids, that’s been part of what’s expected, singing at family events, although I’d really rather play the guitar.”
She was in the second year of her Psychology course at the Ateneo, and hearing Mass in the chapel, when she heard an invitation in her head: “Would you break bread with Me?” She joined the Ateneo College Ministry group and sought guidance from a priest, who referred her to a Cenacle sister for initial spiritual direction.
She spent four years in the workforce, however, enjoying her job in human resources at Citibank, before the question came back to haunt her. “I had to ask myself, is this really it? That’s when I knew I had to go back.” Susay entered the Cenacle in 1997, and took her final vows in 2008.
Bubbles, whose voice usually soars during the Cenacle’s well-attended Masses, admits that music is central to her own prayer. “It certainly is a big help, especially because it helps us go into affective prayer, or prayer that engages the emotion. When I started serious discernment, music was so much a part of my life, as I was singing with Bukas Palad. That year of intense discernment was also a year of engagement in some form of music ministry. It is prayer that is deeply personal, but also very inclusive of other people, giving you a wider sense of the world.”
“Sometimes words are not what I use, but melody,” Susay says. “When I express myself in that way, there is a different connection I am able to establish. When I hum or play the guitar chords, it brings me to a certain quiet, a sacred space, where you know you’re with your God. Mas may hugot siya!” she adds with a laugh.
Both are very aware that through their talent, they can help people rediscover their inner peace. “We experience that in our concerts, which are mostly prayer concerts,” says Bubbles. “So many times when you are performing, if you watch people and engage them, nag-iiyakan sila. You really feel God in those moments, and it’s such a healing presence.”
In fact, they recommend music particularly for very cerebral people, or those who hesitate to look inwards and examine their feelings. “It’s amazing how the songs are able to help them,” Bubbles says. Love does that to you, after all, and music can only help bring the point home.
Tickets for “Beloved: A Journey of Love,” a fund-raising concert of the Cenacle Sisters, are available at the Cenacle Retreat House, 59 Nicanor Reyes Street, Varsity Hills Subdivision, Loyola Heights, Quezon City, tel. nos. 4346943, 0917-9932204 and 0947-1943494; at Jesuit Communications, Sonolux Bldg, Seminary Drive, Ateneo de Manila University, Quezon City, tel no. 4265971 loc. 1133; and at the Tanging Yaman Store, 5th floor SM Megamall Atrium, Mandaluyong City (near the Chapel of the Eucharistic Lord).