SR. EDITH MARIE CORTES, R.A. A HUNDRED YEARS OF JOYFULNESS!
by Ana de Villa – Singson
Sr. Edith Marie Cortes, R.A. celebrated her 100th birthday on March 6, 2021. Her life has spanned 2 World Wars, 1 American Administrator, our emancipation from the USA, 19 Philippine Presidents, advancements in technology and unprecedented upheavals both here and in the world. She has been witness to so much history and I was so excited to meet her. Our one-on-one Zoom encounter was a rare privilege.
As soon as her beaming face flashed on the computer screen, I sensed so much joy. She was smiling benignly and I couldn’t help smiling back. There are people who elicit immediate and strong reactions in others. Sr. Edith is one of them. She smiles and you immediately feel cocooned in all things light, bright and happy. Within minutes of our hourlong conversation, I felt her joy and positivity bubbling in me too. What makes Sr. Edith so happy? And what about her makes people around her happy too?
“One important secret I have is JOYFULNESS WITH GOD… be joyful!
And then I practice the 5 Ps my father taught me:
To be POSITIVE!
To be PRODUCTIVE!
To be PATIENT!
To be PLEASANT!
To be PRAYERFUL!–The 5 Ps of Anastacio Cortes
Her father, Anastacio Cortes, a notary public from Aklan, figures largely in her stories. He educated all his children in lessons that Sr. Edith lives by to this day. “ I learned from my father: Whatever you do, put joy with interest and enthusiasm and always give your best. But the moment you manifest within you, just a fiber of resistance, anything that you do will be a burden to you.”
Her joyfulness stems from a happy childhood in Aklan with “a very special home atmosphere” fostered by her father and her mother, Rosario Penalosa. Gifted with a beautiful voice, she remembers days of music when her father would play the flute and violin. She is the eldest of 8 children and her most memorable childhood experiences come from accompanying her mother, a nurse, on rounds to visit patients. At a very young age, Sr. Edith learned to take care of others, a quality she would show her students later on in life.
She has very vivid memories of World War II. In 1941, the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor. She was in Manila, studying in UST, while her brother was in FEU. With the Japanese occupation of Manila imminent, her brother wanted them to book passage home to the Visayas in the large ship , Corregidor” She recounted: “There are two dangers by the sea. It ( the big ship) will be seen by the destroyer and by the airplane. Or the ship will hit a mine. I did not obey my brother. We stayed in Manila.” Sr. Edith’s prescience and intelligent deduction saved their lives. The Corregidor hit a mine and very few survived. In stead, they waited until their father sent one of their men to take them home. Their mode of transport was a sailboat. “We left Bauan, Batangas at 5 p.m. On the first day, we did not move at all. There was no wind. But on the 2nd day, when the wind started…My, how fast! And we arrived in Aklan. I stayed with my family in Aklan for 10 years.”
Back in her hometown, Sr. Edith taught in the private school in Batac. Later on, her parish priest urged her to join a retreat organized by Assumption Iloilo for public school teachers Hesitating because she was a private school teacher, the hand of God must have been at play. In 1947, she met the Assumption sisters of Iloilo for the first time and on the 3rd day of the retreat, she was summoned by Mother Natividad. They had a very brief conversation. “First question, Ms Cortes, from what university did you graduate?” Sr Edith responded, “ UST. Major in Biology, minor in Chemistry.” And with finality, Mother Natividad declared:” We need you, that’s all.” And just like that, she started life as a teacher in Assumption Iloilo. It also planted the seeds of Sr. Edith’s vocation. “ That’s how I came to know the Assumption of Iloilo; because I was needed. So I joined. After 10 years, the sisters were so nice and my liking (for) the congregation grew. It was Mother Natividad who invited me (to be a sister).” 10 years later, in 1957, she made her final vows to Sr. Patricia in Herran , Manila. At 36 years of age, Sr. Edith Marie of Jesus, R.A. was born.
Sr Edith loved being a sister. She loved being a professor too. She was both at the same time. And her happiness stemmed from Obedience and Patience. She was obedient to her Mother Superior and patient with her students. While in Iloilo, she taught Biology, Chemistry, History and Zoology. A glorious singer, she taught Music too. After 10 years of teaching in Iloilo, she was sent to Antique for 2 years before being sent to teach in San Pablo Seminary, Baguio. She proudly recounted “I don’t bring any book to refer to ( in class). I prepare and do not go to my class unprepared. It’s all in my mind. Everything is through memory.” She taught for 57 years before retiring from the classroom in 2004.
Now crossing a century, Sister Edith leads a healthy life. She feeds her body with healthy vegetables and feeds her mind with books. She loves reading and is currently immersed in “ The Life of Pope Francis: Open Mind, Faithful Heart”. She enjoys any book that is useful for life and building friendships. She recommends reading to improve your way of thinking, of sharing and relating. She also enjoys filling notebooks with inspiring quotes that she shares with the young postulants.
I asked her what counsel she would give people in these tenuous and uncertain times. A mistress of quotes, she answered readily with one of St Eugenie’s : “The one thing that sets all at peace within me is profound emptying of self.” An inquisitive student , I ask her how one empties one’s self. “To be simple. To be obedient. To be happy. Always be Positive. Positivity is important…(In life) There is no reason for anger. Make life good. Be happy!”
Before ending, an educator to the core, Sister Edith asked me: “Do you remember the 5 Ps?” She also made me repeat her father’s words: “ Whatever you do, put joy with interest and enthusiasm and always give your best. But the moment you manifest within you, just a fiber of resistance, anything that you do will be a burden to you.” She smiled, then laughed, then said, “That is very important.”
If Joy and Positivity could be taught in a curriculum, how much happier would we all be, how much better would be at relating with others, how much more forgiving of mistakes and how much more patient with weaknesses? The mantras of Sister Edith’s life are as true today as they were one hundred years ago. Here is a woman who has lived an incredible 100 years replete with Joyfulness and Positivity, a testament to what we ourselves can subscribe to in times when light and hope have dimmed. Her life is powerful testimony that happiness is a way of life. Happiness is a choice. We too can choose the same!
Sister Edith ended our Zoom by saying “ You are my new friend now. Have a good life!” I found myself smiling the whole day afterwards as I shared her lessons with my sons.
Be joyful. Laugh. Smile. Because when you do, “the world smiles with you.” The world needs happiness. We can choose to supply it.