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Angelina B. Buensuceso: harbinger of Baptist ordination of women in the Philippines: in 1934, a seventeen-year-old student named Angelina Belluga enrolled in the Baptist Missionary Training School (BMTS) in Iloilo City on Panay Island in the Philippines.

Her enrollment was the culmination of the first leg of a spiritual journey that had begun three years before. (1) It was the beginning of the second leg of a journey that still continues more than seventy years later. Who could have known at that time that this unassuming but tenaciously committed teenager was embarking on a vocational odyssey that would change the course of Baptist history in the Philippines?

Just eighteen years before, on October 1, 1916, Angelina had been born to Elena Arzaga Ortaliz and Wenceslao Batilo Belluga. Her birthplace in Bongca, Barotac Nuevo, (2) was located in the central portion of the island of Panay, Philippines, where American Baptist missionaries from the American Baptist Missionary Union had been sent to join their Swedish missionary partner, Eric Lund, and his Filipino co-worker, Braulio Manikan. These men had begun Baptist mission work on the island in 1900. (3)

Like most Filipinos of her time, Angelina grew up in a devout Roman Catholic family. Notwithstanding her strong Catholic upbringing, as a young teenager, she regularly attended evangelistic meetings held by Baptist missionaries. She found herself drawn to the messages she heard at those meetings, until one momentous day, October 10, 1931, when she committed her life to Jesus Christ at an evangelistic meeting at Doane Baptist Church in Ledesma Street, Iloilo City. Angelina was fifteen years old and a high school senior at the time. Less than a year later, on July 27, 1932, she was baptized by immersion. (4) Prior to her decision to commit her life to Christ and walk through the waters of baptism, Angelina struggled inwardly. She wrote, "I experienced a restlessness within me because I tried to quell the promptings of the Holy Spirit to surrender my life to Him. The restlessness stopped when, one night, I knelt in prayer and surrendered myself to Him.... After my baptism I wished that everyday were a Sunday. I cannot (sic) express the joy in my heart ... in my heart there rang a melody all day long!" (5)

Angelina's melody struck a discordantly sour note with her parents, who were decidedly unhappy with their daughter's newfound faith. Her father considered her conversion as a "slap on their faces," especially in light of the fact that Angelina's grandfather had served as a Roman Catholic acolyte. (6) Because of their daughter's decision to be baptized, Angelina's parents were excommunicated by the Catholic Church. (7) Angelina, however, did not allow her parents' disapproval or the actions of the Catholic Church to stop her from actively participating in the Doane Baptist Church's services and ministry.

After graduating from high school, Angelina volunteered to accompany Stella Mower, an American missionary, in her travels as the fieldwork supervisor of the Doane Evangelistic Institute. Angelina was able to do this because her father had told her to take a one-year break from school while she was still deciding on the course of study that her family could afford. (8) For one year, she observed the challenges that church workers and pastors faced and the economic difficulties they encountered in the mission field. The experience did not discourage her; it actually emboldened her. She was certain she heard God speaking to her about her future calling. Her experiences as a volunteer confirmed her decision to seek training for full-time Christian service.

Training for Ministry

In 1934, Raymunda Escarilla and an American benefactress, Linnea Phillips, who never met Angelina but who knew of her need for financial assistance for schooling, committed the prayers and the resources needed to enable Angelina to enroll in the Baptist Missionary Training School (BMTS) in Iloilo City. BMTS had been founded in 1904 by Anna V. Johnson, the first woman American Baptist missionary to the Philippines. (9)

Angelina's four years at BMTS were momentous ones, not only for her, but also for Filipino Baptists and for the nation as a whole. In 1935, one year after she enrolled at the school, the Filipino people took the penultimate step toward reclaiming from the United States the independence they thought they had won from Spain four decades previously. That year, after a long struggle, the United States granted Commonwealth status to the Philippines. At that same time, Filipino women won the right to vote. And finally, that same year, just as Angelina was completing her first-year studies, the Convention of Philippine Baptist Churches (CPBC) and its affiliated organization, the Convention Baptist Ministers Association (CBMA), were organized. (10)

In spite of the dedicated participation and leadership of Filipino women in Baptist missions, women's ordination was not a major concern of the members of the CPBC or the CBMA during their formative years. In fact, the most significant efforts of the CPBC and the CBMA at that time were directed toward four key concerns: (1) the promotion of the Christian faith as expressed through the Baptist principles (propagated by American Baptist missionaries in the 1900s), (2) denominational development, (3) church growth, and (4) leadership by the Filipinos and for Filipinos. (11) While their attention was focused more on these issues, the issue of women's ordination was also addressed during the formative years. As early as 1907, Charles W. Briggs, American Baptist missionary in Iloilo, Philippines, noted that "the weakest part of our work thus far has been in its neglect of the women.... [W]e have schools and preachers and work all shaped to win men by men workers. Women should be ordained in this country." (12)

Briggs's early recommendation to his American Baptist Board to ordain women in the Philippines did not meet with approval. According to Filipino missions historian, Nestor Bunda, "His Board rejected the idea." (13) A year before Briggs's recommendation, eight male Filipino pastors had been ordained, but the board concluded that "women were not considered as fit for ordination." (14) From the time of Briggs's prophetic but unheeded recommendation, through the formation of the CPBC and the CBMA, and into the 1960s, no significant move to ordain women within the CPBC was undertaken. The lack of official action did not stop Filipino women from preaching, evangelizing, organizing, and serving local churches and the wider community. (15) During the formative years, although many strongly committed and active women served as pioneers in the work of the Baptist missions in the Philippines, most of the Filipino leaders in the CPBC were men; (16) in 1935, only men were elected as CPBC officers. (17)

While the CPBC and the CBMA were busy getting off the ground, Angelina Belluga was participating in a well-rounded training program for missionaries at the BMTS, including training in the further development of her remarkable musical gifts. In the last semester of her studies, Angelina made an appointment to meet with Dorothy Dowell, the BMTS director. At the meeting Angelina sought Dowell's advice on what was by then Angelina's desire to pursue further training as a nurse. In her vivid recollection of their conversation, Angelina recounted:
 She looked at me straight in the eye and in a soft but firm voice
 said, "Angelina I have watched and followed your performance and
 Christian growth since you came to the school and I felt strongly
 that God meant you to be a missionary, not a nurse! My dream for you
 is to become a principal of a school like the BMTS in the future.
 When? I don't know. I may no longer be around to see the fulfillment
 of this dream but I know that God will answer it in His own good
 time." (18)


Heeding Dowell's advice, Angelina decided not to pursue nursing studies after her graduation from BMTS as valedictorian of her class in 1938. Instead, she accepted a call to serve as associate pastor and choir director of La Carlota Evangelical Church. Her responsibilities with that congregation increased when the senior pastor resigned and moved to another church. As a single woman, Angelina took on the challenge of preaching and teaching, tasks typically done by male pastors. Being the only minister in the church, she experienced both the positive and negative effects of her gender on her ministry. She observed that the "church members had their eyes opened to the fact that women can also do the work which male pastors usually do ... [but at the same time they] also became aware that there were pastoral duties such as [officiating at] the Lord's Supper ... which, though she might be capable, a female worker was not permitted to perform." (19) While ministering to the congregation of La Carlota Evangelical Church, Angelina renewed her acquaintance with Catalino Begonia Buensuceso, the pastor of a Baptist church in the nearby town of La Castellana. She had known the dynamic and committed evangelist while she was a student at BMTS, and now, seeds of friendship were sown that blossomed into an affectionate and committed relationship. On October 16, 1939, Angelina and Catalino were married. The young couple was then called to serve La Carlota Evangelical Church--Catalino as pastoral administrator and Angelina as choir director. (20)

The Tests of Faith

When World War II broke out in the Philippines in 1941, the Buensuceso family experienced many hardships but courageously continued to minister to local churches and the community. However, not even the difficulties of the war and the rigors of the arduous post-war rebuilding period could have prepared Angelina and her family for the test of their faith that occurred when forty-six-year-old Catalino suffered a massive heart attack and died on March 25, 1958. Her husband's unexpected death caused her to question why God would leave her a widow with seven children (the youngest was a three-month-old boy) to support all by herself. Nevertheless, in her period of mourning and spiritual crisis, she found strength in God's promises as well as in the prayerful support of her family and friends. She wrote, "The one truth that possessed my soul is that if I have Christ, I have everything. My children and I have promised to live for each other and all of us (to) love God. I have never severed my promise to God to serve Him until the end of my life and claim his promise in Joshua 1:6-7 and John 15:7." (21)

Together as co-disciples, Angelina and Catalino had served two churches for a total of twenty years. After her husband's death, she continued to serve at Fabrica Evangelical Church for another year and then moved her family to Iloilo City. (22) The next year, Angelina was given the opportunity to serve as associate pastor and then later as pastor of Jaro Evangelical Church in Iloilo City. She held that position from 1960 to 1965. (23) During those years, her name was first brought up for ordination, but neither she nor the CPBC were then ready for that step. She recalled that "it never entered my mind to be ordained because at that time nobody gave it importance-not the churches nor our Convention ... I was not even sure whether or not I was in favor of female pastors being ordained because ... the subject did not occupy a prominent place in my mind." (24) Meanwhile, Angelina went back to school and earned the degree of Bachelor of Education from Central Philippine University (CPU). From 1967 to 1969, she served on the teaching faculty of CPU, first in the Department of Religion and Ethics and later in the CPU high school department. At the same time, she was a consultant to the Convention Baptist Women's Missionary Union. She had served as the union's president in 1950. (25) While teaching at the CPU Development High School, Angelina was called in 1974 to be the director of the Convention Baptist Bible College (CBBC). Thus, thirty-seven years after her former BMTS director, Dorothy Dowell, had shared her dream of Angelina becoming a principal of a school like BMTS, Angelina fulfilled that dream. Of her appointment, she wrote, "Miss Dowell's dream immediately came to my mind. She was no longer around to see its fulfillment.... I cannot refuse the offer because it is very plain that the Lord in His own good time has answered Miss Dowell's prayers for me!" (26)

As CBBC director, Angelina expanded the curriculum to include sociology and other interdisciplinary classes necessary to any ministry training that aspired to be sensitive to the culture and changing needs of Filipino society. Her work at CBBC also involved traveling abroad for international women's conferences (27) and revising the Visayan language hymnal authored by her late husband. (28)

The Journey to Ordination

During the years in which Angelina served at CPU Development High School and then as director of CBBC, the issue of women in ministry, particularly women's ordination, was debated with increasing frequency. The CPBC leadership continued to reaffirm what it believed to be the general conviction of the local churches that "women should not be ordained because there were pastoral and church functions that only men or women (but not both) can do." (29) This widely accepted view among Filipino Baptists, however, was now being challenged by individuals and groups engaged in serious study of the Bible in the context of the sociopolitical situation of their time. A decade earlier, the resurgent women's movement had begun to challenge many of the traditional views of women's roles and rights. In the Philippines, a significant number of women and men, especially the youth, were involved in groups working toward a more just and free society in the midst of the repressive regime of President Ferdinand Marcos.

Moley G. Familiaran, CPBC president in 1977, opened the forty-second annual CPBC assembly with a stirring message that emphasized the meeting's theme: "Life Worthy of Dignity." He proclaimed, "life worthy of human dignity is the Christ-like life. It is free. It is true. And it is the only way to live." (30) In Bunda's opinion, Familiaran's message "intensified the discussion ... on women's ordination." (31) One year later, on April 1, 1978, inspired by Familiaran's exhortation, the minister members of the CBMA passed a resolution recommending the ordination of women to the CPBC Assembly. However, when the resolution reached the floor of the CPBC, a vociferous protest broke out and a heated discussion followed. The resolution to ordain women was narrowly defeated by a vote of 145 to 138. (32) Over the next twelve months, while Angelina was revising the Visayan hymnal and traveling to Korea for the Asian Baptist Women's Union and the Consultation on Theologically Trained Women, the CPBC continued to struggle with the issue of women's ordination. (33) The arguments within the CPBC that did not carry the day in the May 1978 meeting refused to go away and moved from a persistent percolation to a ready boil.

Two CPBC churches--the Bakyas Evangelical Church and Cosmopolitan Evangelical Church, both located in Bacolod, Negros Occidental, where Angelina was serving as director of the CBBC--were interested in recommending Angelina for ordination and were among those churches stoking the fire of the Spirit that this time would not be quenched. When the CPBC convened on May 2, 1979, in Bakyas Evangelical Church for its annual meeting, no one was surprised that the issue of women's ordination was again addressed, even though only one year earlier the assembly had rejected it.

On May 4, 1979, the last day of the assembly in the fourth business meeting, Vicente Remitio, a lawyer and one of the CPBC's leaders, made a motion to ordain qualified women ministers. In the discussion that followed, "He challenged the assembly to make a final decision since he said that the issue had long been studied and carefully considered." (34) Following the discussion, the assembly voted overwhelmingly, 126-8, "To ordain qualified women ministers, the criteria of which will be designed by the Convention Ordination Council." (35)

Ordination and Beyond

Just ten months later, on March 22, 1980, Angelina Belluga Buensuceso became the first woman minister to be ordained by the CPBC. Acting CPU President and American Baptist missionary Joseph Howard addressed the ordination council in Ilonggo. He asked the council, "Well, are you still going to examine Mrs. Buensuceso? Aren't her years of service enough to vouch for her qualifications and count her worthy to be ordained?" (36) The vote was unanimous. The ordination service was held at the Rosario Remitio Memorial Hall in Bakyas, Bacolod City. According to Lolita Dais, "Reverend Buensuceso delivered an inspiring message on the role of women in ministry. There was no strong opposition to her ordination because of her integrity and leadership." (37) Filipino and American pastors, missionaries and church leaders, as well as Angelina's children, participated in this historic event. (38) Prior to her ordination, Angelina had served CPBC local churches and institutions for forty-two years; finally, at the age of sixty-three, she was ordained. Angelina truly had come a long way.

Spiritual integrity and servant leadership continued to be the hallmarks of Angelina's ministry as she continued to serve the CBBC in the years following her ordination. She retired as director of CBBC in 1983, and a few years later, she moved to California to live with her oldest daughter, Lorna. There Angelina ministered to Filipinos in the First Baptist Church of Santa Ana, California. Since Lorna's death in 2001, Angelina has divided her time among her children who reside in the United States and the Philippines. As her health allows her, she continues to preach and minister to CPBC churches, family, and friends.

At eighty-nine, "Mommy Buensuceso," as many fondly call her, carries on the ministry entrusted to her by God, a ministry that spans sixty-seven years. The distinction of being the first ordained woman of the CPBC was not one of her primary goals in ministry. She believed that "my answer to God's call to ... full-time Christian service was to serve Him in sincerity and truth without any thought of receiving recognition such as the affixing of the title 'reverend' to my name." (39) She further declared, "Ordination is important not as a mark of professional status but because it affirms faithfulness to the call." (40)

Rev. Angelina Belluga Buensuceso continues to be a role model to all ministers. A pastor, musician, educator, leader, and mother, she stands as a pioneer in women's ministry in the CPBC and serves as a role model for other Filipino Christian denominations as well. Her indefatigable commitment to God in the face of numerous adversities remains a source of inspiration to this and future generations of pastors, especially women seeking God's call to the ministry and to her family. (41) She has shown faithfulness, endurance, patience, and commitment, especially during the years following her husband's death. Her life reflects a spirituality of love and grace.

Much work still remains to be done in improving attitudes and policies related to women's ordination and leadership, both in the CPBC and in the CBMA. (42) Nevertheless, the dedicated ministry of Angelina Buensuceso and numerous women like her is a strong testimony of what faithful women can do when given equal opportunity as men. As a paragon of what it means to be a servant leader, Angelina's life and ministry provide an alternative model of pastoral leadership and ordination. The present generation of Filipino Baptists of the CPBC would be wise to look to her not only as a harbinger of women's ordination, but also as a shining example of a "good and faithful servant" and one who is worthy of the title "Reverend."

(1.) Carla Gay A. Romarate, "The First Ordained Baptist Pastora, Angelina Belluga Buensuceso of the Convention of Philippine Baptist Churches, Inc.," in Chapters in Philippine Church History, ed. Anne C. Kwantes (Manila: OMF Literature, Inc., 2001), 395.

(2.) Angelina Buensuceso, e-mail to the author, February. 22, 2005.

(3.) Felix B. Regalado and Quintin B. Franco, History of Panay (Iloilo City: Central Philippine University, 1973) 324.

(4.) Romarate, "The First Ordained Baptist Pastora," 392.

(5.) Ibid.

(6.) Ibid.

(7.) Many years later, Mr. and Mrs. Belluga both accepted Jesus as their Savior.

(8.) Romarate, "The First Ordained Baptist Pastora," 393.

(9.) Perla D. Belo, "Anna V. Johnson: Missionary Pioneer, Educator, and Evangelist," American Baptist Quarterly (September 1993): 283.

(10.) Francis Neil G. Jalando-on, A History of Philippine Baptist Pastors 1898-2002 (Iloilo City: Institute of Advanced Theological Studies, 2003), 91-92.

(11.) Nestor D. Bunda, "A Mission History of Philippine Baptist Churches 1898-1998, from a Philippine Perspective" (Th.D. diss., University of Hamburg, 1999), 176.

(12.) Charles W. Briggs, "Report," January 16, 1907, 4.

(13.) Bunda, "A Mission History," 289.

(14.) Ibid., 147.

(15.) Ibid., 150.

(16.) Ibid., 123, 289. See Charles W. Briggs, The Progressing Philippines (Philadelphia: The Griffith & Rowland Press, 1913), 150.

(17.) Bunda, "A Mission History," 177.

(18.) Jalando-on, A History of Philippine Baptist Pastors, 91.

(19.) Buensuceso, e-mail to the author, February 22, 2005. Dorothy Dowell was among the American Baptist missionaries known as the Hopevale Martyrs who were executed by Japanese soldiers in 1943 in Tapaz, Capiz, Philippines.

(20.) Romarate, "The First Ordained Baptist Pastora," 394.

(21.) Buensuceso, e-mail to the author, February 22, 2005.

(22.) Years later, some of the members of the six choirs established at the Fabrica Evangelical CPBC and in international Baptist and ecumenical organizations.

(23.) Ibid. Jam Evangelical Church, organized in February 1900, is the oldest Baptist Church in the Philippines.

(24.) Romarate, "The First Ordained Baptist Pastora," 395.

(25.) Ibid., 394.

(26.) Buensuceso, e-mail to the author, February 22, 2005.

(27.) Romarate, "The First Ordained Baptist Pastora," 395.

(28.) Buensuceso, e-mail to the author, February 22, 2005.

(29.) Bunda, "A Mission History," 289.

(30.) Ibid.

(31.) Ibid.

(32.) Deliciosa Baclagon, e-mail to the author, March 10, 2005.

(33.) Romarate, "The First Ordained Baptist Pastora," 395. See also Buensuceso, e-mail to author, February 22, 2005.

(34.) Baclagon, e-mail to the author, March 10, 2005.

(35.) Ibid.

(36.) Angelina Buensuceso, interview by the author, May 17, 2005.

(37.) Lolita Dais, telephone interview by the author, April 21, 2005

(38.) Ibid.

(39.) Romarate, "The First Ordained Baptist Pastora," 399.

(40.) Buensuceso, interview by the author, May 17, 2005.

(41.) Domingo Diel, Jr., telephone interview by the author, April 18, 2005.

(42.) For further study, see Liza B. Lamis, "Baptist and Feminist: Towards a Feminist Re-orientation of the Women Ministers of the Convention of Philippine Baptist Churches (CPBC)," (Masteral Thesis, The Institute of Formation and Religious Studies, Quezon City, Philippines, 1999); Grace C. Reyes and Leonita M. Guillergan, "Pastoral Ordination and the Pursuit of Higher Education Among Women Graduates of the College of Theology, Central Philippine University," Patubas Interdisciplinary Research Journal, 2 , no. 2 (October 2004): 87 and 91; and Jalando-on, "Baptist Pastors," Appendix, 2003 CBMA directory.

Carla Gay A. Romarate-Knipel is assistant professor in the College of Theology and the Religion and Ethics Department, Central Philippine University, Iloilo City, Philippines
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Date:Jan 1, 2006
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