To mark the occasion of her 107th birthday last Aug. 14, Caridad Papa had to accept some limitations.

Although her doctors consider her to be a marvel of health and not reliant on medications, the reality of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic makes her family ultracareful about her safety as she lives in the Monrovia home of her daughter, Josette Kier. No big family party. Keep things calm.

Still, they were pleased to welcome Father Kevin Rettig, pastor at Holy Angels Church in Arcadia, for a visit. He arrived with something special.

Caridad Papa at her 106th birthday party in 2019. (Courtesy of Papa family)

“On her birthday, I was privileged to bring her holy Communion,” said Father Rettig. “She considered that her greatest birthday gift. We were extremely careful, of course, with careful sanitizing and masks, and I kept the visit very brief to keep her safe. But it was an unforgettable moment.”

Papa, born in the Philippines and a Holy Angels parishioner since 1983, is someone who Father Rettig calls “Lola,” the Tagalog language word for “Grandmother.”

Before the stay-at-home restrictions for attendance, Father Rettig said he would always look for her in the front pew at the 5 p.m. Saturday vigil Mass and make it a point to visit with her.

“She always has a smile and is very sharp,” he said. “I find Lola very inspiring. When I think of the changes she has seen in the world in the last 107 years, it boggles the mind. She was born the same year as my grandmother, who has been gone for many years. When she came into this world, we had not yet fought World War II; we hadn’t even fought World War I! There are very few people left in the world who have lived through as much as she has.”

In 1913, Papa was born in Manila, the seventh of 11 children who survived to adulthood (there were 19 in total) for Guillermo Cuunjieng and Dominga Ayala. Papa has siblings who lived to 98 and 102 before passing away. 

Well before she came to the U.S. to stay in the late 1970s, she and her husband, Miguel, had five children: Michael, Myron, and Ramon were the first three sons. Josette and Candy came next as the two daughters. Only the girls remain alive today.

There would follow 15 grandchildren, 18 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren. A love for dance, bowling, cooking, and doting on her family members has kept her active, said daughter Candy Colayco, who lives five minutes away in Arcadia.

Caridad Papa with family at a recent Christmas celebration. (Courtesy of Papa family)

Just before her 85th birthday in 1998, Papa went with a group on a pilgrimage to Rome. Her daughters accompanied her. It turned out to be what she still calls the most profound moment of her life: receiving a blessing from St. Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square.

“I rented a wheelchair for her on this trip, because there was a lot of walking, and she was not happy about that,” said Colayco with a laugh. “But because she was in the wheelchair, the Vatican guards saw her and she was one of five who were picked to come up for a special blessing. The two priests and two nuns with us said they’d never had that happen to them with their groups.

“I was able to push her up there. We were all so teary-eyed. It was the most blessed thing. We never imagined that would happen. And so when we got back, she had to admit: She probably wouldn’t have been able to get that close to the pope unless she was in the wheelchair. So because of that, she told me she’d never fight me again on using a wheelchair.”

Caridad Papa kisses St. Pope John Paul II’s hand in St. Peter’s Square in Rome in 1998. (Courtesy of Papa family)

Colayco added that the trip to Italy was one example of how her mother passed on the faith. 

“Her faith is instilled in all of us,” said Candy. “So many things have happened along the way she has been able to accept through her faith. If something happens that’s hard to accept, it’s not just the words but living the faith that brings us strength.”

Colayco said that during the pandemic, her mother has been watching the Sunday 9 a.m. Mass on KDOC-TV, “because she’s not computer savvy and it’s easier to hear the TV because she has a special attachment that interacts with her hearing aid for clarity of sound.”

Papa answered questions in an email exchange through her daughters about her faith and what reaching this milestone means for her.

What was your feeling when you recently had your 107th birthday but wasn’t able to do it as you have in the past because of distancing restrictions?

I missed having all the family members gather together and celebrate, but I understood why. They all wanted me to stay safe sheltering in place. Some were able to visit but still greeted at a distance with a mask. Others greeted via FaceTime. I really appreciated Father Kevin coming over with a blessing and Communion. That was very thoughtful of him and made this birthday very special.

What is your favorite part of the Catholic Mass and your favorite spot in the church to worship? How have you been able to celebrate Mass lately at Holy Angels? Can you watch it on video stream?

Receiving holy Communion has always been the best part of hearing Mass. I now have to sit in the front of the church to be able to hear better. It also helps that Father comes and brings Communion to us at the front pew. I miss being able to hear Mass in the church but am thankful we have the option to do it from home. 

Having lived now during two global pandemics, 100 years apart, what do you remember, or what were you told about how life was during the pandemic of 1918-1920? Did your family lose any members at that time?

I was only a child in 1918 and do not remember anything regarding the pandemic. I do know we did not lose any family members or my parents would have informed us of the loss at some time.

Caridad with family. (Courtesy of Papa family)

How do you believe you have lived up to the meaning of your given name? Do you like to be called Caring? Or Caridad? How do you feel you fit your name as a person who cares for others, meaning charity and love?

Family and friends have always called me Caring so I do like my nickname. I also like Caridad (meaning charity) because two of my sisters were named Esperanza (hope) and Fe (faith). I feel it’s my duty to help the needy like our faith teaches us, and I do my best to support many Catholic charities. It makes me happy that my family considers me a caring mom and grandma, but I’ve never thought of it in relation to my name.

As a child, you went to Assumption School in Manila, run by French nuns. What do you remember about that experience and how it helped you shape your Catholic faith?

I appreciated the way the nuns strengthened our faith and encouraged us to attend Mass in the morning and Benediction in the afternoon. To this day, prayer is very important to me.

Caridad Papa in an undated photo. (Courtesy of Papa family)

You lost your husband in 1965. Your three sons are now gone as well because of cancer. How has your faith carried you all these years later, and can you talk more about your faith experience as it relates to your family?

It has been very difficult to lose so many family members, especially my sons and great-grandson, all of whom I never expected to outlive. The pain and sadness don’t go away, but accepting it all as God’s will gives me some comfort, as well as thinking of them together in heaven and watching over us.

What do you still remember about the pilgrimage to Rome and getting a blessing from St. Pope John Paul II? You’ve said that was the highlight of your life?

The thing that stands out is that I truly felt I was in the presence of a saint when I received the blessing from Pope John Paul. You could just feel the holiness flowing from him.

What is your philosophy of life? What makes you strong and healthy and active?

I owe everything to God and he has blessed me. I don’t have a philosophy of life. Kindness is important. I live a very simple life. I do believe that I derive my strength from my faith and the love of my family.