Under the radar
Here’s the second part of the article (excerpts of which are published here for space considerations) “Helen Graham, MM: A Bible Scholar in the Struggle” by Menchu Aquino Sarmiento. In this installment we read of the confidential and dangerous work of foreign and Filipino religious during martial law under Marcos in behalf of political detainees and victims of human rights violations.
Sr. Helen and her fellow Maryknoll Missionaries Annie Maloney and Mary Grenough regularly made the rounds of detention centers. These prison visits were fact-finding mini-missions. Vatican II was in place, so they wore civilian or street clothes. The silver Maryknoll chi rho emblem, the first two Greek letters of the word Christ, identified them as religious. This generally meant the prison guards were less rigorous in their searches.
In those early days of the Marcos dictatorship, religious sympathizers were few. Rare were the likes of Bishop Antonio Nepomuceno who allowed the use of his name on a plane ticket for the escape of an activist tocayo (namesake). “Most of the bishops had a wait-and-see stance,” Sr. Helen said. “They called it critical collaboration.”
Sr. Helen and John Doherty, S.J. wrote a sociological study about the first year of Marcos’ martial law. Fearing deportation, they used the pseudonyms “Emily Durkheim” and “Felix Weber.” They later adapted their study for an academic journal, using the saintly pseudonyms Goretti and Sale.
When the Franciscan sister Mariani Dimaranan was detained in Fort Bonifacio from October to December 1973, Sr. Helen regularly brought her traditional religious habits. She then took Sr. Mariani’s soiled clothes back to the convent to launder—first removing from the habit’s hem the tightly rolled up accounts from other prisoners detailing their torture and messages to their families.
After Sr. Mariani’s release and the publication of Graham and Doherty’s pseudonymous report on the effects of Marcos’ martial law on the Filipino common tao as well as the religious response to this, the Association of Major Religious Superiors (AMRSP), formed several task forces. Sr. Helen and Sr. Mariani were among the founders of the Task Force Detainees (TFD).
Sr. Helen wrote about torture and other state atrocities for the AMRSP underground newsletter Signs of the Times. Marcos shut it down, but it resurfaced as Ichthys, an allusion to the fish as the symbol of the Christians persecuted for their faith after Christ’s resurrection. Ichthys pre-empted the publication of a letter to then Manila Archbishop Jaime L. Sin: an eyewitness account of the arrest of the activist Ed Senense who had grabbed the arresting officer’s gun. Consequently, he was not just tortured but also thrown from the stockade’s upper floor during his brutal interrogation.
Sr. Helen sent copies of local anti-Marcos publications to former Maryknoll missionaries Tom Fenton and Mary Hefferon, since married to each other. Through the Fentons’ articles in the Hong Kong Standard, visiting foreign journalists started contacting Sr. Helen to arrange meetings. As a liaison to the underground, she was usually known as “Dr. Hardy.” She stayed under the radar, ever mindful that as a pakialamera, meddling foreigner, Marcos could have her deported.
When Christians for National Liberation chair Edicio Dela Torre, SVD, failed to show up for a meeting with a German NGO, “Dr. Hardy” arranged for then priest Luis Jalandoni to take his place. It turned out that Dela Torre had been captured during a sunog (a military mop-up of anti-Marcos activists) in Baguio. Jalandoni is now the chairman of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines panel for the stalled peace negotiations. Sr. Helen accompanied Dela Torre’s mother to visit him in Camp Olivas, Pampanga. Beneath the mangoes in her bayong, Mommy Dela Torre had hidden a cassette tape recorder to record the prisoners’ accounts of their torture.
Over 30 years after the martial law era, TFD continues its work since there are still nearly 500 political prisoners all over our country.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.