Reaching a turning point
Here’s the last installment of Menchu Aquino Sarmiento’s tribute to Sr. Helen Graham, MM. Titled “A Biblical Scholar in the Struggle,” the article traces the Maryknoll missionary’s journey through
the political and human rights crisis born of the martial law era.
In mid-1973, Sr. Helen and then Fr. Leoncio “Jun” Evasco (now with the Duterte administration) took a suitcase full of documents about torture and other atrocities to a visiting Amnesty International (AI) team. Later, Sr. Helen and Mary Grenough translated from Filipino or Bisaya to English when two AI representatives met with the families of political prisoners. AI waited for six months for the Philippine government to respond before publishing. Only then did the Philippine government issue an official denial.
Nearly two years after the imposition of Marcos martial law, Jose Maria Sison, the head of the CPP, remained at large. He drove a cream-colored VW Beetle, just like that of Jesuit Provincial Benny Mayo.
On Aug. 24, 1974, while in his Beetle, Fr. Benny was mistaken for Sison, and arrested with his driver. In Camp Crame, the military realized they had the wrong guy, but refusing to give up on the Sison connection, a military chopper took Fr. Benny back to the Sacred Heart Novitiate. His poor driver remained in prison. Gen. Prospero Olivas led the 150 ground and air assault personnel who “dashed through the corridors, kicking open doors and pointing guns” at the retreatants. Sison was nowhere to be found, not knowing that another political fugitive, a recent prison escapee, was hiding in the ceiling.
In the timeless tradition of palit ulo, the raiding team arrested Fr. Jose Blanco, SJ because he was the secretary general of an allegedly anti-government organization. The government-controlled media further claimed that Fr. Joe was meeting with a communist liquidation squad at the Novitiate. This justified the detention of the 21 Student Catholic Action (SCA) youth leaders attending a workshop.
Sr. Helen and Sr. Annie Maloney arrived in Crame just as the SCA youth leaders were being moved to Fort Bonifacio. Sr. Helen and Sr. Annie wrote down the students’ parents’ contact details on their bare arms. Eventually, the only ones charged were two Joe’s: Fr. Jose Blanco and a lone youth leader, Jose Alto, accused of being part of said liquidation squad.
The raid on the Sacred Heart Novitiate was a turning point. A motley group of religious decided the time had come to openly protest. Inspired by Cardinal Kim Sou-Hwan who had challenged South Korea’s series of dictators, Sr. Helen suggested a vigil and a protest Mass, for as Cardinal Kim had pointedly asked: “How could a priest, as a delegate of Christ, remain silent at such a time?”
An AMRSP committee drafted two letters, one mild and the other more militant, for Archbishop Sin to sign. Sin said he would not only sign the more militant letter but would personally read it aloud during the protest Mass-vigil at the Manila Cathedral on Sept. 1, 1974, or a week after the infamous raid.
Over 5,000 religious, laity, workers and students attended that milestone Manila Cathedral vigil.
Writing as Emily Durkheim, Sr. Helen noted Sin had two more moments on the side of those persecuted and oppressed: “In November 1974, Archbishop Sin denounced the murders of two young men while under detention and called for an end to Martial Law. However, after his Nov. 1975 letter protesting P.D. 823 which banned all labor strikes, Sin began to praise the government for its self-proclaimed achievements.”
Then ensued a nearly decade-long silence on Marcos Martial Law abuses, lasting till the fateful events of Feb. 22 to 25, 1986. Nevertheless–
“Those were great days to be church,” Sr. Helen reflects. “Then it seemed possible that our actions on behalf of justice, could really bring about genuine change.”
Now 80 years old, Sr. Helen learns each day of thousands more for whom justice is still denied. However, a martial law reprise does not seem imminent.
“This President’s approval rating is high. The majority of Filipinos claim to be happy that the streets are safer now, but many are still afraid.”
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