The real Stella L
Next week at the University of the Philippines Diliman’s College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, there will be a flurry of activities including a weeklong exhibit to mark the 40th anniversary of martial law, all at Palma Hall (AS building). A symposium and the relaunch of “Tibak,” a collection of essays written by activists recounting their lives during martial law, are scheduled on the afternoon of Sept. 17. There will be another symposium with former Vice President Teofisto Guingona on Sept. 18, and a concert featuring performances by activist artists and singers at the AS steps on Sept. 21, 6-9 p.m.
On Sept. 19, several films related to martial law will be shown, including Lino Brocka’s “Sister Stella L,” about an activist Catholic nun working with the urban poor. It was based on real events and the life of a Catholic nun, Rosario (Chayong) Battung, but Sister Chayong herself would say the film is about activist nuns in general.
There were many of these nuns, coming from different congregations. But, having had the privilege of working with so many of them, first as a student and later as a staff member of Catholic social action programs, I can say the Religious of the Good Shepherd or RGS stood out during that difficult era.
The congregation was founded in the 19th century by Sr. Mary Euphrasia in France, and was established in the Philippines by Irish sisters who arrived in 1912 and put up St. Bridget’s School (now St. Bridget’s College). There are more than 100 Filipino RGS nuns today, working in different parts of the Philippines and overseas. I suspect many readers know them mainly for their Baguio jams and peanut brittle, but even those delicacies are part of their special focus on women in difficult circumstances: unwed mothers, the prostituted and battered, slum dwellers, the landless, and overseas workers.
There were many Good Shepherd sisters who were exemplars in their dedication to those in need, but I can only write of a few for today, including two dear friends who passed away recently. I start with Sr. Christine Tan, who headed the AMRSP or Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines (Women) through the most difficult years of martial law. Even as Jaime Cardinal Sin and the bishops urged “critical collaboration” with the dictatorship, the AMRSP women were issuing strong statements on martial law, calling for a respect for human rights, the release of political detainees and the return of civil liberties, and publishing a weekly compilation of news suppressed by the martial law government.
Despite her high position as AMRSP head, Sister Christine chose to live in an urban poor community, in the RGS house described in an article published after her death in the Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia as having “two rooms with no floor, and no toilet, in the armpit of Manila…”
In that article, Sister Christine described how she was summoned to the Vatican, walking through 14 doors to meet a cardinal who threatened excommunication if she did not cooperate with the martial law regime. She was appalled, not so much by the cardinal’s hectoring as by the Vatican spending thousands of pesos for her airfare, when they could have reprimanded her “using a [postage] stamp.” She carried on with her activism, and died in October 2003.
Sister Christine represented a new breed of Catholic nuns who wanted the Church to go beyond the four walls of churches and convents and to serve communities, often the poorest of the poor. This solidarity was intense, and for four RGS nuns, it meant giving up their lives. Having been assigned to Mindanao, Sisters Mary Consuelo Chuidian, Concepcion Conti, Virginia Gonzaga and Catherine Loreto boarded the interisland ship MV Cassandra on Nov. 21, 1983. The ship sank, killing 200 people including the nuns. Survivors remember the sisters as refusing to save themselves, helping other passengers, especially the children, put on life vests, and making sure they got on the few lifeboats.
Last weekend we lost another Good Shepherd nun,
Sr. Pilar Versoza, who is mainly known as the founder of Pro-Life Philippines. People are always surprised when I tell them we’re friends, because I’m so identified with pro-reproductive health (RH) groups. But my friendship with Sister Pilar dates back to the 1970s, when she, like other Good Shepherd nuns, was involved in social activism.
At one time Sister Pilar was arrested by the military and accused of being “Commander Laura” of the communist New People’s Army. Well, I will tell you Commander Laura’s “subversion” was mainly in her opposition to the way multinational companies were marketing infant formula. She was with a group called Bunso that promoted breastfeeding and campaigned for stricter regulations on infant formula. From breastfeeding advocacy, she went on to establish Pro-Life and to promote natural family planning, which included breastfeeding (technically called Lactational Amenorrhea Method) and the Billings ovulation method.
Sister Pilar and I stayed in touch up to her death last week, with her frequently texting comments on my columns. I wouldn’t say she and I were on opposite sides on family planning. She supported natural family planning, even providing me contacts for resource persons to speak on this topic in my classes. I believe, too, that in both the “pro-” and “anti-” RH camps, there are shared concerns that family planning might be wrongly peddled as the sole solution to poverty and social inequity.
It was Sister Pilar who texted me in July about the death of another close friend from RGS, Sr. Mary Julia Gonzales. In the 1970s Sister Julia chose to serve in Isabela, a province ruled by feudal landlords, logging companies and traditional politicians. It was hard not to be impressed by Sister Julia and the other nuns, who lived in a nipa hut with no running water, no toilet. They served San Mariano and Benito Soliven, two of the most remote, and impoverished, towns.
Sister Julia’s ministry was a quiet one, away from the heated rallies and symposia, but she touched the lives of many—not just the peasants she worked with but also young students who were sent to her area for “exposure.” She spoke her mind, but was never imposing or preachy. One of my colleagues in the exposure program during Lent of 1976 was Alben Burkley, then a seminarian and now a lawyer. I asked him if he could e-mail me his thoughts about Sister Julia and he sent quite a few, captured in a closing sentence: “Julia’s life remains an inspiration and a constant reminder to me and my family to live simply, to be ever ready and generous to share time, talent and treasure, and to stay steeped in meaningful spirituality, expressed and carried out in her usual unnoticeable ways.”
Alben’s remarks could well apply as well to the other Good Shepherd sisters, the real and much-loved Sisters Stella L.
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