OFW Saints | Inquirer Opinion
Gray Matters

OFW Saints

/ 05:03 AM November 07, 2023

Angelyn Peralta Aguirre, 32, was due to fly back to the Philippines for Christmas from Israel, where she had worked as a caregiver. On Oct. 7, she was with her employer, a senior citizen named Nira, in Kibbutz Kfar, Gaza, when Hamas terrorists stormed into the kibbutz. Aguirre could have escaped on her own but she refused to leave her ward behind. She and Nira were killed in the rampage.

Camille Jesalva, another Filipino woman, aged 31, was more fortunate. She and her ward, 95-year-old Nitza Hefetz, were at home in Kibbutz Nirim when the terrorists attacked. She, too, had chosen to stay with her ward. Thrice the terrorists passed by their home and did not barge in but Jesalva was sure their luck would run out. She texted her mother to send a photo of her son, convinced she would not survive.

The fourth time the terrorists passed by, they did storm in. Jesalva pleaded for their lives, offering them terrorists whatever was in her wallet, money she was saving for her planned trip home in December. A gunman took $370 from the wallet.

Still, another Filipino caregiver, herself already a senior citizen at 65, was caring for a 96-year-old Israeli. In an interview, she explained how she felt like she was with family caring for her ward: “You need to protect them.” She was ready whenever rockets fell, to bring the old man to a bomb center.


Other Filipino caregivers described how they would sometimes have to lift their wards and carry them to safety.All over the world, Filipinos live and work in precarity, their own lives as well as those of people they care for: infants and children, senior citizens.

Reading about Filipino heroism during these terribly difficult times in the Israel-Hamas war, I thought of how they are continuing a long tradition of heroism and sainthood. The second canonized Filipino saint, Pedro Calungsod, is described as the patron saint for OFWs. When you think about it, he was a prototype OFW, sent off to Guam to work, where he was martyred.

But even in more peaceful times and places, our Filipino caregivers and health workers are what Pope Francis calls “everyday saints.” He and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, wanted to redefine holiness as attainable by anyone. Pope John Paul introduced the category of “Martyrs of Charity” for those who die while practicing Christian charity.

I think of Richie Fernando, a Jesuit working in the Technical School for the Handicapped in Phnom Penh. One day in October 1996, an emotionally distraught student walked into the school with a grenade. Richie grabbed the student, who then dropped the grenade. The explosion killed Richie but he had saved all the students in the school, including the boy who brought in the grenade.


The Jesuits have started the process to have Richie considered for beatification.

Finally, on Nov. 21, we must remember the Cassandra Martyrs of Charity, Filipino and Dutch Catholic, and Protestant religious and lay workers who worked with health programs that served the poor in Mindanao.


Ninoy Aquino was assassinated only three months earlier and the entire country was in ferment. Activists—yes, they were activists—felt greater urgency in serving the growing needs of the poor and the marginalized. On that date in 1983, 13 of them were on their way to Cebu for a retreat and planning meeting. The ship was caught in a storm and began to sink.

The religious and lay workers were seen helping other passengers with their life vests and getting them into life rafts until it was too late for them to save themselves.

Their names are engraved in the Bantayog ng mga Bayani in Quezon City and I want to honor these dear friends here, listing all their names, on this 40th anniversary of their martyrdom. They, too, should be considered as part of the ranks of heroes and saints who left the comfort of their homes to serve others. For the sisters, I have put their professed names first and, in parenthesis, their names before they became sisters:

Sister Consuelo (Remedios) Chuidian RGS; Sister Concepcion (Lourdes) Conti RGS; Sister Lucinda (Mary Catherine) Loreto RGS; Sister Virginia (Mary Virginia) Gonzaga RGS; Sister Josefa Medrano FMA, Sister Amparo Gilbuena MSM, Sister Antonette (Henrica) Berentsen (Nanette to most people) of the Congregation of Julie Postel, Fr. Jan Simon Westendorp, O.Carm., Pastor Ben Bunio of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines.

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There were three lay leaders: Inocencio “Boy” Ipong, Evelyn Hong, and Sena Canabria. One teacher-activist who was also serving in Mindanao also died on the MV Cassandra; she is not included among the Martyrs of Charity but her name is included in the Bantayog ng mga Bayani: Ester Resabal-Kintanar.

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TAGS: Filipino heroism, Gaza OFWs, Gray Matters, Israel OFWs, Israel-Hamas war, Overseas Filipino Workers

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