Keeping the faith
Sister Consuelo would have turned 79 this year, and Sister Nanette, 81. And Boy Ipong, how difficult to imagine him as a 72-year-old lolo.
They are just three of 12 religious and lay missionaries who died in 1983 on board the M/V Doña Cassandra when it sank off the coast of Surigao during a typhoon.
I was thinking of writing a column on what true heroism is and had thought about these missionaries, not realizing that their death anniversary was on Nov. 21. I was even more surprised to find references to them now as the “Cassandra Martyrs of Charity.”
We are all familiar with Catholic martyrs in the traditional sense of someone who is killed for defending their faith. “Martyrs of charity” is a term John Paul II used to recognize those who lose their lives while practicing Christian charity: for example, caring for the gravely ill.
Only one saint has been canonized using that designation, but there are several websites naming people who would qualify. For example, Father Damien of Molokai (1840-1889), who is famous for his ministry to lepers and who himself contracted leprosy. Father Damien has been canonized but many of the other named in the websites have not been declared “Blessed” or “Saint.”
The Cassandra Martyrs of Charity are listed in all these websites, and we should be proud of the 10 Filipinos and two Dutch; yet, memories of these heroes and heroines are fading, together with memories of martial law.
‘Tama na, sobra na’
Let me retell their story. On Nov. 21, 1983, the group of 12 church workers left Nasipit, Agusan del Norte, on the MV Cassandra. Their destination was Cebu City, where they were going to have a retreat and planning meeting. They were all missionaries, but not in the traditional sense of someone preaching; these were people who ministered and served the most impoverished areas of Mindanao.
I knew several of them because of their involvement in community health work; but as social action goes, they were handling many other issues—from landlessness to human rights. Not surprisingly, they were often tagged as subversives and communists.
Just three months earlier, to the day Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino was assassinated, there was the galvanizing of Filipinos in the cities to take to the streets chanting: Tama na, sobra na! But for the Cassandra Martyrs of Charity, and many others working in rural areas, there was no chanting of slogans. They had decided many years before that enough is enough—and they expressed this by leaving comfortable upper- and middle-class homes to live with marginalized communities to do something about hunger, illness and homelessness.
The missionaries never made it to Cebu City; their ship sunk in the shark-infested seas amid a typhoon. No one even knows exactly how many were killed, with figures running from 200 to 500. As maritime tragedies go, the investigations into the tragedy got nowhere, and its victims never found justice.
The survivors did tell stories about the group that was seen helping people get into lifeboats, distributing life jackets, getting them on children. . . until the supplies ran out, and it was too late for the group to save themselves.
These brave women and men died as they lived, and I thought about them last Friday, during a rally protesting the Marcos burial. I was with older UP alumni in a largely young crowd of students from Ateneo, Miriam and UP Diliman. Speakers like Boni Ilagan and Nestor Castro (one of our vice chancellors in UP Diliman) talked about their own experiences during martial law of arrest, illegal detention, torture.
Our rally had started in UP Diliman where, all around the academic oval, banners had been put up two weeks earlier by SAMASA alumni for a fund-raising Lean Run. The banners had names of Lean Alejandro and dozens of other UP alumni who were killed because of their opposition to the Marcos dictatorship.
Many of these heroes were in a way martyrs of charity as well, inspired to serve people because they had been raised as devout Catholics and Protestants. There was even an underground movement called Christians for National Liberation.
The rallies then were more than an “anti-burial” affair. Instead, the mass actions we are seeing throughout the country are there to question the very definition of bayani or hero—asking Filipinos, young and old, to think of heroes and heroines not just as people who die for their beliefs (as Christian martyrs go), but as people whose daily lives revolve around serving others, even when doing so puts their own lives at risk. That’s where the Cassandra Martyrs of Charity become important exemplars.
Addressing the students that Friday night, I warned them about attempts to rewrite history in a way that would make us forget the dictatorship. But I also said I was certain historical revisionism would not happen because the large crowds were proving that our young are not to be fooled. They will write history, reconstructing the past from those who lived through the dark days. They will write, too, about their own experiences and their pride in having been in the streets that Friday night to protest the defilement of the Libingan ng mga Bayani.
I thought of the passage from 2 Timothy 4:7: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
The race is not finished. For our martyrs and heroes, for our youth, we must keep the faith.
Let me name the Cassandra Martyrs of Charity. For the sisters, I have put their professed names first and, in parenthesis, their names before they became sisters: Sr. Consuelo (Remedios) Chuidian RGS; Sr. Concepcion (Lourdes) Conti RGS; Sr. Lucinda (Mary Catherine) Loreto RGS; Sr. Virginia (Mary Virginia) Gonzaga RGS; Sr. Josefa Medrano FMA, Sr. Amparo Gilbuena MSM, Sr. Antonette (Henrica) Berentsen (but 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. There were three lay leaders: Inocencio “Boy” Ipong, Evelyn Hong and Sena Canabria.
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