Thursday, May 25, 2006

Culion: the nuns’ story (2)

This month and year, Culion Island in Palawan marks its 100th anniversary as a place where lepers of yore were shipped and confined for most of their lives. Culion, once the biggest leper colony in the world, is a leper colony no more. It is now a thriving island municipality. The new generation no longer bears the marks of the dreaded disease that medical science has finally licked. The scars are still there, but the place and its people have long begun the journey toward healing.

I was one of those who helped write the handsome coffeetable book ``Culion Island: A Leper Colony’s 100-Year Journey Toward Healing.’’ Here is the continuation of the excerpts from “The Nuns’ Story”, one of the pieces that I wrote.


Newly arrived nuns reacted with the same fear. Sr. Maria Luisa Montenegro remembered her first day in 1940: ``My first day was a scary one. There was a patient whose earlobes were so long they touched his shoulders. He had no nose, only two holes on his face, and no fingers, only the palms of his hands. The other patients were in different stages of deformity. In spite of their handicap, they managed to feed themselves with the help of the nursing aide who tied the spoon to their fingerless palms.’’

As soon as the children were of school age, they were given back to their parents whose homes were within the confines of the leprosarium. Having been used to the antiseptic surroundings in the nursery, many children had adjustment problems in their parents’ homes. Those whose parents were incapable of caring for them were placed at the Santa Teresita Dormitory. In 1936, through the efforts of Father Hugh McNutty SJ, the Culion Catholic School was founded so the children could study.

When World War II broke out in Dec. 1941, 22 Sisters were working in Culion. Director Dr. Casimiro B. Lara was in Manila for a meeting at that time. Invading Japanese soldiers waylaid the food supplies at sea. Because the sanitarium could no longer support all the Sisters, acting director Dr. Jose Nolasco asked Sr. Damien Lelievre, the superior then, to send 12 of the Sisters back to Manila.

Recalled Sr. Ma. Luisa Montenegro: ``When the boat arrived, the Sisters pleaded to remain. But Dr. Nolasco was adamant. Mother Damien asked for volunteers to return to Manila. Nobody raised her hand, so I raised mine, though my heart was not willing.

``After finishing a nursing course, I returned to Culion in 1950. Working in the clinic was sometimes very amusing. Once a patient came to see Dr. Armando Paras who prescribed Diazone. On hearing the name of the medicine, the patient said, ``Doctor, I don’t want to die yet.’’ He thought he heard ``die soon.’’

The Sisters’ work extended beyond Culion. They sent daughters of patients to their St. Paul schools all over the Philippines on full college scholarships. Many were adopted by good families. Education was to be these girls’ ticket to a new life. But a good number have come back to Culion to work for their own people.

In the Saint Paul archives are first-person accounts of the valiant nuns who were part of Culion’s history. One of the most admired was Mother Damien Lelievre, namesake of the saintly Father Damien ``the leper’’ of Molokai. Her sole burning desire as a young nun in France was to work with the lepers and to die among them. The ``frail little nun’’ loved the patients so much she thought nothing of handling their sores without gloves. To admonitions, she would respond: ``If I die, I die.’’

Like Mother Damien, Sr. Antoinette joined the St. Paul Sisters precisely because ``I wanted to work among the lepers.’’

Her Culion experience, Sr. Antoinette said, added much breadth to her outlook as a religious. But even as she later took on various tasks, Culion always remained in her heart. ``I never had difficulty adjusting in Culion. I was new there when I met this man who was a patient. I held out my hand to shake his hand but he immediately withdrew. People were hesitant to invite us inside their homes. Once, I passed by a house and I asked if I could come in. The woman by the window was surprised. She let me in and pointed to a chair for me to sit on. `That chair is for the sano (healthy),’’’ she said.

Sister Hipolita Collado was a novice when she first set foot on Culion. ``I had this experience that I never forgot and I swore then that I would never come back.’’ Many years later, she came back to be the superior.

Several Sisters who had worked in Culion had received government recognition. Sr. Calixte Christen was awarded a gold medal for her 20 years of service. Governor General Leonard Wood, his wife and daughter went to Culion to honor her. Also honored later was Sr. Marie du Bon Pasteur. Sr. Marie Damien received a medal of honor from Pres. Elpidio Quirino in 1949.

Not one Sister became infected with leprosy while in Culion.

Among the Culion brave hearts--the oldest surviving but sprightly Sisters who had served in Culion before and after World War II—are: Sisters Mary Cyprian Montevirgen, 92; Gregoire de Leon, 91; Mary Michaela Diad, 87; and Barthelemy Gracia, 94--nurses all.

Since that day in May 1906, the work of the SPC Sisters in Culion has gone on without ceasing. In war and in peace, through stormy nights and sunny days, the island that was at once a fortress that held what were then called ``the living dead’’, was also a test for the nuns’ strength and endurance. Their continued presence is a sign of God’s grace and proof of these women’s faith. Like the ancient lighthouse that still stands there on a rock by the sea, their mission has withstood the test of time.#