Thursday, November 21, 2013

Benedictine nuns amid the ruins

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

The Divine Word Hospital (DWH) in Tacloban City was the only hospital that continued to operate in the immediate aftermath of Supertyphoon “Yolanda,” which wrecked almost everything in its path in the morning of Nov. 8. Operated by the Missionary Benedictine Sisters—and funded, too, through their unrelenting efforts—the 160-bed hospital became a hub of life-saving emergency activities that challenged the survival instincts of the nuns, the hospital staff, the 159 patients and their bantay (watchers).

It was all hands on deck, a scene out of “ER,” the TV series, except that roaring wind, rain and sea were tearing away at sections of the hospital outside and inside. There was no place to hide. “Mother Nature was crying, howling so intensely,” recalled Sr. Ana Maria Raca, superior of the hospital. Window panes crumbled to pieces, air conditioners jumped out of their niches, roofs peeled away, electricity and all means of communication went dead. 

By the time the sky cleared, the almost dying were dead, and the new admissions—the badly injured or near dead—severely tested the traumatized hospital staff. And the nuns, too, some of whom could have perished had they not given in to instinct and put into practice the spirit of obedience at the 11th hour. Yes, in this day and age of headstrong nuns.

All the 16 Benedictine nuns who were in Tacloban when Yolanda hit survived. Not all of them were connected with the hospital. About half of them were from the Benedictine-run St. Scholastica’s College-Tacloban, which was about 45 minutes by motor vehicle from DWH. The school’s superior, Sr. Baptista Busmente, was in Manila, but the newly installed president, Sr. Julia Yap, was on campus before Yolanda hit. The school nuns knew of the warnings but some thought it was safe enough on campus. But Sister Julia was restless. A marine biologist who can dive and swim, she would have been the least worried.

That late afternoon on the eve of Yolanda, Sister Julia surveyed the landscape around and beyond. “I was overcome with a strange feeling. As a marine biologist, I am familiar with the behavior of the tides and of the sea,” she told me. Was it fear of impending doom? She was also well aware of the kind of ground the school buildings (about three years old) were standing on—reclaimed land near a mangrove area.

When Sisters Julia and Ana Maria spoke to each other over the phone, a decision was made: The school sisters must go to the hospital, spend the night there, and wait the typhoon out. Sr. Lourdes Obejas, who was flying in from Manila, was told to proceed to the hospital and not to the school.

Sr. Edissa Manrique wasn’t too keen on going to the hospital, but Sister Ana Maria insisted that no one was to be left behind. All the school nuns moved over to the hospital and took with them provisions for a day. No hemming and hawing. “Obedience without delay” is a monastic practice of those with religious vows.

Some footnotes here. The first Missionary Benedictine Sisters came to the Philippines from Germany in 1906. Known for their adherence to “ora et labora” (pray and work), they run about a dozen schools known for strict discipline and emphasis on social awareness, the Tacloban hospital (one more coming up in Pambujan, Samar), and ministries for the marginalized.

These sisters that I mention were the ones I spoke to last Sunday at St. Scholastica’s College-Manila where relief packages were being sorted out before transport to Leyte. These sisters flew to Manila days after Yolanda to help with relief efforts. Several truckloads have already been transported to the hospital by land and air.

The traumatic experience was still evident in the nuns’ voices, but the grace of humor somehow lightened the load. They recounted how they, along with the hospital staff, subsisted on rice porridge and boiled eggs three times a day till food supplies came, how it was not to have a bath and change of clothes for days, how they had to find the words while blessing the dead.

St. Scholastica’s Tacloban was a total wreck. The nuns’ decision to evacuate saved their lives. In the aftermath, witnesses saw looters hauling away sinks and the nuns’ carry-on suitcases. “As if they were walking out of an airport,” a sister said with a chuckle.

The Benedictines’ school in Ormoc City was not as badly hit, and expectedly, it was their farm-retreat in Alangalang that did not run out of food and water. There were peanuts and root crops in the ground and farm animals to be butchered. The 40-plus seminarians on retreat were a great help.

After the deadly storm surge, two nuns from the hospital went out to join the walking wounded in search of food for the patients. “Twice I bumped into [Interior] Secretary Mar Roxas,” a nun recounted. She broke out of the cordon and exclaimed unabashed, “Mr. Roxas! Mr. Roxas! Please give us rice for the hospital!” The rice came after their second encounter, and with President Aquino present this time.

This space is not enough for all the stories. No aid is too small or too big for the survivors of this unprecedented “world-class” disaster. Alumnae here and abroad (Canada, the United States, etc.) of Benedictine schools (St. Scholastica’s Manila and other branches) have been giving aid through the nuns, sending cash, even providing transport planes. For info on relief efforts and donations, visit It has a list of bank accounts under the name Prioress of the Community of Benedictine Sisters.

As the Benedictines had taught us in our youth, Ut in omnibus glorificetur Deus. That in all things God may be glorified.