Thursday, May 18, 2006

Culion: The nuns’ story (1)

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, no doubt, 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.’’ The experience was rewarding indeed. Here are excerpts from “The Nuns’ Story”, one of the pieces that I wrote.


The sea was calm when the four French Sisters of Saint Paul of Chartres (SPC) boarded the ship that would take them from Manila to their mission assignment--Culion Island. With prayers on their lips and faith in their hearts, they bravely sailed forth--``to consecrate ourselves for the care of the poor lepers’’.

Founded in Levesville-la-Chenard in France in 1696 ``to instruct the ignorant and assist the afflicted,’’ the Sisters were to become ``gleaners’’, to look after the last, the least. The first Sisters of Saint Paul of Chartres arrived in the Philippines in 1904. Two years later, four of them would embark on a mission among the outcasts.

The SPC nuns were responding to the call of the Apostolic Delegate, Monsignor Ambrose Agius OSB. They would be the first Catholic nuns to sail in that direction. For some time they would be the only nurses working there.

Sister Sidonie Bureau, the superior, Sister Marie de Bon Pasteur Lintot, Sister Calixte Christen and Sister Therese de Jesus sailed for that remote island at 2 o’clock in the afternoon of May 22, 1906. Several hours later, the sea turned rough and stayed that way until the ship reached its destination. But the journey was not without its light and hilarious moments. For the nuns, the experience at sea was a foretaste of the difficult but fulfilling Church mission in Culion that would continue throughout the century.

The nuns arrived in Culion toward the evening of May 25, 1906, two days ahead of their wards. Dr. Carlos de May, director of the Colony (1903-1907) welcomed them with a lantern in his hand, lighting the path to their ``new’’ dwelling where bats felt at home. Several times, in that semi-darkness, the nuns stumbled on the steep and narrow path.

``We viewed with great interest the panorama that unfolded before us,’’ one of the nuns later wrote in French. ``No matter where we looked we saw chains of mountains. Opposite us, the mountain slope was strewn with houses in the middle of clumps of trees. This was Balala where employees of the Bureau of Health would settle. In the part of the island extending to our left, there were more houses stretching out from the top of the mountain to its base. Only six were constructed with boards whitened with lime. All others were made of nipa (palm fronds). At the far end, on a sort of headland going to the sea, there stood the church with its old ramparts which made it look like a castle. Near it shone the lighthouse.’’

The view was great but in the beginning there was little food--and so much work to do. As one pioneering nun exclaimed: ``We felt like true missionaries since we lacked food!’’

The Sisters met the first boatload of lepers that arrived on May 27, 1906. The second batch arrived two months later on July 4. The first year was hard as there was only one doctor whose administrative duties left him little time for the patients. The Sisters had to fill in the gap, doing even amputations and minor dental work. They spoke mostly French and a little English and had no knowledge of the local languages.

Other problems were lack of personnel, medical facilities and supplies and the constant threat of beri-beri. Nature was not always at its best. The Sisters experienced a strong typhoon in 1910 and a landslide in 1916.

But something graver concerned the Sisters. The forced separation of the patients from their families and life as virtual exiles brought extreme loneliness. The marriage ban at that time and the loose separation of the sexes posed a problem. There was a rise in illegitimate births.

The nuns formed the Children of Mary and worked for suitable housing for the women. Still, strict separation gave rise to restiveness among the patients. The Sisters had to bear the situation until the marriage ban was lifted in 1910.

Marriages gave birth to new problems. What to do with the offspring of leprous parents who could not care for them? And when the Culion authorities wanted to send the children declared clean to Manila, their parents protested.

In 1916, the authorities decided to build a nursery in Culion for children born to leprous parents. The SPC nuns would run the nursery to which the babies were brought right after birth. ``We wrapped the babies with only their faces showing for their mothers to see,’’ recalled a nun.

Even the nuns had to exercise strict hygiene. Those who worked with the patients had to step on a disinfecting solution and change clothes before entering the nursery.

The parents could view their children through glass panels in the nursery. There was no physical contact. Sometimes an attendant would provide a small gift for a child, hang it on a stick that would breach the divide. It was heartbreaking. More so when toddlers, not used to seeing patients, suddenly saw, through the glass, the deformed faces of their parents. Many would cower in fear and say, ``Kakatakot.’’ (Fearsome.)
(To be continued)