Thursday, June 26, 2008

Remembering heroism aboard MV Cassandra

Sister, a sister calling
A master, her master and mine!—
And the inboard seas run swirling and hawling;
The rash smart sloggering brine
Blinds her; but she that weather sees one thing, one;
Has one fetch in her: she rears herself to divine
Ears, and the call of the tall nun
To the men in the tops and the tackle rode over the storm’s brawling.

Those lines are from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Wreck of the Deutschland” (first published in 1918), a very long and difficult poem dedicated to the German Franciscan nuns who died in a shipwreck during a storm that lashed at the North Sea. The nuns left Germany because of anti-Catholicism.

With the sinking of Sulpicio Lines’ Princess of the Stars during the weekend at the height of typhoon Frank, we are, once again, in a recall mode. A list of past sea disasters and staggering numbers of dead are again brought out for us to behold and shudder at.

But it is the sinking of the MV Cassandra in Nov. 1983 that stands out in my mind. Four of the hundreds who perished were known to me personally. When I learned that they were lost at sea, and later declared as among the fatalities, it was as if a huge deadly wave swept over me.

Sisters Mary Consuelo Chuidian, Mary Concepcion Conti, Mary Virginia Gonzaga and Mary Catherine Loreto—all belonging the Religious of the Good Shepherd, a congregation close to my heart—were among the human rights workers who boarded the MV Cassandra from Agusan del Norte. They were going to Cebu for a conference. The interisland ferry was overloaded and the weather was bad.

In the morning, upon seeing that water had gone inside the ship, the nuns alerted the passengers. The boat listed and then began to sink. The nuns lost no time and handed out life jackets to their fellow passengers and led them to the life rafts. They thought little of their own safety. Survivors would later recall seeing the nuns holding children, hoping to save them.

There were about 400 people on board MV Cassandra. More than 200 perished.

The four nuns were active in human rights work and in ministries among the poor. Chuidian, 46, documented military atrocities and fought the excesses of the Marcos regime. Conti, 46, was into education among indigenous communities. Gonzaga supported workers and interfaith dialogue. Loreto, 39, worked with political detainees and their families.

When the call came, they were ready. They were shepherds to the end. They were the “tall nuns” of which Hopkins wrote.

In 1999, the Bantayog ng mga Bayani Foundation honored the four sisters by adding their names to the growing list of heroes and martyrs and engraved them on the black granite wall at the Bantayog site in Quezon City. There a soaring Castrillo bronze monument of a defiant mother raising a fallen son stands tall as a reminder of the dark days of martial rule.

The citation partly read: “They left the safety and comfort of home and convent to work as rural missionaries among poor farmers, indigenous peoples and Muslims in remote areas of Mindanao, thus becoming active witnesses to the Church’s mission to serve the poor, deprived and oppressed at the height of State repression of the Church; they put their individual talents at the service of country and people.”

In February the University of Santo Tomas honored the four sisters with the San Antonino Pierozzi Posthumous Award which is given to non-Thomasians who have rendered extraordinary and exemplary services for others.

I remembered them last weekend as typhoon Frank devastated huge portions of the country. Another big ship has sunk, bringing down to the depths more than 700 people. Another tragedy that could have been avoided.

The few survivors remember little of the moments after the captain ordered the passengers to abandon ship. Did his order come too late? Things happened so fast and before the passengers knew it the ship had keeled over and turned upside down. Those who had jumped into the raging sea before the ship went bottoms up had a greater chance of surviving.

The heroism these survivors remember was their own—how they held close to and looked after one another while they were tossed at sea about before landing on shore.

Juana Tejada case: Here are the latest developments on the dying Filipino caregiver who could be sent away from Canada, that is, after she had toiled hard looking after the health of Canadians.

June 21. Juana appeared as guest of University of the Philippines Alumni Association (UPAA) Toronto "Kapihan". She told the gathering that she hoped her case would result in better treatment of other caregivers in the future.

June 20. The Canadian government advised Juana that she would be issued an Interim Federal Health coverage, valid until Dec. 10, 2008. On the bigger question of her permanent residence, she was told that a decision will be made on either (a) a need for further submissions from Juana, or (b) a decision on whether to grant her request.

The permanent residence application remains pending at this time.

June 20. Filpino-Canadians Mila and Oswald Magno (spearheaders of the campaign for Juana) issued a statement to UPAA colleagues that government action offers little comfort to Tejada. The threat of deportation still hangs over her head. They urged more petitions and interventions for Juana.

June 20. CBC TV/Radio announces Harper government's decision to let Juana stay until her appeal is heard. Juana granted health coverage until Dec. 10, 2008

To view the latest on the case and to sign the petition on Juana’s behalf and write your own comments (and read other comments as well), log on to