Sunday, April 4, 2010

His priestly calling

“I HAVE found my real path.”

It took many years and many circuitous paths before Felixberto “Tito” Santos of Baliuag, Bulacan could finally say that he has found his true calling. Tito did not end up in the priesthood, to which he had felt he might be called at some point, but his present life is now spent creating artful priestly raiment for those called to the altar and the service of God’s people.

“Not in my wildest dreams did I imagine myself in this work,” Tito says. “But then God is full of surprises. This is a gift from heaven.” 
Tito is the proprietor and general manager of Chez les Saints (which means house of saints), a thriving enterprise that produces liturgical vestments worn by priests and used in churches for all seasons and occasions.
 A fine arts graduate of the University of Santo Tomas, Tito started off making uniforms for the corporate world and had a flourishing garments business from the 1970s to the early 1990s. He won big contracts and had more than he needed. He worked hard, he played hard. The money was good.

The calling
One day, he just left it all. “I had always felt a calling but I didn’t want to think about it,” Tito confides. “I was about 38 years old then. I thought, could I be a religious brother?” Or a priest?

He sought the advice of the bishop of Malolos who urged him to have an exposure by living and working in a Catholic parish in Bulacan. “I went to Norzagaray but there was no room in the inn,” Tito recounts. “Then I went to Angat. Fr. Domingo “Memeng” Salonga took me in. It was July 21, the feast of St. Elijah.” Tito would stay in Angat for almost three years.

Even without a teaching background, Tito was made to teach at the Colegio de Santa Monica de Angat. “We introduced art into the parish and the school,” says Tito who couldn’t help making a connection. “My parish in Baliuag is named after St. Augustine and then I was in this school named after his mother.”

Angat of his heart
In Angat, Tito says he did not have the comforts of home but he knew he was where he was supposed to be. “I had my share of heartaches,” he confides, “but there I knew my creator. I learned to listen. I learned from Fr. Memeng and Ms. Angie Angeles of the Notre Dame de Vie. They taught me to believe and trust. They taught me gratitude.”

Angat, it turned out, was a turning point in his life. Says Tito, “Angat will always be part of my heart.”

One day, Fr. Memeng told Tito: “Hindi ka magiging pari.” (You will not become a priest). Let us wait a while. God will show us signs.”

Not long after, Tito recalls, Fr. Memeng came home from a retreat with pieces of cloth to be sewn. Tito took them home to Baliuag and worked on them. He produced pieces, stoles mostly, that were brought to San Carlos Seminary in Makati for an exhibition.

“I met Msgr. Chito Bernardo, rector of Bahay Pari in San Carlos,” Tito recalls. “He introduced me and my works to Singapore.” One thing led to another. “It was so fast,” Tito gushes. “The Lord was very organized.”

Into the sacred
It did not take long for Tito to realize that he was being led back full circle to garments, only this time, he would be working on the sacred. And so with a heart full of gratitude, Tito opened a new chapter in his life and set off as if saying, introibo ad altare Dei (I will go unto the altar of God).
In 1998, Tito took a course on liturgical designs so he could enhance the meaning and beauty of his creations. Now, Tito says, no one can question his designs. The art and symbols he uses are not mere products of his imagination, he notes, they strictly adhere to what is liturgically correct and proper.

To make a long story short, Chez les Saints came into being. It did not take long for Tito to go international, bring his works to church exhibitions abroad (US, Europe, Asia), meet big-time vestment makers and find a market. “In the beginning I knew next to nothing about all these,” he says with a laugh, “that you’re supposed to bring a catalog and all that.”
Now Tito knows his way around, and Chez les Saints is listed in the directory of vestment makers of the world. His Philippine-made vestments are now sold in outlets abroad and several cities in the Philippines.

“But the Lord never spoils,” reminds Tito who’s had his share of life-threatening physical ailments. He suffered a ruptured appendix and later, kidney failure that required frequent dialysis. In 2006 Tito underwent a kidney transplant. “I don’t know why God frequently chooses me,” he says without rancor and then promptly adds, “But God always preserves me.”

The eldest of four children, Tito, now in his 50s, comes from a family of means. Only sister Bernadette is a Regional Trial Court judge in Manila, brother Elpi is a special child, and Joji, the youngest and the only married one, is actively involved in the business side of Chez les Saints. “We are a very close-knit family,” Tito says, “we never quarrel about money.”

Then two years ago, Tito suffered a stroke that affected his right arm and his mobility. He now uses a cane and a battery-operated scooter to get around. “I have no reason not to be grateful,” he quips. The work must go on.

Not for the money
In fact Tito had a busy booth at the five-day National Congress of the Clergy II held last January which gathered more than 5,000 priests from all over the country and abroad. He raffled off many vestments to the delight of the priests and gave discounts to those from poor parishes. He knew many of the priests at the congress. “I don’t think about the money,” Tito chuckles, adding that Chez les Saints was among those contracted to make the thousands of stoles that the priests and bishops used during the congress.

Chez les Saints gives employment to about 80 women and men. Production (designing, cutting, sewing, embroidery) is done in the Santos family compound in Baliuag. A statue of St. Joseph stands guard at the entrance. Huge fabric lamps designed by Tito adorn the compound. On the driveway is a head turner of a delivery van which has life-size pictures of a model wearing priestly vestments. The workshops sit coolly under huge trees that rustle with the wind. Tito’s office is almost entirely made of bamboo. Behind his desk are spools of thread in different colors. “I need these around me when I put the colors into my designs,” explains Tito.

The showroom is in an air-conditioned section of the main house. There one could gawk at the finished products for altar wear—chasubles, stoles, albs, copes, bishop’s miters—as well as altar items used for mass—palls, purificators, etc.

Chasubles (the outer garment used by priests during mass) come in a variety of designs and fabrics that are easy to wash. Some have semi-abstract designs, others have biblical symbols (like loaves and fishes) rendered in modern strokes. There are made-to-order ones with images of patron saints, Jesus or Mary. Most have intricate machine embroidery while some have apliqués . Gold embroidery, piping and trimmings are common features.

The chasubles come in the colors of the liturgical seasons—green, red, purple, pink and white (cream or golden yellow). There is blue for Marian feasts.

One of Tito’s most beautiful chasuble designs is called “Sunrise” which has an environmental theme that depicts the glory of God’s creation. Other popular designs have names such as St. Andrew’s fish, ikat, native, multiplication. Some have carnival shoulders (embroidery around the shoulders), others have front-and-back vertical designs.

“We cater to all tastes,” Tito says. “Some priests are grandioso, others, 10 years na hindi pa nagpapalit. (others have not changed their vestments in 10 years.)

Stoles (hung around the neck) also come in different liturgical colors and designs. Stoles can go with plain chasubles. There are two-color back-to-back stoles that are easy to wash and fit into mass kits or the backpacks of priests on the go.

The copes (used for benediction and processions) and albs (worn under the chasuble) also come in many designs—Flores, Iniguez, Tapas, Batanes, Sicily, etc.

Last month Tito opened a Chez les Saints showroom in UP Village Quezon City managed by his nieces. No less than Bataan bishop Socrates Villegas celebrated the mass. Tito is now preparing for an international liturgical exhibit in 2011. Check out Tito’s creations at

Tito muses: “St. John Mary Vianney, the patron saint of priests, though he was poor, always wore beautiful vestments for mass. I always dress properly for church. I wear barong when it’s the birthday of Jesus. Sana mabihisan ko lahat ng mga pari. (I wish I could dress up all the priests).” He reminds: “The mass is the highest form of prayer.”