Suicide Notes By Letty Jacinto-Lopez Originally published by Philippine Star

Goodbye, Genie

Good-bye, Genie!
Robin Williams, who played the role of Genie in Aladdin,
died by suicide on August 11, 2014

The story of Anastasia: The daily news bared all the painful details of her death. She drank turpentine. It didn’t work. She slashed her wrist but the blade was not sharp enough to completely sever the veins. She made a lasso and tied the rope on the lone chandelier. With the aid of a chair, she stood right under the chandelier, wrapped the knot around her neck and made a quick leaping motion to destabilize the chair. She died after ten minutes. It was her third attempt. No one in her family suspected the torment she was going through. In the end, her only means of coping was to take her life.

The story of Dante: He was suffering from schizophrenia. His family tried everything to make him well. Hypnotism, group therapy, drugs, and the controversial and the cruelest of clinical procedures, the electric shock treatment.

He would come out of the treatment dazed, glassy-eyed and thirsty but calm and placid. This would be followed by good days when his mind seemed to bounce back to his creative, productive self. He could work. He was lucid. He could laugh, interact and be gentle with his wife and his son. He was again the man of the house. But as quick as it came, it would disappear and he would revert to a state of limbo where he could not form any opinion much less decipher one. That’s when sleep eluded him. He would throw the sleeping pills in frustration. The voices would come back and dominate him. They taunted, tormented and despised him. In the end, they became too much for him to bear. He put a gun in his mouth and shot himself. He suffered for 23 years.

The story of Adolfo: He was packing up to migrate. He saw an old, unlicensed gun in one of the top drawers and was surprised to see that it was hidden there all these years. He made up his mind to sell it but first he thought of giving it a good buff. Pulling out a polishing cloth, he rubbed it vigorously when suddenly the gun went off. It sounded like a thunderclap. He trembled uncontrollably at the thought that the gun was loaded. Whirling from the shock, he turned to his wife, Teresa, who was sleeping in their bed. Horror gripped him when he saw blood oozing from her head. His mind went blank. Another shot was heard and he fell lifeless on the floor.

Anastasia, Dante and Adolfo committed suicide. They were people we knew and in each tragedy, we saw the anguish etched in the faces of those they left behind.

How does one handle pain of this magnitude?

Anastasia’s mother was a mirror of sorrow. Being a pious and devoted Catholic, she only asked one question, “Would God take pity on my daughter and give her rest; will she see heaven?”

Dante’s family lived with the fear that he would someday take his own life. It was an ordeal his wife and son faced every day and when it finally happened, their spirits were so broken that there was nothing left to feel.

At the wake of Adolfo and his wife, Teresa, they were dressed in the same barong tagalog and piña gown they wore at their wedding. Even in death they were inseparable.

There was a time when suicide in the family was handled under a veil of darkness. We were not equipped to deal with death this way because we were more comfortable to follow a de kahon, well laid out and predictable life line: marriage, birth, milestones, sickness and lastly, death. A pat phrase like “she lived a good, long life” was easier to understand and accept.

In suicide, the family suffers double grief: Losing a loved one and coping with the cruel and baseless talks on the circumstances surrounding the death. Where will they find comfort? Who could throw some light into this dark abyss of grief?

At a recent memorial service, the priest seemed to shed some light on this mystery. He said, “We should not burden ourselves with the circumstances of how our beloved departed left their mortal bodies. It wouldn’t matter to God. What is important is He promised us the forgiveness of our sins and that someday, He will lift us up to our permanent home where there is no pain, no sorrow, only joy and clemency.” He went on to say that man has no control over the manner of his death. It could happen by accident, by a sudden and fatal heart attack, a prolonged suffering, even by violent death or suicide. While there will be those who would peacefully and easily give up the ghost, there will be those who would suffer until their last breath. The important thing is God’s promise that He will not abandon us. He closed his homily by urging the mourners to leave their dearly beloved in the hands of God. “There, he will be safe.”

I was clearly surprised and appeased by what the priest said. If we view death in this manner, it could ease the tension and remove the stigma associated with it. Painful questions could be laid to rest and more importantly, those left behind could find the road to forgiveness, healing and acceptance.

The next time you pray The Apostle’s Creed, pray slowly and reflect on each line. When you reach that part that says, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.” Take it to heart and believe.

Postscript to Anastasia’s story: Palo Alto, California. Sixteen years had passed and one day, Anastasia’s mother ran excitedly to her husband, “Anastasia is in heaven!” “How do you know that?” asked her husband. She replied, “You know how I’ve never stopped praying to Mama Mary? This morning, I prayed again and I asked her to heal the pain that is in my heart. If Anastasia has been forgiven and is now with God, I asked Mama Mary to send me a sign: white roses and a dozen of them.”

That day, Anastasia’s mother went about her daily chores. While busy in the kitchen, the doorbell rang. “Can someone please get the door?” she yelled. No one responded so she rushed to open it with her mind still preoccupied with the boiling pot in the kitchen.

Before her stood an awkward, harassed young man scratching his head and stammering, “Madam, ah, I’m sorry to bother you. You will find this hard to believe but I am the delivery boy of the florist shop next to the town plaza. I found an extra order of long-stemmed roses in my van but I could not find the delivery receipt. This has been a particularly tiring, long and hot day; the roses will simply wilt if I returned them back to the shop. Can I give them to you for free?”

Anastasia’s mother was clearly in doubt. She asked, “Why did you ring my doorbell and not the other ones in the complex?” The boy answered, “Again, you won’t believe this but your door was the first one I saw and I thought, “Hey, who wouldn’t want to be surprised with flowers?’”

Still worrying about her pot of boiling stew, she smiled and opened her arms to accept the roses. Placing them down near the foyer, she rushed back to the kitchen to switch the flame to low. With her face all steamed up from the cooking pot, it suddenly occurred to her, “Wait a minute, did I just receive roses? Could this be a sign?”

She hesitated and thought, “Oh, but that’s impossible. I asked for white roses and they are definitely not in bloom this time of the year.”

Being convinced that she was probably getting excited over nothing, she began to ascend the stairs. She felt her heart skip a beat before it began to thump faster and faster. She turned on her heels and ran down to the foyer.

The bundle of flowers was there, still tied up with ruffia, in white cellophane with butterfly prints. Trembling now, she slowly unwrapped the package…the roses were white, all 12 pieces of them.

A Prayer When A Loved One Dies By Suicide
By Naomi Levy
(From her book entitled Talking to God, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2002)

Help me God. Give me strength to carry on. Heal my anger and shame. Ease the burden in my heart. Teach me to believe that I am not to blame. Lead me back to life and hope and joy. I know the pain became too much for him. Death was his only hope for release from his suffering. Life offered him no such promise, no relief.

Let him rest now, God. Free from all that haunted him. Peace, at last. Watch over him. Be his comfort. Grant him the serenity that he so longed for in life. Let his death be his healing. Amen.

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Treat Me Nice by Letty Jacinto-Lopez, originally published by Philippine Star

3 At a wedding, I saw a former cabinet minister leading his elderly mother to a reserved seat. I was so taken by his attentive behavior that I wanted to snap a photo of mother and son. He was beaming; she was, too. The glow on her face matched the pride in his stride.

In contrast, a priest was asked to bless a magnificent house. The gilded gate was monitored by uniformed guards with K9 assault dogs. Beveled French doors opened to two long-winding staircases, a private elevator, fifteen bedrooms with plush interior by the House of Versace, a casino, a home theater, a beauty parlor, a Frank Sinatra caboose converted to a barber shop, two Olympic-size swimming pools, and three industrial kitchens, including a wood-fired oven for home-made pizza. Clearly, it rivaled those found in luxury hotels and restaurants.

The priest blessed each room including a small, window-less cubicle next to the walk-in pantry. This one was atypical, just a folding bed, a closet, a desk and a stepping stool with a tiny, curtain-less shower and bath.

“Who stays here?” he asked. “My mother,” replied the owner. “She’s incontinent. I keep her close to the garage so it’s easier to take her outside. It also blocks the stench she makes.” As if that wasn’t sickening enough, she broke into a loud, silly laugh and exclaimed, “Father, joke only.”

It wasn’t funny.

The honor and respect toward aging parents have grown cold.

“My daughter never talked with me,” confessed the 80-year old woman. “She only screams and shouts because she claims, I am hard of hearing. Anything I say is always contested, if not considered downright ridiculous.”

How could you forget that this woman was the all-heart, all-mamon (cupcake) woman who loved you unconditionally?

When you wobbled and staggered in your first attempt to walk, she waited patiently, cheering and opening her arms to prop you up. She screeched with excitement, recording this first of many firsts to etch it in her heart and in her mind. She did not pressure you, didn’t sneer but simply coaxed you to try again until walking became a physical function as common as breathing.

What about your fears? From your first stumble to your first day in school? Her gentle voice, ice drops and neon-colored bandtapes relieved and kissed the ayays away. She cooked food to indulge you, to break the fever and get you swinging back with renewed zest.

When you reached the no way-and-why years, she gave you full attention, never growing weary of repeating her answers, never getting crossed or exasperated. She even found it charming that you were curious as a cat and makulit (importunate, persistent to the point of annoyance).

When you stood before a party of strangers, you saw her standing behind like a sentry, raising her thumb to assure you that you were doing great and would shine even more.

So where did your apathy sprout from?

When my mother passed away at the age of 82, I found her Bible on her night table. She had turned it into a personal journal with written notes, dog-eared pages and beautiful verses highlighted with a luminous pen. Interestingly, there was a thick bundle of dollar notes in the last page of her Bible. What baffled me was that she didn’t spend a single note. She merely kept the bills in a linen envelope marked, from my children, my real wealth. She was not dazzled by her possessions. Her heart burst with songs of gratefulness, her favorite being I Believe (I believe for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows) and she continuously talked about those who loved her without end, God, at the top.

My father was the same. He easily blushed whenever he heard us respond, “Basta kayo, Itay, nanginginig pa!” (Anything for you, Dad, thrilled beyond pleasure).

Treat the elderly with respect and kindness. Revive their youth. Read with them, make them laugh, take them out, and include them in your decisions and choices. Stay accessible like an in-house 911.

If they turn extremely makulit, count until 20, and don’t take offense. Divert their attention to something more pleasant like playing their favorite kundiman or love songs and classic movies. Nurse them and keep them impeccably groomed, smelling minty fresh like that dashing caballero and the dulcinea of your dreams who gave you life. Hold them tight when nostalgia hits, especially when they break down and cry.

Experience the joy in giving back love. It satisfies any longing of the heart that success, fame or fortune cannot fulfill.

If you are still unmoved, as cold as stone, remember: Tatanda ka rin. You, too, will grow old.

Don’t end up in a little cubicle living a déjà vu.

About Letty and her other articles.

“Francisfest 2013: Music of the Heart, Grateful and True” by Letty Jacinto-Lopez‏

The heavy, massive doors were flung open and I stepped inside a chamber with billowing smoke gathering under my heels. Tina Teehankee broke my gaze, “Letty, do you know where you are seated?” Standing a few steps away, Randy Limjoco, chairman of Francisfest 2013, greeted each parishioner who came to watch the show. When I looked up, the high ceiling reflected a soft glow.

“I’m seated at the 13th pew, from the main altar,” texted my husband. The rest of the pews were filling up. Barbara Go and Tessie Luz sat in front of us while Marilou Senn sat a few rows away. When parish priest, Father Joel Sulse, stood by the steps of the main altar, everyone rose and bowed in silence, “Thank you Lord for gathering us tonight to celebrate the many blessings you have bestowed on Santuario and our community,” he prayed.

The main altar was the focal point of the entire production. The set designer made good use of its beautiful and imposing structure which was very appropriate to bring alive the saga of St. Francis of Assisi.

Franco Laurel begun, “A young Giovanni nicknamed Francesco by his father, (a wealthy silk merchant), searched for conversion in San Damiano, an ancient church near Assisi. Francesco saw the figure of Christ crucified come alive, saying to him, ‘Francis, don’t you see my house is crumbling apart? Go, then, and restore it!’” (Saint Francis took action to repair San Damiano although he eventually realized that God’s message to him was to restore the Church as a whole rather than literally repair churches.)

That was the cue. Coro de San Antonio together with the OFM Friars and OLAS Seminarians appeared from different parts of the stage and formed a two-tier lineup. They sang with voices, smooth and flowing. “Come build my Church, give stones and mortars, tell of His mercy, sing of His love”. To compliment this song, Nonon Baang sang “Corner of the Sky” from the Broadway musical, Pippin.

Aside: There is a hip-hop, rap version of this song, conceived by young Franciscans, with a simple query, “Sino ba si Kiko bago nagbago?” (Who was Francis or Kiko before his conversion?)

Santuario de San Antonio was completed in 1953 to replace the one destroyed in 1945 in the walled city of Intramuros. “So, in a continuing sort of way, Santuario was likewise built by St. Francis himself,” said Franco Laurel.

Coro soloist, Renabel Baquero and Santuario’s own singing sensation, Edmund Lim, sang “At the Beginning” with support narrations from the Youth of San Antonio – Leandro, Arianna, Josh, Mitzie and Christopher.

The Youth lit the stage in their black and red outfits. When they sang in perfect harmony, Beautiful City and Seasons of Love, the long practices and late hours paid off handsomely. The 2nd song was from the musical, Rent, a runaway favorite with the younger set, “Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes, measure your life in love.”

To introduce the construction phase of Santuario de San Antonio, another young music scholar, Gaby Vasquez, took center stage. Gaby sang “One Voice” about the power of one and its rippling effect.

She was followed by the elegantly dressed group of the Vocalismo who enthralled the audience with their version of “Total Praise” and “This is the Moment” from the musical, Jekyll and Hyde. I fell in love with this song on Broadway and still am. The Vocalismo revived that sweetest, greatest moment of them all.

There was a throwback scene on the first parish priest, Father Hugh Zurat, and we listened to the anecdotes shared by Menchu Bautista and other members of her family who recalled how Father Hugh inspired churchgoers with his humble and truthful demeanor. One time, he knelt before the altar and made a public confession. He showed strength of character yet greatness in humility that many of us have aspired for. That period was also the time when relationships formed and slowly, Santuario turned into something more than a parish; it blossomed into a family.

Cocoy Laurel sang the Prayer of St. Francis, baring a heart moved with deep emotion, a fitting reminder to live in charity and compassion. George Yang, tenor, in his distinct and crystal-clear range, sang poignantly “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables while Koro Ilustrado made their appearance singing “Ave Maristella”, alluding to the loving and gentle presence of Mama Mary in our lives.

Before anyone could yield to sweet nostalgia, the Health Care Ministry’s Danzercise group filled the stage in a blazing outburst of red as they moved to the rhythm and beat of “We are Family”. It prompted the audience to hail and clap, if not tap their feet, in time. These big-hearted ladies call themselves the Young Once but they showed off their cache of vim, verve and vitality to keep the young ones on their toes if not running, to keep pace.

The Coro de San Antonio sang the double medley of “I Believe and Ave Maria”, a favorite arrangement that never fails to move the heart every time it was sang during Easter vigils. The original song “Nanay” sang tenderly by the Filipino Tenors produced a dewy-eyed response from the audience touched by motherly, nurturing love.

Scene 14 focused on the WESTY principle that described the works of the respective ministries in San Antonio: Worship, Education, SocialService, Temporality (Finance) and Youth. This part of the program brought to the fore the full performing energy of the Laurel Family represented by David and Ruby, Susie, Lynnie, Denise and Cocoy. Their upbeat and infectious song-and-dance routine of “Jesus, you are so good” reminded the audience of the unrelenting love and kindness of Christ that bring sunshine even through overcast moments.

I clapped with delight when I saw the familiar faces of our pastoral presidents who consistently dedicated a great part of their time and effort for Santuario. From Patrocino Dayrit to Imelda Cojuangco through to Mike Limpe. The various chairmen of Francisfest through the years were also flashed on the church dome, a lovely beam of light on generous and staunch supporters, from Petrona Lim, Joey Soriano, through to Ruthy Vera, etc.

A tribute to the departed Franciscan priests who served the parish followed. As the images of Franciscan Father Urban, Father David, Father Ike and Father Jerome flooded the church dome, a collective prayer of thanks was raised paying homage to these dedicated stewards of San Antonio.

What followed next summed up what the parish aims to achieve: To be a continuing, encouraging presence in the lives of the Christian community. Tina Teehankee, JJ Yulo, Micki Poe, Betty Roxas-Chua, Carina Lebron and Edmund Lim, representing the various ministries, reiterated this commitment that Soprano Reynabel Baquero lifted in a song, “Your Heart Today”.

The penultimate number gathered Coro de San Antonio – resplendent in shimmering gold, Vocalismo – in deep, royal and powder blue, Koro Ilustrado – garbed in a cool pink and lime green barong, the Youth of San Antonio-vibrant in red and black and the OLAS Seminarians – in earth brown tones, singing “Umagang kay Ganda”. Indeed, a promise of many more sun-filled tomorrows as beautiful as the next. Did anyone spot Father Joel Sulse in this power-packed assembly of songbirds?

When I checked the program and realized that we were in the Finalé, the lineup was packed with voices supreme. It came as a surprise to hear Franco Laurel announce that the new song composed by Joe Mari Chan will be sang by his better version, Jose Antonio. The young Jose Antonio didn’t disappoint. He carried the song in wings of the nightingale, moving the heart to accept Pax et Bonum in its maiden performance. Peace and all that is Good be with you. Composer, Joe Mari, stood up to acknowledge the shouts of cheer of an ecstatic audience.

“Smooth and perfect synchronization,” whispered my husband when he realized that two hours had passed effortlessly.

This astounding production would not have been made possible without the staff and crew who worked behind the curtains led by the writer and director, Joel Trinidad and the music director Onyl Torres. I spotted Onyl leading the musical ensemble in the Finale, standing in front of the video camera, but obscured by the shadows. I didn’t see Director Joel. He must have worn an invisible cloak because despite his absence (blame my dwindling eyesight), everything ran like clockwork – a sign that it was a well-thought out, well-mounted and well-put on performance. Clearly, a swelling of swell(s).

Joel, won’t you tell me how you conceived of the luminaire-illumination that captured the brilliance of the night in a symmetrical or asymmetrical way? The spectacle of music bathe in a spectrum of colors was simply entrancing.

It got me wondering why we never made use of the church dome as another medium to honor and celebrate the glory of God…until now?

To all who made Francisfest 2013 a five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred measure of a work filled with love. Maraming salamat po.

About Letty Jacinto-Lopez and some of her published articles

“Building at Sixty”, by Letty Jacinto-Lopez

In 1951, on the far, distant side of a flourishing, booming town, a flurry of activities was reaching fever pitch. A family of landowners was laying down the cornerstone of what would become a place of worship to answer the spiritual needs and concerns of a new, emerging community. The family came from the clan of the Ayala/Zobel/McMicking and the church was Santuario de San Antonio in Forbes Park, Makati, an affluent district of the Province of Rizal.Historical Cache in the Time Capsule
In 1951, I was five years old, three years short of receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion and oblivious to the cares of the grown-ups and definitely unmindful of its exalted dreams and goals. Who would ever think that my tiny world would merge with this bigger world, sharing common values that organized religion provides?
Archive Photo of Santuario de San Antonio Church
Santuario de San Antonio has always been that hallowed place of worship for Catholics. I grew up looking at this revered structure, as a special place to celebrate life’s significant events and milestones like the holy sacraments and of course every girl’s wishful dream of walking down the aisle as a blushing bride.

When our family relocated to Makati, we were welcomed into the family of Santuario de San Antonio as brothers and sisters, linked and related spiritually.

Similarly for Jeannie Bitanga. The settling period however became quite challenging for her after having lived abroad. She went from questioning and doubting her faith to strengthening, nurturing and growing it. Jeannie, encouraged by what she saw in the parish, took the initiative to re-learn her Catholic beliefs by reading the Bible and teaching Catechism to young children, one of the outreach ministries available in San Antonio.

“It was a breakthrough,” Jeannie said. Soon, her husband, Doy, joined the Men of the Sacred Heart, where its members promote devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus as well as serving as a lay minister of the Holy Eucharist. Jeannie’s participation in San Antonio’s various ministries expanded when the President of the Parish Council, Mike Limpe, asked her to create and manage a website and make it accessible to the public. Something vital in this age of Internet connection for the church to remain relevant keeping up with the technical development and progress of the times.

“My husband and I have, grown spiritually since those days of uncertainty. Santuario de San Antonio made us realize we had untapped potentials,” she remarked. “It was heart-warming to be welcomed in the family of Christ and meet some of the funniest and most dedicated people around the neighborhood.”

For Tina Teehankee, a secular Franciscan, she views life as a journey with its ups and downs. “With God’s grace and guidance, I find comfort in trusting in His grand plan, whether as a servant or as His child.” Parishioners with Tina Teehankee

Sadly, there are those who have relegated the role of the church in their lives as a minor concern, the last in the overall scheme of things, so to speak. I was therefore struck by a prayer that the faithful read in one Sunday service celebrated by our parish priest, Father Joel Sulse: “May no one among us feel so superior as to exclude others or feel so inadequate as not to contribute anything. Instead, may we be mutually enriched by one another”.

The lay community has a crucial importance in fulfilling the mission of the church. While there are many anonymous and faceless volunteers who work hard – silently – preparing each day to celebrate the Liturgy of the Eucharist, there are those who have bravely taken up the cudgels to keep things rolling and rolling. All in answer to God’s call to “Build My Church”.

The mission of the Franciscan Order has made an impact on the lives of the faithful (and the least, the last and the lost) because ordinary people devoted their time, energy, talents and material resources to reach out beyond their boundaries.

Among them,

The Prison Ministry headed by Steve Lopez, who visit the inmates at the Makati City Jail and host regular activities like sports, dance and medical clinics as well as reflective and meditative invocations to give hope and renew the faith of those who were lost and are journeying towards reconciliation, spiritually and socially.

The Scholarship Ministry where indigent or low-income students with great potentials are sponsored giving them the opportunity to excel in fields of learning and thus complete and graduate and have a better chance of making it into the world as an auto mechanic, in the Food and Beverage industry, in shipbuilding, care giving, and others.

The Hospital Ministry with Father Jesus Galindo as hospital chaplain, who visit those confined in hospitals attending to their spiritual, medical, physiological and emotional wellbeing.

The Marian Cenacle and Contemplative Ministries focus on the reach of the third degree of mercy – prayer. It is said that if one cannot show mercy by deeds or words, one can always do so by prayer. Prayer reaches out even there where one cannot reach out physically.

The Music Ministry with Amelita Guevarra. Voices are lifted through song and music engulfing the heart and spirit in a deep and fervent melodious worship to God.

The Catholic Women’s League headed by Betty Roxas-Chua, who sponsors mass baptism, holy communion and wedding every year apart from charitable projects that benefit the deprived and downtrodden.

Advocacies and ministries are in constant need of moral and financial support in order to function, and function well. Every year, Santuario de San Antonio honors the patron saint, San Antonio de Padova with a feast as well as raises funds to support and maintain the various ministries, including the Franciscan Mission.
Randy Limjoco, Fr. Joel, Lita Ascalon
In celebration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of Santuario de San Antonio in 1951, this year’s Francisfest will mount a musical variety show that chronicles Santuario de San Antonio’s evolution as a dynamic and spiritual center. Performers will come from the ranks of our talented parishioners, their family and friends like Joe Mari Chan, and artists on stage and cinema like Cocoy Laurel, Joel Trinidad, etc. Randy Limjoco, this year’s Chairman, promises an evening of entertainment and delight to be held in the main church on Thursday, October 3, 2013 at 8:00 p.m.
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Recently, I attended a mass celebrated by Father Jade Licuanan. He spoke about Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales and his Theology of crumbs. Succinctly, “All God wants is small things. Small things put together can start up a miracle. The issue is the love for the poor. Goodness is never complicated.”

I kept repeating Cardinal Rosales’ theology as I left the church. Indeed, Love can be a way of life and not just a one-shot thing.

Francisfest has taken this noble cause to heart. “May the Church and her leaders strive for humble service and simplicity rather than for power, influence and wealth.”

Remember, we leave this world empty-handed.

Let us support Francisfest, heartily and magnanimously, hand in hand and brick by brick.

_______________

For info and tickets and/or donations to Francisfest 2013, please contact the Parish Office (63-2) 843-8830 to 31 or email ssap_info@yahoo.com.

*************

as published on September 29, 2013 The Philippine Star Sunday Magazine
About Letty Jacinto-Lopez and some of her published Articles

“Faith Etched in Wood” by Letty Jacinto-Lopez

My friend, Rebecca Agoncillo, was well into the late second half of a wonderful, fulfilling, independent and charmed life when she sprang a surprise on me – she got engaged!  Another shock followed.  “For my wedding gift, I want a face of Christ carved by the master artists at Talleres de Maximo Vicente, ” she cajoled.

I didn’t have the heart (nor the largesse!) to disappoint her so with her dream wedding gift, I tucked a piece of my pained humor coupled with a word of warning: “Every inch of this image chewed a big chunk out of my retirement bourse so you’d better stay put in this marriage!”   It was worth it.  My “Jill-come-lately” friend will likely be one of the last few and proud owners of a Maximo Vicente original.

Having been spooked by my own doom-and-gloom prediction, I quickly asked my former classmate, Meldy (Hernandez) Gabriel-Merchan, if the story could be told of the only remaining, authentic taller in the Philippines, makers of religious images, holy crosses and hand-embroidered garments and vestments and builders of altars, church pews and silver carrozas, by the second generation and the heirs of the master craftsman himself (Maximo Vicente, Sr.), her uncle Maximo Vicente Jr. and her aunt, Soledad Hernandez-Vicente.  The response came back quickly.

The first thing that struck me about Talleres de Maximo Vicente was how its trade sign looked so outdated among the others next to it in a discreet, shady section of Malate, Ermita; it was the only one written in Spanish.  The shop was quiet like a monastery, broken only by the sound of an oscillating floor fan dispersing warm, recycled air.  It resembled a curio shop without the fancy trinkets, only images in wood with soft, pensive and gentle features.  Looking around, more statues lined each wall that served as samples of the fine craftsmanship that has differentiated the shop from any other similar shops over the past nine decades.  Some of the sculptures have actually acquired a patina of age just by being there.  One life size statue of the Virgin of the Assumption, however, was genuinely old. The owners kept it mainly for sentimental reasons; it was lovingly carved by the patriarch himself, Maximo L. Vicente, Sr. in 1908, the same year that the shop first opened for business.

Soledad Hernandez-Vicente (“Call me Tita Sol”) reclined in her lounge chair while Maximo Vicente Jr. or Tito Max, sat nearby and smiled as he stirred old memories.  He began, “When Manila was surrounded by lush and wild rain forests, my father, Maximo, Sr., spent his childhood in Bulacan with an uncle who was a scout ranger.”  (I didn’t know such a profession even existed in the Philippines).  It was natural for the young Maximo to feel an affinity to plants and trees that grew abundantly in their extended backyard.  He decided to try his hand at making something out of wood and for some reason, he chose a crucifix.  The parish priest was so impressed by the finished product that he offered to buy it with a promise to order more.  That inspired Maximo Sr. to return to Manila, confident that he finally found his true calling.  He set up Talleres de Maximo Vicente and invited his half siblings, the Santiago brothers Luciano, Felix, Rafael, Dionisio and Roberto, to be his associates.  It proved to be a wise and profitable venture.

“During the good old days,” Tito Max reminisced, “The shop was a bee hive of activities.  We were chiseling and carving wood almost around the clock to meet job orders.  The most popular wood used was the baticulin because it was fine-grained, resistant to anay or termites and it didn’t easily crack, chip or break.”  They also got lots of orders for images carved from ivory and marble.  (Today, aside from the traditional medium, fiberglass has also been used).  Tito Max continued, “Because of my father’s exacting standards, practically every major church in Manila had at least one or two images bearing the hallmark of Talleres.  My profession as an architect came in handy, too, as I was asked to design and build churches and altars.”

Tita Sol continued, “We employed full-time wood carvers, carpenters and embroiderers or bordaderas who were kept very, very busy.”  Tita Sol’s expertise in the fine art of needlepoint and embroidery proved to be an ideal tandem to her husband’s profession.  She not only took charge of the day-to-day management but split her time between buying or scouting for the material and accessories and teaching bordaderas how to embroider and set a high standard of quality for themselves – what she called their “personal best.”  Only the finest of material were used for these vestments: precious gems, gold thread, gold crowns, cut glass, crystals and the smoothest, most exquisite velvet, satin, silk and laces from exclusive houses of accessories in Europe and Asia.  It was not unusual, in fact, to have clients who changed the vestments of their images to correspond to the various church feasts and family anniversaries.

 Making a “curio” tour of some of the old and exclusive homes in Metro Manila, I found that there was always a Talleres opus gazing down at me.  However, a commissioned statue doesn’t come cheap.  Talleres raised the art of carving wood to the no compromise, no short cuts, meticulously European artisan level.  It takes anywhere from three to twelve months or longer to complete one job order with no two images ever the same.  It was therefore easy to understand why each statue has been delicately and lovingly passed on from one generation to the next.  You get an heirloom from the very start.  If the price, however, is beyond the reach of one’s household budget, one can still enjoy their many works by visiting some of the magnificent churches or places of worship around Manila and provincial cities.  Among them:  The Santuario de San Antonio Church in Forbes Park, Makati, The Church of Mount Carmel in Broadway, New Manila (designed, built and supervised by Tito Max), the Santo Niño image found at the San Beda Chapel in Mendiola, Manila (built by Max Sr. at a princely compensation of P40), the chapel and the statues found at the Assumption Convent in San Lorenzo Village, Makati, the Alfonso de Liguori Church in Magallanes Village, South Superhighway, as well as those found at the Cathedral of Lipa City, Batangas, and many more.

For Tito Max, what started out as a sterling legacy from his father blossomed into a lifetime commitment of keeping religious art alive and available.  Their strong affiliation to the church made it so.

 Having made a name in this highly specialized trade, it was interesting to read through several of the published interviews and pictorials on some of the shop’s famous clients from the caviar and champagne circle.  Former first lady, Madame Imelda Marcos either owned a Maximo Vicente or received them as gifts.  When the much-venerated image of the Infant Jesus of Tondo was stolen in the early1970’s, Mrs. Marcos immediately brought back the recovered pieces to Talleres for restoration.  She knew that she was dealing with the best.  Another client (a government official convicted of assault and abduction) maintained a devotion to the Virgin Mother.  He commissioned three of his favorite saints from Talleres and had them delivered to his prison cell.

What about those religious groups who criticize and don’t believe in keeping statues and other holy images?  Tito Max has a gentle reminder, “Our images are not icons or idols to replace God.  They are meant to inspire the devotees to keep their faith strong and steadfast.”

 Sadly, it is not business as usual for Talleres.  Wooden, hand-carved images are not that much sought after anymore.  There are plenty of santos made out of wood, resin or plaster that have been mass-produced by small-to-medium-sized factories, therefore cheaper and affordable.  There is also the alarming issue of the dwindling supply of the wood baticulin.  Add to this the ironic but amusing observation that Tita Sol made: “Our statues were so well-made that they outlive the original owners.  We therefore don’t get repeat orders from the same clan!  The younger ones merely come back to the shop to have their inherited statues cleaned, repaired or restored.”  

Despite these setbacks, this gentle and retiring couple is not discouraged.  They have made the difficult choice of staying open, for now.  Tito Max remarked, “Even if business is soft, as long as there is that far-fetched desire for a hand-carved image, we will be here to make it.”

 But for how long?  “We honestly don’t know.  My wife and I are way past 40 karats, you know!”

Are we seeing the sunset days of the only remaining, honest-to-goodness taller in the Philippines?  Secretly, I made a wish:  May there be more unexpected and happy surprises like what my bosom friend got herself into.  Maybe that would dispel the worry and prove me wrong. 

Originally published by Philippine Star in 2001

______________

Note: Talleres de Maximo Vicente designed and built the beautiful altars, the pulpit and and the pews of Santuario de San Antonio, including some of the holy images in it. Tito Max and Tita Sol have completely retired after closing Talleres in the second decade of the new millenium. 

 

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“Send Me No Flowers”, by Letty Jacinto-Lopez

Three men I knew passed away within the same month that left me believing the old folk superstition that “bad things come in threes.” It was spot on. All three suffered from lingering illnesses that were inoperable, that restricted their mobility and their capacity to communicate while their bodies steadily deteriorated. I saw the effects of these on the immediate families. The families, raw with emotion, swung like a pendulum from one extreme to the other. They hang on to a renewed hope that the body would improve, but on other times, surrendered to a helpless acceptance of the inevitable.

At the vigil, I was astounded by the abundance of flowers, beautiful exquisite flowers that must have cost a bundle. It got me wondering. “Why didn’t anyone think of sending him a small pot of fresh plants or flowers for no apparent reason, and not wait to spend thousands of pesos for flowers that he wouldn’t be able to see, much less appreciate?” (One could maybe send instead a bottle of his favorite Shiraz or a cheese platter or Italian antipasto or a decadent chocolate cake). The Canadian recording artist Celine Dion, said that in Quebec, the nuns gather these floral wreaths and dry them. They then wet, roll and form balls out of the petals to make rosary beads that one can give to friends and relatives as a lasting tribute.

It was so sad to see these beautiful flowers being dumped and piled high on the hearse. Mourners tried to save as many of them by pulling them out from the arrangement to drop them on the casket before the tomb was completely sealed.

With that image still fresh on my mind, I was determined to stop this practice by making a questionnaire or list of things that I’d like to be followed when the inevitable time comes around. I was going to share this list with my friends so that they too can prepare now. I called it a “living workshop” but gave it a cooler title: “When I croak….” (Sic).

“Why ‘croak’,” asked friend no. 1. “It’s in reference to a frog that when it croaks, it was time to say goodbye and jump from the lily pad,” I replied. And to spark the enthusiasm in the minds of these confirmed “drama queens”, I gave my personalized list as an example.

In brief, the list covered everything that surviving relatives would need to know if by chance, they failed to take note or listen closely during the lifetime of this departed relative.

When my friends arrived, I gathered them in a round table – like King Arthur and his knights – and gave them a copy of the list.

Friend No. 2 popped her eyes, “Oh this is great! I’ve been thinking about this but haven’t sat down to seriously do it.” (Author’s Note: Now, she has no more excuse not to complete her list.)

Friend No. 3 remarked, “I haven’t made up my mind what to wear.” I replied, “Choose now lest they wrap you in your floral sheet.”

Friend No. 4 thought deeply and said, “I want a solemn celebration. When they come to my wake, it shouldn’t be purely to socialize or use it as a reunion. They must remember that they are there to pray for me. I want each one to pray the rosary and to hear mass. VERY IMPORTANT!” she exclaimed.

Friend No. 5 laughed and said, “I want everyone to eat well so I’m going to book my favorite caterer to feed all of you.” (Author’s Note: Hmm, for sure, she’s going to have a full house of hungry but mourning friends.)

Friend No. 1 interjected and said, “Do you know that I already have prepared an Obituary? Complete with my favorite photo with a gumamela on my hair? It was a candid shot but one that turned on my hidden charm that hubby’s camera captured, miraculously!” (Author’s Note: Ladies, choose your favorite photos now, where you are at your ravishing best, remember.)

While they were writing down the details, I played a medley of love songs starting with Elvis Presley’s “I’ll remember you.” Friend No. 5 suddenly swooned, “Awww, Elvis. I want this song to be played.”

Suddenly, the music switched to “I Loved the Night Life” and two of the ladies stood up and began to shimmy and shake. “Can we have a jam session too?” “If you like,” I said.

Barry Manilow next sang, “I’m out of work, out of my head, out of self-respect, I’m under-loved and underfed, I wanna go home!” (Author’s Note: Yes, in good time.)

After accomplishing the list, in between laughs, teasing and pushing, we all sat down to an afternoon repast of chicken pie and their favorite bacalao with freshly baked baguettes. Friend No. 2 turned to me and asked, “What flowers do you want?” I replied, “I don’t want flowers.”

I told them of the beautiful flowers in the wakes I attended and how it was too late to have them at my funeral. “If we don’t stop to talk now, if we don’t call each other or do kind deeds to each other now, how are we then when we hear of someone’s death? Don’t feel guilty or obligated and send flowers that will never be seen or enjoyed by me.”

“You’re so right,” agreed friend No. 3 as she turned on the TV to watch a well-known talk show host shed buckets of tears, again.

The following day, I received a bouquet of flowers from friend no. 6. She wrote, “I’m thinking of you and you’re not dead.”

Hah! Not just yet but I’m preparing for it, now.

“What the caterpillar perceives is the end, to the butterfly is just the beginning.”

originally published August 14, 2010, PHILIPPINE STAR

Living Bouquets
by Mabeel Easley

When I quit this mortal shore
and mosey ’round this earth no more,
Do not weep and do not sob;
I may have found a better job.
Don’t go and buy a large bouquet
for which you’ll find it hard to pay,
don’t mope around and feel all blue;
I may be better off than you.

Don’t tell the folks I was a saint
Or any old thing that I ain’t.
If you have jam like that to spread,
Please hand it out before I’m dead.
If you have roses bless your soul,
Just pin one in my buttonhole
While I’m alive and well today;
Don’t wait until I’m gone away.

 

When I croak….

1) CREMATION or Traditional Burial? Your preferred choice must be clear to your loved ones.

2) BURN WITH ME THE FOLLOWING: At the cremation, do you want anything you value personally to be included? (Rosary, favorite prayer, souvenir, etc.)

3) MY ATTIRE: (What do you want to wear?): Do you want to wear your favorite jeans, blouse, dress or wedding gown?

4) MAKE UP: For those who will opt for the Traditional Burial, do you wish your favorite make up artist to do your make up?

5) ONE-DAY VIGIL (or more) and INTERNMENT: (Venue) Specify the venue whether Church, memorial chapel, at home, etc.

6) PORTRAIT OR PAINTING TO BE USED: (To be displayed at the wake or vigil) Choose your favorite photo and have it enlarged.

7) DRESS CODE: (Do you want your sympathizers to wear a particular color?)
 One friend wants everyone to come in white shirt and blue jeans.

8) FLOWERS: (What colors or kind of flowers do you like to be displayed at the wake to be arranged by your chosen florist)

9) PHYSICAL ARRANGEMENT AT VIGIL/WAKE: (Any lay out that you prefer?) In one vigil, the favorite typewriter of the deceased was displayed together with his desk and books.

10) AUDIO VISUAL: (Do you want a video of your favorite photos and music?) You may have celebrated a milestone that was recorded in an audiovisual presentation. Do you want to use this? Or would you like to have a new one made?

11) MUSIC: (classical, hits of your generation, love theme songs, kundimans, etc.) Do you want a church choir or a band to play during the wake and at the memorial mass?

12) MASS or SERVICES: (Catholic rites or other denomination?)

13) PRIESTS or MINISTERS/PASTOR: (Do you have a favorite priest or minister who will say mass or preside over the last rites for you?)

14) ROSARY and NOVENA: Any particular novena to your favorite saint, etc.?

15) EULOGY: (Choose who will speak at the mass or gathering from your family, relatives, BFFs, colleagues, etc.)

16) PROGRAMME COORDINATOR: (Designate your children, friends, colleagues to plan the last rites)

17) THANK YOU STAMPITAS/SOUVENIRS: (To be distributed at the end of the mass or ceremony). When my brother in law passed away, his daughters distributed a children’s book on Alzheimer’s Disease (“Ang lihim namin ni Inciong”) together with a novena to the Infant Jesus of which he was a devotee.

18) FOOD/MENU: (choose menu). Your favorite food to be served.

19) DONATIONS: (If your family gets donations, do you want this to be given to your favorite charity, church or any individual?)

20) BY THE WAY:

a) Do I owe anyone money? If in case you have outstanding IOUs

b) Who owes me money? Hopefully, this won’t be necessary if those who owe you are straightforward and sincere in paying you back.

c) Pending stuff: Acknowledge household staff who have been faithful, loyal and kind to you. And for other special wishes, write them down here.

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