“You won’t laugh at me, will you?” asked 11-year-old Lourdes, just before she got up to sing at a program in Holy Family Home, Cabug, Bacolod City, Philippines. It was the feast of the Holy Family, December 2002, and I had been invited by Sr. Letty Sarrain, a Panamanian Capuchin Tertiary Sister of the Holy Family, to celebrate Mass.
Not only did I not laugh when Lourdes sang, I was astonished at the purity and clarity of her soprano voice which made me think of mediaeval cathedrals. I was deeply touched too by the utter trust of her question, even though she had never met me before. I learned later that she had had a particularly bad experience with an older male member of her family.
Knowing what had come to light in the Church in a number of countries, including my native Ireland, I was a little hesitant to get involved with the girls. There are between 40 and 50, some as young as four, some in their early 20s, at any given time. Most live in Holy Family Home, just outside the city proper, within sight of Mount Kanlaon, an active volcano. Most of the girls taking third-level education live in another house near the city center, under the supervision of a house mother.
Nearly all the girls have been referred to the Sisters by social workers in the cities and towns of Negros Occidental. Most have been abused, though some come simply from a background of poverty.
At first I used to visit once or twice a month, usually on a Sunday afternoon, sometimes bringing treats from a doughnut store. Then I found myself celebrating Mass fairly regularly until finally I did so almost every Sunday and on special occasions. I often hear confessions, and some of the girls will remind me to do this.
A breakthrough in my relationship with the girls was in March 2003 when Sr. Alma Alovera, until recently in charge of the Home, was with a group of the girls who had made the honors list in the local public elementary and high schools. One of the older girls with a big smile on her face said to me, “What about a blow-out, Father?” I didn’t respond as I didn’t know how to. I later consulted Sr. Alma, and she told me to go ahead. I insisted that she come with us when we went one afternoon to McDonalds. By the following year, when I had come to know the Sisters and the girls much better, I decided to bring the graduates and the honors students to a popular family restaurant for a meal. It didn’t bankrupt me, and I got great delight in seeing the girls being served by waiters. I’ve made this a yearly practice, going to different restaurants, one with an “all you can eat” promo. We usually end the evening with ice cream.
I hardly ever ask a girl about her situation. They get professional care for that. Sometimes one of them tells me that she has a court hearing coming up and asks me to pray for her. I get angry when I learn that a hearing has been postponed, as so often happens, because a lawyer or the judge hasn’t turned up. I see this as a continuation of the abuse.
The girls know that I’m aware of their background as I often refer to it in my homilies. Even more often, I let them know how I see them welcoming a new girl and helping her through her initial difficulties. Each year we combine the celebration of the feasts of St. Agnes, January 21, and Blessed Laura Vicuña, January 22. Blessed Laura was born in Chile in 1891 and died in Argentina a few months short of her 13th birthday, having offered her life for the conversion of her widowed mother who was living with a man who tried a number of times to abuse Laura. St. Agnes of Rome was born and died exactly 1,600 years before Blessed Laura and is the patron of rape victims. We also celebrate the feast of St. Maria Goretti on July 6.
The girls in Holy Family Home have brought great joy into my life. I’m aware too that for some, when they eventually leave Holy Family Home, it’s not a question of “and she lived happily ever after!” But I see so many who have been healed, who have learned to forgive, who have lived in a loving environment, who have been enabled to go to school when otherwise they would never have the chance.
On the first Saturday of each month, the Sisters have a two-hour vigil before the Blessed Sacrament for vocations to their congregation. The girls are invited to join this and most attend, though the younger ones usually leave early before they fall asleep. The prayers of both the girls and the Sisters are being heard because there is a steady stream of young women who become aspirants each June. And when Fr. Michael Sinnott was kidnapped in 2009, I asked the girls to pray especially for him. They prayed their hearts out and jumped with joy when they heard of his release. One of them came over to me and said, “We are the miracle girls!”
A few weeks before the elections held last May in the Philippines, I said to Lucy, a 19-year-old who will graduate from elementary school in March and who comes from a background of utter poverty, “Vote for me!” “For what?” “Para president, para gobernador, para mayor, para sa tanan!” “For president, for governor, for mayor, for everything!” Lucy riposted, “Para pari!” “For priest!” Though we were only bantering I was delighted that Lucy had gone to the heart of the matter. “The miracle girls” have brought great joy into my life, the kind of joy I imagine a father or grandfather has. They enjoy the restaurants and the ice cream, but they love me as a priest.