DAVAO, Philippines (CNS) — Environmental activism is a dangerous vocation in the Philippines, but a Catholic nun in Mindanao is defying those who want her to return to her convent and stop raising her voice in defense of creation.
Benedictine Sister Stella Matutina works in Mindanao, the most conflictive island in the southern Philippines. Now 44, she spent 18 years studying and performing pastoral work in Europe before returning to Mindanao in 2007, when she says she quickly realized an environmental crisis was at hand.
“In the landslides and flooding and deaths, I could hear the cry of the poor and the groaning of creation, but our government was deaf. Thousands of people were dying every year, but our government was doing nothing to protect the environment,” she told Catholic News Service.
Several people were killed and thousands of families displaced by flooding in Mindanao in June. Last December, Typhoon Sendong killed more than 1,000 people, most in areas downstream from where hillsides have been logged, often in connection with mining. Hundreds of thousands were left homeless.
“Sendong is the apocalypse. It’s doomsday. It is a sign of our fate if we continue with mining and logging,” said Sister Stella, secretary-general of Panalipdan, an environmental activist group whose name derives from the Visayan word for “to defend.”
Sister Stella said a 2008 phone call to her convent near Mati beckoned her to get involved.
“A woman from San Isidro called and pleaded for help. She said the bulldozers were in her community and were going to destroy the mountains. I couldn’t understand why the people hadn’t been consulted, why they couldn’t say no to this big mining company. I felt the people needed me. It was my baptismal moment. We got involved and were able to send away the mining company and its equipment,” she said.
“After that, more people started calling. We started leading courses on the stewardship of creation, resisting the cutting of ironwood forests by the Chinese and speaking out against the destruction wrought by large-scale mining.”
Sister Stella started getting death threats in 2009 after she helped a community block the entry of heavy mining equipment. That confrontation led to the cancellation of the company’s mining permit.
“In our struggle we have death threats, but we continue because we have to stand with the people. They protect us. They tell us when to go and when not to go,” she said.
“Our convent is in the middle of nowhere, and if bad elements came, we could shout and no one would hear us. So when things get hot, the people come and guard us,” she added.
Sister Stella was detained by members of the Philippine army’s 67th Infantry Brigade during a nighttime raid Feb. 16, 2009, in the remote village of Taytayan, in eastern Mindanao. Along with three companions, including one novice from her congregation, she had gone to the village at the invitation of community leaders to lead a discussion about local environmental concerns. The four were sleeping in the municipal office when the soldiers, wearing ski masks and missing the nametags on their uniforms, burst into the building in the middle of the night.
“We have this very Benedictine gesture where we lift our arms in surrender to God. We make it standing and kneeling, and in bed before death,” Sister Stella said. “I didn’t know at first who they were, and when they told us to put our arms up, I felt like I was making this gesture before they killed me, handing over my life to God.”
The nun said the soldiers kept insisting the four were members of the New People’s Army, a rebel group. She said the squad’s leader, Lt. Ron Soria, announced they were waiting for an order over the radio to execute the detainees. The soldiers interrogated the four for most of the next day before turning them over to the head of a local Catholic school, who in turn escorted them to the local parish priest.
When the news broke that the military had detained a nun, the army claimed it did not know Sister Stella was a nun since she was not wearing a habit.
“I don’t know any congregations where the sisters sleep in the habit and veil,” she said.
Sister Stella was frustrated with the response of the local priest and bishop, who told the press that she had not coordinated her visit with local church officials. Yet, Sister Stella said she had informed the priest of her visit.
“And we have a pontifical right as Benedictine missionaries to go where we want. We are not under the bishop. We are free. Environmental issues know no boundaries. He should be happy that a sister traveled that far on a bad road to reach that isolated place,” she said.
In the wake of the incident, Sister Stella said the bishop pressured her to not press charges against the military officials involved. She said she reluctantly agreed, afraid the bishop might expel the congregation from his diocese. Soria, she said, sent her roses on Valentine’s Day for the following two years.
No roses arrived this year, however, and Sister Stella said the army is at it again, this time spreading the word throughout eastern Mindanao that she is a member of the New People’s Army masquerading as a nun. That’s what happened last October just before Father Faustino Tentorio, a 59-year old Italian member of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, was gunned down in Arakan. Father Tentorio was a well-known opponent of mining, and in the weeks before his assassination, various local military and paramilitary groups spread the word that he was a collaborator with the NPA.
Marist Sister Noemi Degala, executive secretary of the Sisters Association in Mindanao, said Sister Stella is a victim of what’s known as “red-tagging” in the Philippines.
“She’s being vilified as a member of the NPA,” said Sister Noemi. “How can they do that to a sister who is only being true to her religious calling to speak on behalf of those who are silenced?”
Sister Noemi said the violence and threats against church workers are just part of a larger pattern of repression.
“It’s not just church workers who are being attacked. The attacks on Sister Stella and Father Tentorio are better known because they are church people, but there are so many other ordinary people who gave their lives so that others can live lives worthy of human beings. There are lots of journalists, church workers and peasants who have given up their lives for the Filipino people,” she said.
Sister Stella said her congregation wants to send her back to Europe in October, and she’s torn about whether to go.
“If people are dying by the thousands, it’s high time to go out from our chapels and do something. But my community is afraid I will be killed. The other sisters are proud of what I’ve been doing, but they’re afraid for me. They want me to live life happily. But why worry about my life if people are afraid, and ordinary people are killed every day?”
— By Paul Jeffrey Catholic News Service