The hospital that miracles built

Catarman, Philippines — The story begins with a request in 2010 from Bishop Emmanuel Trance of the diocese of Catarman, Northern Samar, one of the poorest provinces of the Philippines. Would our sisters, who run the Divine Word Hospital 150 miles away in Tacloban, open another?

"If our people here get sick and they have to go to your hospital," he said, "they will die on the way because of the length of travel to Tacloban, which is 6 hours."

I was the prioress of the Manila Priory of our Benedictine congregation at the time, and after prayerful discernment, we asked all 180 sisters from 21 houses throughout the Philippines to vote on whether to embark on the project. There were reasonable objections: We had no money, no personnel. But the majority of sisters voted for the hospital, and our leadership in Rome agreed.

That is when miracles began to happen. (Notice, I am not putting the word miracles in quotation marks, because I think they are.)

Our first need was land — the lot where the hospital would be built. Help found us. A man named Jun Lozada, whom we gave sanctuary because he was a whistleblower exposing corruption in a government deal (that is another story) told me that he had a friend, a lawyer from an affluent family in Catarman. The man, Bayani Tan, offered us our choice of several lots his family owned and then paid for plane tickets and hotel rooms so four sisters could inspect them. We made a promising choice, only to lose it several months later when government surveys determined the land was part of a hazardous zone. So again we began looking for a lot.

Meanwhile, I sent three sisters to begin a community-based health program in Catarman, and since we had no convent there, they rented a house near the University of Eastern Philippines. The landlady had a friend who had lived in the house some years earlier before she and her family moved to Chicago. The landlady, wishing her friend a happy birthday, happened to say that she had three sisters renting her house who were looking for a place to build a hospital. "I have seven hectares there," the friend, Mrs. Rosalina Co Salazar, replied. "I want to give half to the sisters for a hospital."

That is how we acquired three and a half hectares in Pambujan, in Northern Samar, for our hospital. The first miracle.

I was so happy. The money we saved went into a restricted fund for the construction of a hospital, and I asked an architect to plan for one with 25 beds. Our savings were not even half of the quoted amount.

Now, a digression. In 2011, the whole world celebrated the 100th anniversary of the International Day of Women. An organization in New York, Women Deliver, put out a list of 100 inspiring people in the world, which included Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Melinda Gates and Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan. Believe it or not, my name was included in the list! This was featured in our national paper, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, in an article entitled "Pinoy Nun Makes It to the Top 100." Later the Congress of the Philippines gave me a citation during one of their sessions. What has this got to do with our hospital?

Well, someone who had read the article gave me a call and asked if I could come to her office, which I did. When I came in, a woman of about 45 greeted me at the door, extended her hand and said: "Congratulations, Sister Mary John, I want to honor you. Do you have a project?" Wow, do I have a project?

So I told her about our dream of a hospital among the poor in the far way province of Northern Samar. "Good," she said, "that is the kind of project our foundation would want to support." And when we were seated, she said, "Sister, you don't remember me?"

You see, I had been Dean of College of St. Scholastica's College for 18 years. But since we had about 100 scholars a year, I didn't really recognize her.

"I come from a very poor family with 10 children," the woman explained. "We were so poor we did not even have a table to do our homework. We just sat on our staircase. You gave the three of us older sisters scholarships. One took hotel and restaurant management, another psychology and I took up accounting. Without those scholarships we would not have finished college."

And now that former student, Fe Perez-Agudo, is president and CEO of Hyundai Asia, which has a foundation (HARI) Hyundai Asia Resources, Inc.! A few days later, we visited the chapel at St. Scholastica's, where Agudo pointed toward a bench near the entrance. "You know, when I was a student, I used to sit on that bench waiting for my hunger to pass."

She had no money for lunch but noticed that our janitors were cooking a thick soup at the back of the canteen. That is all she could afford — a cup of soup for her lunch. At times she did not even have money for that. So, stomach empty, she would just sit in the chapel and wait for her 2 p.m. accounting class. Sometimes a janitor would notice that she was not around and take her a cup of soup in the chapel.

When we signed our agreement for the hospital I noticed that there was no amount mentioned in the documents. So the next day, I called her lawyer, who had become a friend. "Lorna, this is embarrassing, but I have to ask you because the sisters will ask me. How much is Hyundai giving us for the construction, because there is no amount in the documents." She laughed and said: "Sister, there is no amount because Miss Agudo is committing the Hyundai foundation to construct your whole hospital together with the adjoining convent for the sisters!" The second miracle.

So in February of 2012, we had the ground-breaking. The students went out of their classrooms and waved their little flags at us as we drove by. The mayor said it was the first big project he had seen in this little town in all of his 56 years! In spite of the heavy rain, we had a wonderful event.

In May of 2013, we had the blessing of our new convent, which has a small infirmary in front so that our Sr. Dr. Leonor Barrion could treat outpatients. I remember the first time she treated patients, she texted me and said: "Do you know what our first payment is? Squash!" And so we had daily supplies of vegetables, eggs and occasionally chicken. We also decided that we would accept what the patients can afford. We give free medicines.

Fine, but then I began to ask myself, how can we pay our future staff of doctors, nurses and other personnel? Then and there I decided to set up an endowment fund for salaries and wages.

There is still another miracle to relate. In our initial survey, we found out there are remote places where people would find it hard to find their way to our hospital, so we thought we should have a mobile clinic. I approached the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office for a public-private partnership. They agreed to put a mobile clinic at our disposal.

But then a scandal broke out, the so-called "Pajero Scandal" accusing some bishops of getting luxury vehicles from the charity sweepstakes office. That made me pause. Our board of trustees did not want in the future to get involved in such problems. But my heart went down to my toes because there was the mobile clinic all ready for us to use, and we were rejecting it.

Two weeks later, I got an email from our Benedictine Service Office in Vanves, France, saying that they had two donors for our mobile clinic. (I had forgotten that I also sent them a project proposal.) Within a month I received 110,000 euros, which covered only the cost of the van, excluding equipment. We went ahead and ordered the mobile clinic anyway.

While the van was being constructed, our former Mother General Irene Dabalus, the only Filipina to become mother general of our congregation, was invited to give a talk in Germany. She also paid a visit to a German Church Funding Agency, MISSIO Munich. After two months, I received a check for 56,000 euros that covered the cost of the equipment. So now we own a mobile clinic — third miracle or what?

In 2014, we had the blessing of the nearly finished hospital. The only thing lacking was the chapel, which would be built in the middle of the hospital. Bayani Tan, the lawyer who offered us the lot which turned out to be in a hazard zone, said his family would like to donate the chapel. In July of this year, the Hyundai foundation formally turned over the hospital to us, and on August 28, we had the blessing of our beautiful chapel! Fourth miracle and counting.

At the time of this writing, we have just got a licence for our dialysis clinic and have begun treating patients there. We are still working for our operating licence to accept hospital patients. I am still the one-woman fund-raising agency, because our endowment fund goal has not yet been reached. Everywhere I go I tell our story, and in a homily I gave in New York, I said:

Undertaking a hospital project is no joke. But having gone through this journey, I learned two things. First, that miracles do happen — not only to saints but to ordinary people like us, and second: it pays to dream and dream big, because if one's dream is worthwhile fulfilling all the forces of the universe, even the cosmic ones, will align themselves to make our dream come true.

[Missionary Benedictine Sr. Mary John Mananzan is executive director of the Institute of Women's Studies, St. Scholastica's College Manila and president and chairperson of the Board of Trustees of St. Scholastica's Hospital, Inc. She lives in Manila.]