From Mahayag And Marawi To Toronto

By Adelaida A. Cantona

Adelaida A. Cantona, now living in Toronto, Canada, tells us how Columbans formed her as a child and as a professional, and how their influence guides her in a new country.

I grew up in St Michael Parish, Mahayag, Zamboanga del Sur, run by Columban priests for many years. In fact, my early image of God was strongly associated with Columbans in white sotanas, talking to us kids who loved to play in the church playground.

I was molded as a teacher by the Columban Sisters in Immaculate Conception College, now ICC-La Salle, Ozamiz City. My strict professional training as a teacher made it difficult for me to adjust to Muslim students, not used to strict discipline, in my first job in Marawi City.

What I really loved to do

The first Columban I met there was the parish priest, the late Father Eamon Fleming. I was happily involved in parish activities during weekends, while I found teaching tiring due to disciplinary problems with my students. Besides, I viewed it then simply as a way to earn money. Father Fleming became instrumental in shifting my orientation from academic to pastoral. I finished catechetics at Mother of Life Center, Novaliches, through his initiative.

In 1976 Marawi became a prelature with an exceptional first bishop, Monsignor Bienvenido S. Tudtud, from Cebu City, a real father to all of us and whom we called ‘Tatay Benny.’ He died in a plane crash in 1987. Columban Father Michael Diamond, first chancellor of the prelature, invited me to work there as a catechist. I was so happy being back again with the ‘Columban Family,’ working with the late Father Desmond Hartford, Fr Terence Twohig, occasionally with Fr Sean McDonagh, and with Sisters and lay persons.

What nourished me 
My catechetical work was in the midst of conflict between Muslims and Christians, but being with the Columbans and ‘Tatay Benny,’ it seemed like a foretaste of heaven. The joy of being with them stands out in my memory. The very deep prayer-life of these men became my inspiration. There were no dull moments with them. They were all very human, yet deeply spiritual. Their laughter and humanness helped to keep me going. I experienced from them the incarnated love of Jesus in a very human way. I noticed little dichotomy between what they preached and how they lived. My personal experience of the love of God was continuously nourished by prayer, the Eucharist, the witness of the bishop, the Columbans and the Sisters, as well as by friendships with both Muslims and Christians in the area. All these became integral factors in my work as a catechist.
Bishop Tudtud and the Columbans initiated an ongoing formation program, a week every year that was a combined seminar, retreat and workshop, on ‘the call to dialogue’ as the thrust of the Church in Marawi. They also launched special academic studies on Islam and Muslim culture in the Philippines.

The advocate of peace
These activities had a profoundly formative effect on me and brought me to a deeper sense of mission, to help bring understanding and reconciliation between Muslims and Christians. Their prejudice against each other is due to complex factors, among them historical conditioning, an unawareness of similarities in the teachings of Islam and Christianity and of the need to respect the differences between them. I remember that the favorite saint of the bishop and priests was St Francis of Assisi, the advocate of peace, love and reconciliation, the very essence of the Gospel. 
I also felt that God had been working through my own limitations. To own and acknowledge them made it easier for me to understand the limitations of others, to listen to the prejudices of those around me, friends and strangers. I considered them all as my brothers and sisters.

As I participated in the ministry of witnessing in my own little way, I noticed that I became very vulnerable too as I lived in the community. But, the loving support of persons like Sr Constance Gomez FMM, Sr Cezaria Alia LGC, my partners in catechetics, and most especially of Fr Michael Diamond, who knew me through and through, brought so much healing into my life.

Ministry of presence
I discovered that God's loving and abiding presence didn’t stop in Marawi or the Philippines. He has been accompanying me even in the far distant land of Canada. I arrived in Toronto in 2002, through arranged sponsorship. I didn't have much information about my employer, except that she had had a heart bypass. I was amazed to discover that she was a Muslim. Here again I had to practice the ministry of presence, against odds. But my experience in Muslim-Christian Dialogue had, to some degree, become part of me. What a grace!

Bringing the Gospel of love to those around me in this new country is not easy. Life's journey here is very tough. I experienced struggle both internally and externally, but with God's help, and with the formation and experience I had in the Philippines, I’ve survived. My volunteer work in a nursing home is another opportunity to share the Gospel message in my own little way. I have shown to the fragile elderly the love of God in my heart, through talking to them, holding their hands, even if they cannot remember me because of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. What matters is that I bring them a little joy. The present moment is what matters to me and to them.

All of this has made me forget my loneliness being away from home and long-time friends, as has involvement in the church of the Franciscans. I feel that I have an adoptive family, the Church.
Today, I look back with deep gratitude to the Columbans, from whom I experienced the unconditional love of God, so much goodness and generosity. What I gained from them has become a part of my life. They were not only my employers but were like real fathers, brothers and friends. I thank God very deeply that He led me to experience their goodness and love and that of the late Filipino Bishop, ‘Tatay Benny’ Tudtud. All these left a mark on my personality.