A big thank you to an extraordinary woman

This article first appeared in the Mabuhay section of the Sunday Examiner, the English-language weekly of the Diocese of Hong Kong, in the 29 June 2014 issue.

Praying for Melina.

‘She was a pillar of strength and a beam of hope to all of those who are fighting for life against death’, Magdalena Soleño said at a memorial Mass for the late founding coordinator of the Filipino Migrant Cancer Support Services (FILMCASS), Melina Paller Lagarbe, celebrated on 15 June in the chapel of the Canossian Sacred Heart College of Commerce in Central.

A woman who in many ways was everything she should not have been, the strongly private Lagarbe had always seen herself as the quiet achiever, choosing to make what was described as her highly significant contribution to life, society and the community far away from the public view.

Melina with then Philippine Consul-General Noel Servigon.

However, an experience when visiting a cancer patient caused her to think again about taking up the job of coordinator, of what was then known as Buhay Ka, and saw her blossom into what Soleño described as a softly-spoken, kind leader of unusual competence and intelligence, with the incredible skills able to forge a large group of volunteers into a viable and tightly-knit service organization for the support of cancer victims.

However, after giving her all to bring strength and courage to those fighting for life, Melina herself was diagnosed with cancer in late 2013 and after a long struggle for life, died at home in Ozamiz City, Philippines, on the evening of 8 May.

Melina addressing a rally.

‘We are truly blessed to have been part of her final journey’, Soleño said. ‘It is truly tough to believe she will not be with us again, but she is united in vision and mission in the effort to build hope through spreading love, embracing frailty and taking her legacy forward in doing so’, she continued.

Speaking to the around 200 people who gathered to celebrate the life and mourn the death of the much loved and respected community leader, Lya Tababa told of Lagarbe’s struggle with herself.

She described the stoic manner in which she bore the sometimes vitriolic criticism that came her way as she quietly worked at truly fulfilling the role of a servant-leader in the community.

‘Thank you for always being there to encourage and cook, and always look after us’, Soleño said in a tribute.

Speaking on behalf of the Philippine Consulate General, the labor attaché, Manuel Roldan, recalled that a gathering of FILMCASS in Chater Road was one of the first community events he attended after coming to Hong Kong. He described his surprise at seeing the smiles on the faces of the cancer victims at the function. ‘Melina always told people, “Smile when you visit a cancer patient. You have to bring hope and cheer, not express your own grief in seeing their suffering”’, he related.

FILMCASS street fiesta / prayer rally / walk in Chater Road, Central, Hong Kong.

Melina became frustrated when friends cried at her bedside, as they allowed their own grief to overcome the lesson she had worked so hard to instill in them. She firmly believed that pity weeps, but walks away.However, compassion comes to help and stay and that is the basis on which she sought to build the care offered by the FILMCASS volunteers.

She continued to fight for her life even when her body had been eaten up by the cancer growing inside of her and remained her generous self until the end, reaching out to anyone in the same hospital ward who needed support and encouragement.

The spiritual adviser to FILMCASS, Canossian Sr Vicky Ramos FdCC , reminded the gathering that while Melina was still a strong dynamic in binding the group together that she is not FILMCASS, and that the challenge of today was to accept her legacy and use it positively. ‘FILMCASS needs you all’, she said.

The group sang some of Melina’s favorite songs during the memorial Mass, with the words, ‘As we gather may we glorify your name . . . we’ll be blessed because we came’ striking a deep chord in the hearts of all.
The director of the Diocesan Pastoral Centre for Filipinos, Good Shepherd Sr M. Felicitas Nisperos RGS, gave a tribute to the humble service that Melina had given her compatriot migrant workers and Fr Jay Francis Flandez SVD, the incoming chaplain to the Filipino community in Hong Kong, reflected that Melina understood well that life means service and in this way she inspired people to live their lives with love. He also noted she had a strong faith in the promise of Jesus that life is forever and drew her strength from her belief that we do not live our whole life on this earth.

Melina once confessed that all she wanted to do was live an ordinary life, but it was not until she lay dying in a hospital bed that she understood that she was then sharing the most ordinary, basic and common experience of human existence.

She lived well and consequently died well and we are richer for having walked on the soil which is graced with the footprint of Melina Paller Lagarbe.

May she rest in peace.

Smile when you visit a cancer patient. You have to bring hope and cheer, not express your own grief in seeing their suffering.
 —Melina Lagarbe

You may read more about Melina’s work in Hong Kong in Sunday Examiner here   and here.

Melanie Lagarbe as I knew her

By Fr James Mulroney
Fr Mulroney, an Australian Columban, is editor of Sunday Examiner.

Melina knew quite a few Columbans around Ozamiz City, but not so recently as she came to Hong Kong over 30 years ago and had not lived there since. Before that she was in Manila studying for a few years. Her father was a lawyer with a big interest in human rights and did a lot of pro bono work.

She was greatly blessed with wonderful employers in Hong Kong who looked after her like one of their own family.

They are beautiful people who always supported her in her work with the cancer patients as well and remain benefactors of the group.

She was a most extraordinary woman who struggled with the limelight for the sake of the suffering. Convincing her to take on the job was a long struggle. But she was extremely competent and once she made the decision to do it she went ahead in leaps and bounds.

I miss her greatly, but many others miss her even more. Nevertheless, she was not the organization and sickness continues and so must the service to the migrants suffering with cancer. She has good successors in the support group and they are doing well.