Sr Ems, giving life to the Church of the Poor | The Church’s Awakening

Part 1

In the 70s and 80s, the “preferential option for the poor, the deprived and the oppressed” was the calling for church people.


MANILA — Nuns played an iconic role during the Edsa People Power Uprising. Sr. Emelina Villegas, ICM, is one of those nuns, even if she is not likely to say that. Her participation began since the imposition of martial law. Her involvement was propelled by the church’s reorientation toward the poor at the time, her congregation’s refocusing toward the oppressed, and her own search for actualizing the church’s teachings in practice.

Sr Ems discusses the Church response in the historical struggle of the workers in the Philippines at the Church-Workers Assembly, Sto. Domingo Church, QC.  (April 2013, Photo by M. Salamat /
Sr Ems discusses the Church response in the historical struggle of the workers in the Philippines at the Church-Workers Assembly, Sto. Domingo Church, QC. (April 2013, Photo by M. Salamat /

Sr. Ems, as she is called by those who have worked with her, spent much of Martial Law years (and post-Edsa) with the progressive Filipino workers’ movement. It is the “militant” bloc, the red-tagged sector whose leaders happened to be the first victims of state violence post-Edsa (Rolando-Alay-ay double murder). The workers were also among the first sectors whose organizations were bound and gagged by new laws issued by the first post-EDSA regime (Herrera Law and Wage Rationalization Act).

Sister Stella L movie notwithstanding, why get involved with the progressive movement, and why with workers, of all sectors?

“Inserting” church community within the communities of the poor

In the 70s and 80s, “preferential option for the poor, the deprived and the oppressed” was the calling for church people. Pope John Paul II’s influential encyclicals such as Rerum Novarum and Laborem Exercens tackled the plight of the poor, the deprived and the oppressed, and the role of the church in catering to them. In 1973, recalled Sr. Ems, the congregation she belongs to, the ICM or Immaculati Cordis Mariae, gave them “the option to focus services on the poor.” Months before, on September 1972, then president Ferdinand E. Marcos had declared martial law, and soon there were mass arrests and a palpable culture of repression.

Sr. Ems said the ICM nuns began to pursue more actively the option to focus services to the poor in 1976. Pursuing the option prompted some bold moves. A number of nuns realized they could better pursue it living outside the convent.

In 1978, Sr. Ems declared that among the poor, it is with the workers she wanted to be. She considers the workers as the group or sector in society with “some consciousness”.

Sr. Ems spearheaded moves to transfer part of their sisters’ community into a workers’ community. They call it “inserted community.” They were still nuns, but to serve the people better, they left the physical security of their convent. They even shed the nun’s uniform veil – the main article of clothing that, outside the convent, distinguishes them as nuns.

She led in establishing a sisters’ community outside of the convent in the middle of a workers’ community in 1978. At the time, in Bagong Barrio, Caloocan, there were small and big factories such as Rubberworld, maker of Adidas sports shoes and clothing, employing more than ten thousand workers.

If they were to continue living in the convent, it would be impractical to shuttle back and forth from the convent to the community of the poor. And, the workers could not easily approach them if they were inside a convent.

Over the years, their “inserted” community changed location from Sangandaan in Novaliches, to Proj.7 in Quezon City, and then to Rosario, Cavite. From 1976 to 1978, some ICM sisters also started living in some indigenous peoples’ communities in Surigao del Sur.

At present, Sr. Ems said the ICM nuns still maintain “inserted communities.” Hers is currently in Camarin, in the tri-boundary of Caloocan, Quezon City and Novaliches. Other ICM nuns are with fisherfolk and women.

Helping those who help others

In 1978, it had been three years since the La Tondeña workers strike, which many nuns supported. It was like a “baptism of fire for the involved priests and nuns,” said Sr. Ems. The strike was the first industrial workers’ strike in the capital to defy the martial rule’s strike ban.

One ICM nun, Sr. Azon, had a significant participation in that strike, recalled Sr. Ems. When soldiers and policemen arrested some strikers, Sr. Azon clambered up at the back of the military truck used to bring the workers to custody. She held on as the truck made its way to the police precinct.

Sr. Azon was repeatedly asked to get off but she refused, telling the armed men that if she were to get off, “You might do something to them (the striking workers).” The other sisters, meanwhile, followed after the military truck.

Sr. Ems admitted that at the time (year 1975, La Tondeña strike), she had not fully understood yet the workers’ struggle. It changed only when she studied sociology in Belgium in 1977, under a post-graduate scholarship that was not considered as Ph.D. And it also did not require a thesis – it required the intermarriage of theory and practice, or her “lifework.”

“That’s when I learned to do ‘analysis,’ Sr. Ems said, stressing the word because until then, she said she had not grasped how incomplete their usual ‘analysis’ was. In Belgium, she said, she learned to analyze “without hiding anything or fearing for anything.”

In the Philippines, she said, analysis was “sugarcoated.” As an example, she said, “People here fear (Karl) Marx.”

Karl Marx was the author of Das Kapital, Communist Manifesto and other writings which charted and analyzed not only the direction of capitalist society but also of the past societies that existed in history. Based on his studies of laws that govern the rise and fall of various societies – using an analytical process called dialectical materialism – Marx projected the inevitable end of capitalist society, and the future society that would replace it. For that, Marx’s ideas were banned, ignored or vilified and consistently misrepresented especially in advanced capitalist states. But the workers movement took it up and used it as a guide in analyzing their situation and taking actions.

Karl Marx showed that the wealth in capitalist societies is actually derived from the exploitation of the working class. That even if workers were paid wages, they always generate more, and they are in fact being pushed to generate more. This generated ‘surplus,’ said Marx, was the source of capitalist wealth, and is used to amass even more wealth and power. Marx predicted that over time, with the capitalist society continuing to force more surplus by more intensely exploiting and repressing the workers, society’s progress will come at the price of a revolution.

Where Sr. Emelina studied Sociology, she said everything was “lantaran” or exposed for examination.

“They really showed us the place of workers, the proletariat. That’s when I realized: If you want to help the poor, the poorest of the poor, then you must help the workers. Otherwise, you’ll be forced to do only dole-outs.”

So, when Sr. Ems returned to the Philippines, she told herself: “If I wanted to help, I would help workers who by their nature will help others.”

Looking back now to more than three decades of life spent in the workers movement, Sr Ems learned that workers could indeed be helped and that they would indeed help each other and along the way, help other sectors, too.

Mother superior ignores red-branding, becomes labor advocate, educator

After Ferdinand Marcos declared martial, one of the first protests was held by the church, Sr. Ems told They held a mass in Sta. Cruz Church. She said she joined that protest mass, although at the time, she did not know yet which way her involvement would eventually turn to.

At the time, Sr. Ems was mother superior or overall head of all ICM sisters in the Philippines. As leader of nuns, she attended to them, visited the 33 ICM sisters’ houses all over the country. She had no particular assignment but to take care of the sisters.

But even with her duties as mother superior, Sr Ems took part in the activities of the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines (AMSRP), specifically those with the labor sector. She was one of the ICM sisters who founded, with other religious groups such as the NCCP, Imus church diocese, CBCP, NASSA and AMSRP, the Church Labor Institute of the Philippines (CLIP).

Unfortunately, Sr. Ems said, talks linking CLIP to the communists prompted the bishops (CBCP-NASSA) to distance itself from CLIP, and the AMSRP to lie low.

She said “anti-communist propaganda was strong at the time and because of that, the Philippines especially the bishops were extremely fearful of communism.”

But Sr Ems and other nuns, the NCCP and others who remained with CLIP continued to bring the workers closer to the religious. They brought the workers who were good at speaking and explaining their plight to schools to speak or serve as resource persons. Teachers went on “exposures” to the workers’ sector.

“Soon they (other nuns) realized, these are people, too. They are all right,” Sr. Ems said.

Unionists became close to the nuns that at Christmas, they would conduct “haranang bayan” in convents. Here, some workers’ cultural groups sang with nuns.

For a time, from 1976 to 1980s, “exposures” with workers groups were very active, recalled Sr. Ems. ICM sisters, for example, visited Tondo and stayed there for a few days. As their mother superior, Sr. Ems said some nuns became angry at her: “You’re exposing us to poverty, but what about our chastity?”

But such sacrifices as staying with workers’ families in the slums, which lack toilet facilities and space for privacy, even for short periods, comprise only a fraction of the nuns’ “fearsome experiences.”

Sr. Ems recalled that Juan Ponce Enrile, defense minister during martial law, once sent for them for questioning. As such, along with preparing themselves psychologically for exposure trips to workers’ communities, nuns had to practice also how to conduct themselves, or how to answer the soldiers, if they arrived and started questioning the nuns.

Still, the nuns had had lots of funny experiences too, said Sr. Ems. “All in all, the nuns were grateful to these experiences for having broadened their lives.”

After her community of sisters started renting a house in the middle of a workers’ community in Sangandaan in 1978, Sr. Ems recalled many happy times in that house.

The sisters’ “inserted community” was a multi-purpose support to many workers then, functioning as training school for unionism, for cultural production, for unwinding.

The place also served as meeting place for workers, such as from Rubberworld. In Sr. Ems’ words: “We integrated with them. We lived with them.”

Sr. Ems praised the patience of labor organizers with them. “As nuns, we knew nothing of the world of factories or unionism.”

As they got to know this world a little bit more, Sr. Ems said, their fear of what these people were doing, their dread even of the word “communism,” was soon erased. At the time, Sr. Ems repeated that the religious sector was especially wary of workers because they were identified with unionism.

She said the nuns learned a lot from tagging along with Mr Felixberto Olalia, considered as “grand old man of Philippine labor movement.” And later, with his son who also became a labor leader (as well as a lawyer) Rolando Olalia.

(Felixberto was founding chair of progressive labor center Kilusang Mayo Uno [KMU]. He was arrested during Marcos’ crackdown on unions in 1982. He died soon after from illnesses he contracted as a result of being in solitary confinement, with only the cold, hard concrete floor for bed. Rolando Olalia took over as KMU chairman, but he was brutally murdered in 1986, allegedly by ultra-rightist soldiers holding on to military supremacy despite a people-power-installed and supposedly civilian Aquino government.)

Read also, Part 2: Sr Ems, Learning with, from workers | The Church’s Response

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