I’m reproducing Fr. James Reuter, SJ’s column that appeared in today’s Philippine Star. The basis of the column was his homily during the requiem Mass for my grandmother last Thursday. Our family asked him to deliver the homily as he is one of the few people still around who knew my grandmother.
The slaughter of the innocents
AT 3:00 A.M. By James B. Reuter, S.J.
The Philippine Star 04/30/2005
On April 28, 1949 – 56 years ago, Doña Aurora Aragon Quezon was on her way to Baler. With her eldest daughter, Maria Aurora, whom everyone called “Baby”. And with her son-in-law, Philip Buencamino, who was married to her younger daughter, Zeneida, whom everyone called “Nini”. Nini was at home with their first baby, Felipe IV, whom everyone called “Boom”. And she was pregnant with their second baby “Noni”.
On a rough mountain road, in Bongabong, Nueva Ecija, they were ambushed by gunmen hiding behind the trees on the mountainside. The cars were riddled with bullets. All three of them were killed. Along with several others, among them Mayor Ponciano Bernardo of Quezon City.
Adiong, the Quezon family driver, was spared. Running to the first car, Adiong found Philip lying on the front seat, his side dripping blood. Philip smiled at Adiong and said: “Malakas pa ako. Tingnan mo” — “I am still strong. Look!” And dipping his finger in his own blood, Philip wrote on the backrest of the front seat: “Hope in God”.
When they placed him in another vehicle for Cabanatuan, his bloody hands were fingering his rosary, and his lips were moving in prayer. This was consistent with his whole life. His rosary was always in his pocket. And on his 29th birthday, exactly one month before, on March 28, 1949, at dinner in his father’s home, he said to Raul Manglapus: “Raul, the Blessed Virgin has appeared at Lipa, and has a message for all of us. What are we going to do, to welcome her, and to spread her message?”
He was echoing the thoughts of Doña Aurora, who wanted a national period of prayer to welcome the Virgin and to spread her message of Peace. Years later, the Concerned Women of the Philippines established the Doña Aurora Aragon Quezon Peace Awards, choosing the name in honor of this good, quiet, peaceful woman.
The blood stained rosary was brought to Nini, after Philip’s death. Many years later, she wrote down the thoughts that came to her when they gave her the bloody beads:
“We had joined my mother in Baguio for Holy Week, 1949. As we drove down the zigzag, after attending all the Holy Week services, Phil turned to me and said, ‘Nini, if we were to have an accident now, wouldn’t it be the perfect time for us to go?’ I said to him, ‘You may be ready, Phil, but I still have a child to give life to, so I can’t go just yet.’ And not long after this, his life was taken, and mine was spared.”
Her life was spared, but she felt the agony of those three deaths more intensely than anyone else. In that ambush she lost her husband, her mother, and her only sister. The gunmen riddled their bodies with bullets, on that rough mountain road. But miles away, with her one year old baby in her arms, and another baby in her womb, the gunmen left her with a broken heart. The ones she loved went home to God. But she had to carry on.
Last Thursday, April 28, 2005 — exactly 56 years after she was assassinated — the remains of Doña Aurora Aragon Quezon were transferred from the North Cemetery to the Quezon Memorial Shrine.
Mass was said at Santo Domingo Church, the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary. Then, at the Quezon Memorial Shrine, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo turned over the Philippine Flag to Nini Quezon Avanceña. The urn was placed in a black granite crypt, beside the body of President Quezon. They are finally united, after all these years.
Doña Aurora Aragon Quezon was a lady, in the finest sense of that word. She did not need trappings to prove this. You could see it in her eyes. You could hear it in her voice. You could feel it, in her very presence. She was a soft spoken, motherly, gentle woman — all heart, all love.
I first met her at Christmas time, in 1938. I was studying philosophy at the Sacred Heart Novitiate, in Novaliches. Our Jesuit choir at that time — all male, young seminarians, Filipino and American — sang beautiful Christmas carols. We came in from Novaliches to Manila to sing for the poor, in the charity wards of the hospitals. Doña Aurora invited as to sing at Malacañang. She wanted to thank us for our efforts for the poor. She looked upon all the poor as her special children.
We climbed the majestic stairs of Malacañang in a kind of breathless awe. We were ushered into the music room, where Doña Aurora was waiting for us. She was wearing a simple house dress, absolutely no make-up, and she was in chinelas! She welcomed each one of us, personally, looking straight at us, asking not only our names, but where we came from.
When we sang for her, she listened quietly, saying softly from time to time: “Beautiful… beautiful.” We were not that good. But she was a lady. After the singing, a maid brought in merienda, and Doña Aurora served each one of us, herself. She had no airs. She was just a wife and mother, with a warm heart for all these “poor boys, who left their homes and families to follow in the footsteps of the Lord.” That is what she said to the priest who was with us.
The next time I met her was in Baguio, in 1940. She had built a grotto and a shrine for the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was being blessed. The Jesuits had moved the seminary for philosophers to Baguio, and she remembered our choir. She invited us to sing at the blessing.
She was greeting each one of us, personally, holding our hand with both of hers. Before me in line was Rogelio la O. When he gave her his name, her face brightened. She looked at him closely and said: “Hijo de Maming?” He nodded, and smiled. She patted his hand. She seemed to remember everyone that she had ever met — by their first name! And by their pet name!
She was “Ninang” to countless poor children whom she always remembered, with gifts and love letters, at the proper times. She was known, universally, for three things: her devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, her love for the poor, and the strong support she gave to her husband.
President Quezon was so occupied with official affairs that he sometimes left a little to be desired as a husband. But Doña Aurora never uttered one negative word of criticism. Not a syllable. She was his pillar of strength, always. There in Baguio, the women who were close to her would whisper to us young Jesuits: “She’s a saint, that woman! She’s a saint!”
No one knows who killed her, or why. The Hukbalahaps were blamed for it. But no one hated Doña Aurora, or Philip, or Baby. I am sure that when Aurora arrived in heaven, while her body was still lying warm on the road, she said to Our Lord: “Don’t hold it against those poor men. They know not what they do”. That’s the way she was. She herself never hated anybody.
And putting her to rest beside her husband is a beautiful thing. I judge this from my own family. When my Dad was dying of lung cancer, in Florida, he suddenly said: “I want to be buried beside my mother”. My younger brother, who was a Police Lieutenant, said: “Oh, Pappy, no! That’s New Jersey! It’s a thousand miles! We would have to get police clearance through every State. It’s impossible!” My Dad said: “Couldn’t you fly me up there?” My sister Dorothy said, instantly: “Oh, no! We did that with my boss! It was terrible! We had all the expenses of a funeral on both ends! If we did that, Mom would have nothing left to live on!”
My Dad thought about this. Then he said: “Well, when I die, couldn’t you just sit me up in the back of the car, and drive up north, and have me declared dead when we get there?” My mother remembered this. So, when he died, she flew him up north, and he was buried beside his mother. The strange thing is, his mother died when he was only seven years old. He had not seen her for 66 years. And yet it meant so much to him to be buried beside her.
Then my mother died, in Florida, I did not get home for the death of my Dad, or of my mother. But six months later, I got home to New Jersey for a visit. My sister Rita said, “Good! Now we can have Mom’s funeral!”
I said: “What do you mean Mom’s funeral? She died six months ago.” But my sister said: “Yes! But she wanted to be buried beside Dad. So we cremated the body, and brought the ashes up here. Now we can bury her with Dad!”
So I said Mass, and we went to the cemetery, and buried her with my father. That is what she wanted.
I think that this is exactly what Doña Aurora wants, also – to be laid at rest beside her husband. Because, when a Filipina stands at the altar and says: “I take thee from this day forward; for richer, for poorer; for better, for worse; in sickness and in health; until death she does not really mean: “until death. . . . . ”
She means: “Forever!”