50 years - Opus Dei in and from the Philippines

Opus Dei started stable apostolic work in the Philippines 50 years ago on May 27, 1964, with the arrival of Dr. Bernardo Villegas in Manila, after completing his doctoral studies in the United States.

Opus Dei in the Philippines
Opus Dei - 50 years - Opus Dei in and from the Philippines Dr. Bernardo Villegas with St. Josemaria Escriva, passing through Rome on his way to the Philippines in May, 1964.

Since the forties, there were Filipinos of Spanish origin who got in contact with Opus Dei in Spain. On their return to the Philippines, they encouraged St. Josemaria to begin in the country. This was only possible two decades later.

In the late fifties some Filipinos who were in the United States for their graduate studies, got in contact with the apostolates of Opus Dei.

In 1964 St. Josemaria decided that the time had come to establish Opus Dei in the Philippines. He met with a handful of Filipinos and other faithful of Opus Dei to prepare them: “What a beautiful country, the Philippines! You are the vanguard of Jesus Christ in the Far East. Your country will be the channel through which millions of souls would be led to the light of Christ. You are a chosen people. I say this not because you are so likeable, but because it is true, a wonderful truth." He later on reminded the Filipinos that, since they had received the gift of the faith, they had the duty towards the rest of the continent. St. Josemaria dreamed of expansion to other Asian nations, above all China. The expansion of the Work from the Philippines to other Asian countries did not take place during St. Josemaria's lifetime although trips to those places were already being done.

Till the end of his life, St. Josemaria continued to inspire his Filipino children to think of Asia. On March 20, 1975, a few months before he died, he told some of his spiritual daughters in Rome: “If you continue being faithful (…) you will be doing a great task not only in the Philippines, but also from the Philippines, because you have your charm that allows you to travel all through the Far East: millions of souls who still do not know our Lord (…). They are also children of God like us. If they get to know God, they would be a hundred times better than us."

The start of the apostolic work

The first Filipino members of Opus Dei got to know the Work while studying in Harvard in the late fifties. Jesus (Jess) Estanislao, Bernardo (Bernie) Villegas and Placido Mapa Jr. got in contact through a residence hall in Boston. Later on, they asked to form part of Opus Dei. In August 1964 St. Josemaria assigned a priest, Father Jose Morales Marin as the first Counselor (nowadays, Regional Vicar) in the Philippines. In 1966 he was replaced by Father Jose Cremades.

The first members of Opus Dei arrived in the Philippines in May to November of 1964. These were Jess Estanislao and Bernie Villegas together with Fr. Jose Morales, Fr. Javier de Pedro and Jose Rivera, a Spanish engineer who used to live in the Philippines since his childhood days. The first Center of the Work was in a small house beside the Villegas' residence, in C. Ayala in Singalong. They named it Maynilad after the old name of the City of Manila. It was close to De La Salle College and St Scholastica's College. From both schools came the first members of Opus Dei in the country. In April 1965, Maynilad was transferred to a bigger house in the Malate district, and from then on Maynilad Study Center became the focal point of Christian formation of university students and young professionals.

The first women members arrived in the Philippines on October 8, 1965: Soledad Usechi, Eulalia Sastre and Maria Teresa Martinez Baron. Their plan was to set up a school that would offer a diploma course in home economics, similar to the Montelar School in Madrid, where Soledad Usechi was the Director. Luisa Lorenzo, a Filipina whom they knew in Madrid, welcomed them at the airport. Through Luisa's help, they were able to get a house in Leon Guinto Street in Singalong, Manila. In 1966, they inaugurated the Mayana School of Home and Fine Arts. They started the apostolate with married women and house helpers there. By then, Bernie's sister, Rina Villegas, became the first female Filipina numerary member, and Luisa Lorenzo's daughter Cholang, a Literature professor in the University of the Philippines, also joined Opus Dei.

The apostolate with the youth and professionals increased rapidly among men and women, owing to the deep faith of the Filipinos. Soon other Centers were put up to attend to the needs of the apostolate: Tanglaw Residence (for women) in 1967 and Banahaw Cultural Center (for men) in 1967. From 1969 onwards some young Filipino college graduates, like Fernan Cruz, went to the Roman College of the Holy Cross to receive an intense formation course close to St. Josemaria. The first Filipino priests of Opus Dei came from these college graduates. Maria Lourdes Ygoa was the first Fililpina who went to the Roman College of Holy Mary in 1970. Rina Villegas went the year after.

In the late sixties, St. Josemaria suggested that the members of Opus Dei search for a venue where more people could attend to formation courses. In 1971, the Makiling Conference Center in Calamba, Laguna, was inaugurated.

St. Josemaria also encouraged the first Filipinos to create a post-graduate educational center in order to give formation to people who could later on occupy important positions in the country. In August of 1967, Jess Estanislao and Bernie Villegas established an economic think-tank that they called the Center for Research and Communication (CRC), which in 1995 evolved into the University of Asia & the Pacific. In 1970, in Mexico, in a meeting with Bernie, St. Josemaria suggested the possibility of expanding CRC towards other countries in Southeast Asia. That same year, CRC started with the first post-graduate program, the Master of Science in Industrial Economics.

From St. Josemaria's interest in the formation of the youth also sprang a group of parents to form an association that would promote Primary and Secondary Education in Christian values. The realization of these plans was carried out after the death of St. Josemaria: Woodrose School for girls (1977) and Southridge School for boys (1979). Besides, with the dream of applying St. Josemaria's teachings and the social doctrine of the Church in the Philippine setting, given the social situation of the country, with a great disparity of social classes, and poverty among many, St. Josemaria encouraged the members to promote schools to equip men and women with education and skills in hotel and restaurant services; fishery and agricultural work; and technical and livelihood tasks.

Among these is Punlaan School which started in 1975. This center for learning was inspired by the words of St. Josemaria: "If a woman is a mature person, with a character and mind of her own, she will indeed accomplish the mission to which she feels called, whatever it may be. Her life and work will be really constructive, fruitful and full of meaning" because in all sectors—in the family, education, politics, etc.,— “women can offer a valuable personal contribution, without neglecting their special feminine qualities. They will do this to the extent to which they are humanly and professionally equipped." (Conversations, 87)

When St. Josemaria died, Opus Dei was merely eleven years old in the Philippines. Nevertheless the apostolates were already in all levels of society, as was demonstrated by the presence of hundreds who attended the funeral Mass celebrated for him at the Manila Cathedral in 1975.

The growth of the Work in the Philippines

In 1975 St. Josemaria commented to a group of his spiritual sons in Rome: “I have great desires to go to the Philippines. I would like to spend some time there even if it would be hot for me. Don't forget to tell your Filipino brothers that you have all the countries of the Orient waiting for you. You cannot be closed on yourselves; but open to these countries."

The growth of the Work in the Philippines included developments in the field of technical and skills training of men and women. 1986 saw the start of Anihan Technical School (Calamba) which offers diplomas in Cooking and Baking, while Habihan School for Residence and Institution Services and Managament (Quezon City) began its operations in 1992. Beginning in the eightees, social work flourished, along with the establishment of more schools addressing rural development and technical vocational training: Dualtech Training Center and the Center for Industrial Technology and Enterprise (CITE), the Dagatan Family Farm School, the Balete Family Farm School and the Bais Family Farm School. The primary and secondary schools also multiplied in number. At present there are eight in various important cities in the country, not counting four preschools.

From the Philippines, as the Founder saw, Opus Dei has started the work of evangelization in other Asian countries: Hong Kong (1981), Singapore (1982), Taiwan (1985), Macao (1989), and Indonesia and South Korea (2009). There are also trips to Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia.