It was a mildly cold night in December, a week before Christmas, in the early 1970s. A ferry was smooth sailing along Cabra Island in Lubang, an island between Batangas and Mindoro.
This is Cabra Island in Lubang, an island in-between Batangas and Mindoro.
As usual, the vessel was filled to overflowing with passengers. Most of them were housemaids who were going home to the Visayas to celebrate Christmas with their loved ones. Blasting from the ferry’s loudspeaker was Eddie Peregrina’s recording of the song What Am I Living For? Many passengers were enjoying the song, some were even singing in desafinado voices, almost in chorus, following the song.
Instantly, a bright light suddenly appeared from the sky and it shined down below, illuminating the bushes, the boulders and the trees of Cabra Island.
Cabra Island in Lubang, in between Batangas and Mindoro
A few days ago, before this ferry trip, several allegedly visionary Filipino children have claimed to have seen the Holy Virgin who had spoken with them. The publicity of the incident was still fresh in the passengers’ minds. And now, here was this bright light illuminating Cabra Island. Could this be part and parcel of the miracle?
I wasn’t a passenger in this ferry, but since my relatives owned Rodrigueza Shipping, they would be able to tell me what really happened that night. Since they were not passengers either, they referred me to the ferry’s purser, who, in turn, have told me the whole nine yards of what had really happened.
He related to me that it was the scariest experience he ever had on a ferry trip. He described to me that as soon as the passengers saw the unexplainable bright light, a deftly felt fear and excitement triggered a surge of adrenalin, resulting in the panic that almost culminated into a horrific disaster. They began screaming hysterically, many were weeping, and like stampeding wild horses, rushed towards one side of the ferry to get a glimpse of the “miracle,” causing the ferry to lean on one side that it nearly toppled!
The purser, with presence of mind, quickly turned off the music and announced over the loudspeaker, telling the passengers to get away from one side immediately or the ferry would sink. Only when the vessel began to tip over that the hysterical mob finally woke up from their foolishness and realized that they could really end up seeing the Holy Virgin prematurely – in the real McCoy place – called heaven.
When the light has finally dissipated (it was never explained by PAG-ASA what it was – though I suspect it was possibly a big meteor), everybody was traumatized both by the “miraculous light” and the tension of the near-disaster. Many housemaids approached the purser to play music in the ferry to lessen the stress of the event. They specifically asked him to play Eddie Peregrina songs, such as: I Believe, You’ll Never Walk Alone, and it should be followed by Two Lovely Flowers, Mardy, and Together Again. The purser told me that his anger towards the silly passengers would not go away just like that. Instead of playing an Eddie Peregrina song, he played a Chinese song of Hongkong recording artist Nancy Sit. This really pissed the housemaids off.
“We paid our fares!” Screamed some of them. “We want Eddie Peregrina songs, not Chekwa songs!”
Chekwa is a derogatory slang for Chinese.
But, their screams fell on the deaf ears of the purser. He was still seething from the awful near-disaster. Hence, the whole trip was graced by Nancy Sit’s Chinese songs that nobody understood and appreciated. The loud songs blasted the eardrums of the housemaids until the ferry had finally reached its destination.
And the “miracle?”
Oh, well, at least the kids have enjoyed their so-called “fifteen-minute fame.”
The panicking passengers would have caused the ferry to sink, just like the photo above.
Meanwhile, Virgin Mary sightings kept happening in the Philippines. In the 1980’s, some children from Ilocos also claimed the appearance of the virgin. Apparently, she talked about the mission of each child. Many believers, fence-sitters, and nonbelievers went to Ilocos in droves. Fights happened because the nonbelievers were there to taunt the believers, and the believers, naturally were pissed off. Thank God the fence sitters were there to pacify the warring groups.
But, let’s go back to the 1970’s, one of the most interesting and wackiest decades on earth.
I have four older sisters. When I was a child, my mother and my sisters would always read me stories. They also introduced me to the alphabet. At the age of five, I was already reading the Manila Times. When I went to school that year, the only thing my Grade 1 teacher had to teach me was writing. It was also the time when I started drawing.
The practice of reading the newspaper daily became habitual for me. During my adolescent years, the first thing I would do in the morning was have coffee while reading the morning paper. As a teenager, one morning, while browsing Panorama, a magazine supplement of the Manila Bulletin, I saw an article on a woman who claimed to have seen the Santo Niño (Baby Jesus).
This time, the visionary was not a child, but an adult named Sister Thelma.
“Now that was a new twist,” I said to myself.
Jose Rizal's residence in Calamba, Laguna.
The article described her as a healer, a God-sent individual whose mission was to heal the sick and emancipate the ailing spirits of people in turmoil. She claimed that the Santo Niño, God the Father, and the Immaculate Concepcion, had told her to build a chapel in a particular location in Calamba, Laguna, where a spring would appear and its water would heal the sick. People came in droves in Laguna to see Sister Thelma. Many have claimed to have been healed by her. She would go into a trance and would use her tongue by licking the wounds of many of her patients. She also used a wooden cross and coconut oil. She would pour oil on the cross, then lay it flat on the patient’s skin. When the patient had no illness, the cross will fall. If the patient was ill, the cross would stick on the patient’s skin and only Sister Thelma who could remove it.
“Holy shit,” was my reaction. “This one is definitely an uber faith healer. Licking the wounds. My, my. I just have to meet this person,” I told my girlfriend.
So, my girlfriend and I drove to Calamba, Laguna to see Sister Thelma.
This visionary was a thirty-something small woman with smooth olive-skin and a winsome smile that instantly melted my heart. Talking to her, I have felt – or imagined to have felt – a certain tenderness that surged allover deep within me. Could it be this charisma that made so many people trust her and surrender their salvation completely in her? She was extremely busy healing many people that day and she promised to see me the following week at the Broadcast City in Quezon City.
On the day of our meeting at the TV network, I announced to everyone that the well-publicized healer from Laguna would be coming to the studio for an interview. She arrived with two assistants. She was wearing the white habit and the white veil that she was wearing during the healing sessions. We sat across from each other at a desk and started the interview. While I was talking to her, there came a time when she suddenly fell into a trance. Her voice became like a little child and continued answering my questions. I noticed that producers, directors, actors and production people started to gather around us. Soon, we were surrounded by many people. A lady production assistant whispered to me, saying that she had been stung by a poisonous jelly fish on the beach in Cavite and the nasty wound was not healing. She asked me whether I could ask Sister Thelma if she could help her. But, before I could tell Sister Thelma about her problem, the latter turned around and said:
“Come to me, my child,” the childlike voice said. “I will heal the wound in your leg.”
The production assistant was taken aback and so was I. She approached Sister Thelma and the healer started licking the patient’s wound. After a while, the healer became very stiff. The assistants hold her and let her lie on the floor.
At this point, comedian Gary Lising taunted the lady in trance, stumping his foot near her, saying: “Cut! Cut! The scene is over! Cut!”
Suddenly, Sister Thelma spoke in a low, deep man’s voice: “I want you to listen to me! Come closer!”
The comedian kneeled on the floor and leaned towards Sister Thelma. He moved his ear closer to her mouth. She whispered something to him. The comedian’s expression suddenly changed. He got up and left, leaving everyone baffled. When the healer came to, her assistants lifted her to her feet and I asked everyone to leave us alone for the interview.
Funnyman Gary Lising.
She was an only child. She was a spoiled brat. Whatever she wanted, she got. At 17, she fancied to be queen at the town fiesta. Despite the expense, her father obliged. When she was going to college, her father asked her for just one thing: to finish her studies before getting married. She was on her last year in university when she eloped. Her father never forgave her. She and her husband lived a difficult life. They had two children. One day her husband got killed. It was an unsolved murder. The police officer who was assigned to the case became her second husband. When her mother was dying, she went to visit her, but at the doorway, he father stopped her and told her to go away. Her mother died, and she wasn’t even allowed to attend the burial. After two years, her father had a stroke and while bedridden, he summoned her through her best friend. The father asked forgiveness, and she willingly forgave him, then asked for his forgiveness as well.
She inherited all her parents’ properties. Her new husband convinced her to start a minimart. She obliged. She also bought an expensive car for him. She also sold her parents’ house to buy another in a subdivision. But, the husband became a compulsive gambler. They lost the minimart, the car, and now the house is in danger of being foreclosed by the bank because they didn’t pay it in full. Faced by her husbands’ beating, hunger, and the prospect of homelessness, she attempted to poison her two children from her first marriage and the baby from her second husband. It was when the apparition of a child stopped her from doing it. He told her to go to the house of a cancer patient that she didn’t know in Canlubang. Afraid, she went and found the patient’s house. She introduced herself and told her what her mission was. Not knowing what to do, she massaged the neck of the patient. She then told her she was coming back the next day to continue healing her. But, she had no intention of coming back. That night, the apparition of the child appeared again and persuaded her to go back to heal the sick. She did. The patient was healed, and her husband mended his ways when he saw what was happening. Many people were healed.
She then told me that the apparition (the Santo Niño), gave her a mission: to build a chapel where a spring would arise and the water will heal the sick. When her youngest son Kristopher reaches the age of seven, she will die. And Kristopher will continue her mission until his death.
The TV episode would have been about the miracles of the healer. However, after my interview with her, I did my own further research and undercover work. Sister Thelma omitted one thing about her life. She, it turned out, was a former radio drama talent. This discovery gave me enough reason to debunk her claims, especially the changing voices. And yet, I discovered another thing that I could never explain. While wearing a disguise and dark sunglasses, I came to the healing session to observe. When she fell into a trance, four men were trying to lift her yet they couldn’t do it. I came to their rescue and helped. She was just too heavy to be lifted. It boggled my mind how a 120 lbs woman who was slightly taller than Nora Aunor would become so heavy and impossible to be lifted by five men.
When I sat down to write the two-hour episode done in semi-documentary style by including actual footages of the healing sessions and interviews, I could no longer just write a straight-forward healing story. I was compelled to write the story of Sister Thelma, the woman. Sister Thelma the person, who, despite her little weaknesses didn’t deserve to be treated like a rag. She was a beautiful person, someone far from being a saint, but someone with a good heart who gave so much to her loved ones and the throngs of people who came daily to be healed. What was amazing was the fact that she never charged even a cent. But, the well-off insisted on giving her subsistence which she reluctantly accepted. But, the most important thing was: she gave hope to the hopeless, and the miracles might not even be true miracles but might be some sort of a placebo effect. Divine intervention or not, Sister Thelma remained a beautiful person who deserved to be respected and accepted. And who else would play this role with panace and grace but Gina Alajar? Indeed, she played the role brilliantly.
Gina Alajar, played the role of Sister Thelma. Gina, even now, is one of Philippines' fantastic actresses.
My only regret is: I left the country soon after this episode had aired. I have totally lost the tract of whatever happened to Sister Thelma’s plight after that.
Did she really die after seven years?
People of Calamba, Laguna do you know what really happened?