FOUR heroic nuns who saved several lives during the 1983 sinking of the MV Doña Cassandra but who died in the process were honored posthumously by the UST Graduate School.

Last Feb. 16, relatives of Sisters Mary Consuelo Chuidian, Mary Concepcion Conti, Mary Virginia Gonzaga, and Mary Catherine Loreto of the Religious of the Good Shepherd congregation received on their behalf the San Antonino Pierozzi Posthumous Award, given to non-Thomasians who rendered extraordinary and exemplary services for others.

The four nuns were collectively known as the Cassandra Martyrs after their heroic deeds during the MV Doña Cassandra ferry tragedy on November 20, 1983. The four boarded the ferry from a port in Nasipit, Agusan del Norte to attend their congregation’s meeting in Cebu along with two other nuns, a priest, and several church workers. Despite the stormy seas caused by a typhoon, the inter-island ferry, which was allegedly overloaded, still set sail for Cebu.

On the morning of November 21, the sisters saw the ship’s crew bailing water out of the hull. Despite the crew’s insistence that there was nothing wrong with the ferry, the sisters alerted passengers about what they saw. It was not long before the boat started to capsize.

The sisters wasted no time. They shepherded the passengers by giving out life jackets, though the four sisters did not have any safety gear for themselves. They also led many passengers to the safety of the life rafts.

The four sisters continued to help other passengers, especially the children, until the ferry completely sank. Survivors say that they last saw the four nuns holding small children before they drowned in the shark-infested waters off Northeastern Mindanao.

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Until the end, the four sisters showed selfless love and the desire to save lives, witnesses said.

Of the 387 documented passengers and crew on board, about 200 perished, including the four sisters and the other Church servants who were with them.

More than 24 years later, the sisters are still remembered by their religious congregation. Organizations have also recognized the sisters’ zeal and martyrdom, most notably by the Bantayog ng mga Bayani Foundation founded by former Senate president Jovito Salonga.

Human rights advocates

The four nuns were also recognized by the UST Graduate School for their individual advocacies in fostering inter-faith dialogues, education, and justice for the victims of human rights abuses during the Marcos regime.

Chuidian, a 46-year-old superior of the St. Bridget Community in Davao, fearlessly documented human rights violations during the Marcos regime. She also led a movement against President Marcos, with the poor, oppressed and exploited Davaoeños supporting her.

At 46, Conti chose education as her way of helping people. She spearheaded literacy programs for the Banwaan Manobos of Agusan. She also established a community-based health program in the Diocese of Tagum, training health workers to attend to the basic needs of the poor.

Despite coming from an affluent family, 42-year-old Gonzaga chose to join the religious life. She fought for the rights of poor people and small workers in Cebu and supported interfaith dialogues between Christians and Muslims.

Loreto, 39, was the youngest of the four nuns. She joined the campaign to protect the rights of political detainees and also helped the families of desaparecidos (victims of forced disappearances) during the Marcos regime.

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Sr. Marcia Caridad Mercado of the Religious of the Good Shepherd Sisters Philippines said she was honored to receive the award for her fallen sisters.

“We at the Religious of the Good Shepherd Sisters are very happy with this recognition,” Mercado told the Varsitarian. “The Cassandra Martyrs embodied the Good Shepherd Sisters’ creed of laying down one’s life for others.”

Mercado also said that the Vatican has requested for documents related to the heroism of the Cassandra Martyrs to facilitate their possible beatification.

The Cassandra Martyrs were true selfless shepherds to the end, sacrificing their very lives so that other people may live, go on living, and end their lives by following the example of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who once said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11).”

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