The lad was a student, a defiant kind. He fretted glancing every now and then at the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary mercifully staring down at him from the grotto. He was awaiting punishment for a prank he did earlier. "Kneel and pray", he heard the commanding voice of Sor Joaquina. He shivered and meekly did as told without objection or trace of defiance. At Santo Tomas School, no one messes with Sor Joaquina.
Sor Joaquina of the Order of Saint Augustine (O.S.A.) arrived in Danao in early 1960s to establish and run Santo Tomas School, a catholic high school. She came prepared based on an outsider’s general perception of Danao’s culture and the corresponding predisposition of its population as a gun town.
Now a small city, Danao was once a medium class town in Cebu, a province in central Philippines. The town’s eastern section is a flat plain facing the sea and its west is part of the mountain ranges that span almost the entire province of Cebu. Danao was a town serenaded by the sea and cuddled by the mountains.
Danao’s idyllic topography was not matched by its reputation as a gun town, as thousands of residents were then involved in illegally making and selling of handguns. Danao’s gun-making history started in the early 1900s when an inventive local smith succeeded in crafting a handgun similar to the ones being used by foreign colonial soldiers stationed in Philippines at that time. His skills were later transferred to and enhanced by other smiths, cascading down to the generation that made use of it to resist the Japanese occupation of Danao in WWII, and later, down to townsfolk who adopted it as means of livelihood after the war.
Even with its reputation as a place where guns are illegally and covertly crafted and traded, differing views of the peace and order situation in Danao have remained until the present time. Outsiders generally imagine the town as a dangerous place while a typical resident will always aver that Danao is safer than elsewhere in the country.
As an outsider of Danao, Sor Joaquina shared the general preconception that it was not unlike the gun towns portrayed in western movies. She expected a duel with the town’s young gunslingers anticipated to populate Santo Tomas School.
Sor Joaquina was not thinking of a gun duel. Her self-made battle order was to engage her studentry in a test of wills for which she charted her strategy by first changing the rules of engagement to her advantage, then posturing herself as a fearless and uncompromising schoolmaster. Her objective was to alter the mindset of a supposedly difficult and unruly studentry expected of a gun town. Her subsequent moves were geared to achieve this objective.
She subtly decreed that misbehaviors and pranks are not tolerated and those who dared will invariably be made to kneel and pray as penalty. She was probably surprised that this edict was easily carried through without a hitch. No objections came from even the naughtiest among the students. The token resistance that the smartest and most devious of them offered was to be ready with knee padding in case they have to pray more ‘Our Fathers’ and ‘Hail Marys’ kneeling than their knees can endure.
She took no time to organize the school choir to sing during Sunday masses at the town’s church. This lightened up the otherwise boring masses, made more so by long sermons of the parish priest. Church goers now came with eager anticipation to hear the singing angels from Santo Tomas. Most delighted of all was the church assistant who for years served as the lone church singer.
She formed a dramatic guild and made fine stage actors of street bullies. One of the School’s presentations became the talk of the town for months, particularly the acting finesse of one student star previously noted only for street fighting.
Female students were taught to embrace humility by making them seek alms and donations for good causes, usually for the School. To Sor Joaquina’s surprise, motivation was so high that on Sundays one could find Santo Tomas students soliciting donations at the entrances of movie theaters in Cebu’s capital city, some 30 kilometers away from Danao.
Sor Joaquina did not forget the intellectual aspects of student development. She obtained a donation of a Physics laboratory that was even better than that in some well-known universities in the province. Years later, one graduate of Santo Tomas School placed in the top ten of a national engineering board examination, a feat never before attained by a student from Danao.
Sor Joaquina’s firm and unflinching way of administering her studentry did not generally endear her to Danao’s residents. She earned respect and fear but not admiration. A decade after her arrival, she was recalled by her congregation for an assignment to another school. There were no grand farewells at her departure, just simple goodbyes with few drops of tears. The only discernible sadness manifested was the subtle mellowing of the singing voices of the School’s choir and the subdued chirping of the sparrows inhabiting part of the school building.
Sor Joaquina did not know if she won or lost her battle.
Fast forward to the recent past: In a series of web postings, Ramon reported from Los Angeles that Artemio, now a nurse, volunteered for a medical mission to Danao organized by former town residents now living in the USA. He also reported that Jose, from Texas, had successfully pioneered an adopt-a-school project to support financially struggling village schools in Danao. Another posting announced that Ramon’s family will host the stay in the United States of an indigent child who was born with a disfigured face and brought to the country to undergo corrective surgeries.
Ramon, Jose and Artemio were then average students of Santo Tomas School. After struggling for their college degrees, they found their way to and settled in the United States. There, they made themselves available to quietly perform works of mercy.
The trio shared a common unforgettable experience- kneeling and praying hundreds of ‘Our Fathers’ and ‘Hail Marys’ on Sor Joaquina’s orders. They were her students and part of her objective. In them, Sor Joaquina won her duel in the gun town.