(Fourth of a series)
Montemaria is a religious center in the highland town of Alfonso in Cavite province where pilgrims and the sick go for healing through the intercession of Roman Catholic priest Fernando Suarez.
The fresh, cool air and the idyllic location of Montemaria fit Suarez’s vision of a “place of spiritual renewal and conversion, a place to experience God through the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
Beneath the serenity, however, is uncertainty about the future of Montemaria, as San Miguel Corp. (SMC) is taking back the 33-hectare property on which the center sits.
Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco Jr. and Ramon Ang of San Miguel Corp. donated the property, which is part of SMC’s 100-hectare estate in Alfonso, to Suarez’s healing ministry in 2010.
The property is located in Amuyong village across the Twin Lakes vineyard resort community. Sitting next door to Tagaytay City, Montemaria is accessible from Manila on the route served by Batangas-bound buses.
A scale model on the property shows a Marian shrine with a statue of the Virgin Mary towering over a cathedral, a livelihood center and a youth development center, among other features.
SMC donated the property to Suarez’s ministry on the condition that he build the shrine within five years.
Almost four years after the donation, only a makeshift chapel, an administrative office and Stations of the Cross have been built on the property. Herd of cows can be seen grazing in the rolling grassy field.
Without even a basic plan for development of the shrine, the donation fell through. SMC is now taking back the property.
Mass is held at Montemaria every Saturday and Sunday at 10 a.m. in a covered court that serves as a makeshift chapel. At the back is a clinic and a souvenir shop where rosaries and religious items are sold.
Suarez celebrates Mass in the chapel every third Sunday of the month while guest priests requested from St. Joseph Quasi Parish fill in the rest of the schedule.
When the INQUIRER visited the place on Saturday, about a hundred people, mostly elderly, were hearing Mass. There were not enough of them to fill half of the chapel but churchgoers and volunteer workers said the “rows of monobloc chairs” were full whenever Suarez was the celebrant.
Lourdes Artificio of Tondo, Manila, was one of the churchgoers on Saturday. She said she had been coming to Montemaria for more than a year now.
Artificio came with her wheelchair-bound husband. Virgilio Artificio had a stroke, had a part of his skull removed and recently had gallbladder surgery.
“He’s feeling better now,” Lourdes said. “Sometimes the healing is not instant. You have to persevere with prayer.”
“Many people attest to the healing ability of Father Suarez, although he maintains that he is just an instrument of the Lord,” she said.
The staff of Mary Mother of the Poor (MMP) Foundation and seminarians hold a 40-hour vigil in the chapel every month. Church organizations and devotees flock to Montemaria on pilgrimage.
The management of Montemaria collects a parking fee of P50 for cars and motorcycles and P100 for buses. The collection is used for maintenance of the parking space.
Montemaria is maintained by volunteers, mostly residents of the area who attest to being healed by Suarez.
Emelito Tenorio, a volunteer gardener at Montemaria, is a former poultry worker who had difficulty speaking after being struck in a hit-and-run accident. He said his power of speech gradually returned to normal after hearing Masses celebrated by Suarez.
Zenaida Vicente, who does the laundry, said her pelvic pain disappered after she heard healing Masses.
The workers said Suarez was a kind and considerate leader who would drop in at midnight to bring food when they had to work late.
They said Suarez also brought presents for them from his healing missions abroad.
Vicente said that when the staff went out with Suarez to eat, the priest was always the first to think about the security guards who were left behind and brought back food for them.
Rumors of relocation
Most of the volunteer workers said they knew nothing about Montemaria being moved to some other place. A worker who asked not to be named, however, said there were rumors of a move, but the administration was quiet about it.
“We’ve heard rumors like that before but it hasn’t happened. This time, I think it’s true,” the worker said, adding that Montemaria may be moved to Novaliches district in Quezon City after a scheduled recollection in April.
“It’s unfortunate because the foundation has helped a lot of people,” the worker said.
The worker mentioned a contract to build a Marian statue on the property in three years, but the foundation failed to deliver.
A priest from St. Joseph Quasi Parish also said there was a conflict between the foundation and the Diocese of Imus.
He said that being under the jurisdiction of the Imus diocese, the MMP should be headed by the bishop of Imus.
Unwilling to yield the leadership of the foundation, Suarez decided to transfer to the Diocese of Mindoro.
Bro. Ronnie Talaver, the foundation’s pastoral head and administrator, said the group was in talks with the Imus diocese about the status of the construction of Montemaria.
“When Father Suarez returns, we will also have a meeting with San Miguel,” he said.
Suarez is on a nine-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Earlier, when asked if SMC was indeed withdrawing the donation, Talaver blurted out: “How could they take it back? We have the land title.”
Asked if Montemaria would relocate to Novaliches, he replied, “There is no instruction from Father Suarez regarding that.”
Suarez is from Batangas. It is said that as a teenager, he discovered that when he prayed with people who were sick, they got better and eventually recovered.
Suarez decided to become a priest. He joined the Companions of the Cross, a religious community in Canada, and was ordained into the priesthood in 2002.
Since becoming a priest, he has been celebrating healing Masses, conducting retreats and missions in the Philippines and other countries.
The MMP, a charitable organization founded by Suarez, is involved in education, feeding programs and livelihood projects for the poor. It accepts donations from followers in the United States and Canada.
The beneficiary communities include Ilin, Ambulong Island, Labangan, Ansiray, Catayongan, Pawican, Tibago, Pitogo, Natanadol and Manga in Occidental Mindoro.
As the foundation grew, a mission house was planned for missionaries from Canada and the United States.
In 2007, Batangas Rep. Hermilando Mandanas donated a 5-hectare property for a center dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary planned by Suarez. The P1-billion project consisted of a 50-meter-tall stainless steel statue of Mary that would be called Mother of All Asia and built on top of a 27-meter-high podium. A chapel worth P30 million was built on the property.
The project website (montemaria.ph) of developer Abacus Consolidated Resources and Holdings Inc. describes the development as a shrine that will attract devotees and pilgrims but will also serve as a retirement village and tourist attraction.
The mixed-use development will be part of a 129-hectare complex featuring condotels for pilgrims and tourists, one high-end and one middle-class residential subdivision and a commercial business district.
The project is under development, but Suarez’s healing ministry has nothing to do with it. The MMP moved to the SMC property after accepting the donation in 2010.
Despite the controversy surrounding Suarez’s ministry, thousands of people continue to go to his healing Masses. The MMP website says the current location can no longer accommodate the increasing number of pilgrims, but expansion through land purchase is beyond the reach of the foundation.