WOMEN?S Ministry, especially among poor and marginalized women, was supposed to be her assignment. But when Sr. Clars Dolencio, ICM, was assigned to the parish of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary de Caracol in the coastal town of Rosario in Cavite, she found that her apostolate overflowed into practically all parish programs for the poor, including ecology, livelihood and even community organizing.
Immersion in a poor fishing community is a far cry from St. Theresa?s College (STC) campuses in Quezon City and Cebu that are still run by ICM sisters, but for Sister Clars and Sr. Shirley Agoo, their work harks back to the original charism of the three Belgian missionary sisters who came to the Philippines exactly 100 years ago.
Work with poor
They had also intended to work with poor communities and tribal minorities, but they set aside their plans upon the request of the then archbishop of Manila, who felt that education was a pressing need. They set up STC in Manila, followed by campuses in Quezon City and Cebu and St. Louis College in Baguio.
Sister Clars, who lives in a rented room near the Wawa River, recalls that her living arrangements were similar to those of the first Belgian sisters. ?The three of them lived in a rented room with a leaky roof, and when it rained, they opened their umbrellas inside the room,? she said.
But unlike those early missionaries who were diverted from their original purpose, Sister Clars now works with vendors, sewers, fishermen, factory workers from Cavite Export Processing Zone and tricycle drivers.
The reversion to the original charism of the community was an outcome of the community?s reexamination of its mission after Second Vatican Council. Although ICM congregation maintains its two campuses in Quezon City and Cebu, its major thrust has now been re-engineered toward missionary work with the poor, tribal minorities and other marginalized sectors.
Women?s Ministry was started by Sr. Emelina Villegas, ICM, and launched on March 3, 2003, International Women?s Day. It was blessed by Bishop Antonio Tagle.
Vision of change
At the inauguration, Tagle urged the ministry not to limit itself to women?s issues, but rather for the sisters to ?insert? themselves into all programs of the parish and the diocese, particularly in ecology. Sister Clars succeeded Sister Emelina five years ago.
The ministry helped set up the flourishing Basic Ecclesial Communities?neighborhood groups for Biblical sharing and reflection and venues for discussion of common concerns. Most of BEC coordinators, in fact, are members of the ministry.
The effectiveness of the ministry can be attributed to its transformational vision and the tireless efforts of the two sisters in concretizing this vision, that of a godly society permeated by justice and peace, in which men and women have equal rights and opportunities, and which protects the environment.
Education is an important component of the ministry. Seminars and exposure to women?s rights and duties, values formation and recollections and retreats have succeeded in empowering poor women to assume leadership roles in their communities and parish activities.
In addition to BECs, Women?s Ministry can be counted upon to be involved in human rights and Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting, among other concerns.
Working with women invariably leads to projects involving children. Sister Clars observed that the mothers had a lot of children and idle youths just hanging around, so she organized them into Munting Alagad ni Kristo, whose members are now involved in youth Masses, block rosaries, gatherings and Lenten activities.
The ministry organized a feeding program for young children, a project under Catholic Church?s ?Pondo ng Pinoy,? with the mothers taking turns cooking the meals.
Through the ministry, women have been able to avail themselves of skills training programs and livelihood projects. In 2006, they tapped Pondo ng Pinoy for a P100,000 grant as seed capital for livelihood projects for the women. ICM community also donated P28,000 to the project.
Under the program, applicants were given loans of P5,000 for one year at 1-percent interest. They were taught simple accounting methods and required to save P30 a month in addition to the regular amortization. Upon full payment, the money was relent to another set of applicants.
To date, there have been four batches of applicants. They have set up sari-sari stores and have gone into hog raising, rag making and buying and selling of meat, fish and peanut butter.
The ministry has thrown its support behind Imus Diocese?s ecological thrust, conducting training sessions, coordinating coastal and canal cleanups and garbage segregation and networking with green nongovernmental organizations, such as Ecowaste Coalition.
Even livelihood projects have incorporated the ?reduce, reuse, recycle? philosophy?pillows are stuffed with shredded Tetrapak wrappers, and rice sacks are recycled into bags to be sold at the public market.
Some 500 fishermen in the coastal area were badly affected when Tropical Storm ?Ondoy? struck a year ago. But the calamity brought the ministry closer to them. ?We felt it was not enough to give them relief,? Sister Clars said.
What the fishermen needed was a continuing program. After going through an orientation and two conventions, they recently signed their constitution as Pinagkaisang Mangingisda ng Rosario and will soon select their leaders.
They hope to be able to implement projects that will help them with their livelihood, as well as think of alternatives when their catch declines.
Although Women?s Ministry is thriving, it faces daunting problems, some of them behavioral.
Sister Clars lamented the pervasiveness of ?tong-its,? a card game, as a pastime. Even in the feeding program, she said, some mothers preferred to play rather than take their children to the feeding site.
Other problems have to do with raw materials and equipment. The livelihood program needs sewing machines ?kahit na padyak-padyak lang,? and a heavy-duty paper shredder.
Paper shredding machine? Indeed, because while Tetrapaks are aplenty, shredding them for pillow-stuffing quickly dulls scissors. Unlike discarded Tetrapaks, however, cotton for rag making is in short supply. Equipment and materials that are so ordinary to the affluent are desperately needed by the poor trying to eke out a living.
Despite the hardships and frustrations, there is no doubt that ICM sisters, living in solidarity with the poor, have made a difference in the community?s lives.
For the fisherfolk, vendors and tricycle drivers of Rosario, the sisters are the real face of the Church.
Those who want to donate to any of the projects may call Sr. Clars Dolencio at 09096443906.