Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day (IWD). International Women’s Day is a global day that celebrates womanhood. Every year the shrine joins the whole world in celebrating the gift of womanhood on International Women’s Day.
Women have played a major role in the ministry of the shrine through these years. For instance, there are many women volunteers in the shrine. The shrine is one of the few if not the only shrine in Manila who has altar girls. The shrine has long wanted to recruit female communion ministers but was discouraged by the standing policy of the Archdiocese of Manila not to allow women to become Eucharistic ministers (though women religious sisters are allowed to give communion in the archdiocese). Most of our lay missionaries are women. Indeed, the shrine has fostered the participation of women in the church for many years.
The shrine has two congregations of women religious working as partners in the shrine ministry: Missionaries of our Lady of Perpetual Help (MPS) sisters and Oblate Sisters of the Most Holy Redeemer (OSR) sisters.
The MPS sisters whose official name is Misioneras de la Nuestra Señora del Perpetuo Socorro have been helping the shrine in administration and management of its services and programs. They are religious sisters founded by a Redemptorist. The Redemptorist began partnering with the MPS sisters in July 1995 when the MPS Sisters helped in the urban mission and subsequently became members of the Baclaran Mission Team.
The OSR sisters have been helping the shrine in responding to the challenges and needs of women at risk especially those engaged in prostitution. The OSR is a Catholic religious congregation founded in Ciempozuelos, Madrid, Spain on June 1, 1864 by Bishop Jose Maria Benito Serra, OSB and Antonia de Oviedo Schonthal, OSR for the evangelization and integral human development of marginalized and exploited women.
Devotees have brought women’s issues to the shrine like unwanted pregnancies, cases of battered women, girls who were victims of incest and rape, trafficking of women and sexual harassment. In the past, we found many dead unborn children fetus in the vicinity of the shrine. We suspect that these fetuses belonged to women who felt deep regret and guilt for having gone through abortion.
Workers of the Night
The shrine has been responding to the challenges and needs of women at risk especially those engaged in prostitution mainly through the efforts of Oblate Sisters of the Most Holy Redeemer (OSR).
The OSR sisters told Fr. Biju Madathikunnel, CSsR that they come to the Shrine on Tuesdays and Saturdays. They spend the night there getting up the following day as early as 2 O’clock in the morning. They go out at this early hour in search of these women to extend a helping hand and an open heart. The women range in age from 18 to 43 years. They come to light some candles before the image of OMPH and pray in the church. Some of them spend time around the statue of St. Therese of Lisieux which is located on the Church grounds.
For the most part, poverty and lack of education prevent them from getting a job and so are almost forced to end up in prostitution. Sometimes they are living with someone and their ‘partner’ forces them to earn ‘rent’ money and so they turn to prostitution. Many of the women come from Visayas islands, Davao, or Mindanao. Their “customers” who come to the bar are mostly foreigners. In many of the bars, the women are paid 150 pesos (about $3 or £2.3 per night. However, if a “customer” chooses them they may earn as much as 3000 pesos depending on the situation and rules of the bar.
Some of the women are into alcoholism and drugs. They say at times they need those to endure the nights. They do so to overcome the deep shame and guilt they feel since most of them are born and brought up in a catholic environment. One woman recounted that she drinks as much as five bottles of wine to endure the nights. When the police stage a raid on them, they need to avoid being caught at all cost. The police arrest them and at times take them and rape them inside the jail.
They also face danger from their “customers”. They are often treated very cruelly by their clients and the bar managers will not step in to help or defend them. Some of the bars are run by foreigners. They marry a Filipina and usually it is the wife who manages the bars. There are neither social security benefits nor proper medical services made available to the women. Recently one woman who was affected by tuberculosis came to the sisters and the Redemptorists helped her get the needed treatment for her disease.
Mostly what they need and hunger for is someone to talk to. They also desperately want to go to confession. When they open up to the sisters or social workers, they just cry in helplessness.
The OSR sisters and the social workers encourage the women to come to take part in a ‘follow up’ program which meets every Wednesday. They are helped to become aware of the reality of their life situation and are motivated to escape to a new and fuller experience of life. Various kinds of training programs are offered by the Shrine to help these women gain the skills necessary to escape their lives of slavery to prostitution. Training is given primarily in the areas of housekeeping, culinary arts, beauty care, and the food and beverage service industry. This training program is also known as ALS (Alternative Learning System). Some are given scholarships to go to the college, and even in some cases, their children are also given scholarships to attend school. Every month there is a meeting for these women that is especially aimed to give value formation, spiritual enrichment, skills for life and lessons on reproductive health.
Within the last two years, they were able to save at least ten women from prostitution and helped them to find other jobs. Actually, many of them are now regular workers at the coffee shop of the shrine—the Sinirangan Coffee Shop. When they were asked whether they missed their former job at the bars, without any hesitation, they answered no. They are far happier and fulfilled now in their present jobs.
Novena Text and Women
One of the reasons for the revision of the novena in 2016 is to incorporate inclusive language. Inclusive language avoids the use of certain expressions or words especially gender-specific words, such as “man”, “mankind”, and masculine pronouns, the use of which might be considered to exclude women. Below are some examples of this revision in the novena. In the prayer for the home, mankind was changed to human family.
Help us to grow daily in genuine love of God and neighbor * so that justice and peace may happily reign * in the entire family of mankind. Amen.
Help us to grow daily in genuine love of God and neighbor * so that justice and peace may happily reign * in the entire human family. Amen.
In the hymn, O Saving Victim, men was changed to all:
O saving Victim opening wide
O saving Victim opening wide
 A large part of the information in this section comes from Fr. Biju’s interview of the OSR sisters regarding their ministry to women at risks in the shrine. “A Mission that Needs Many Helping Hands,” Scala News, May 18, 2017. Accessed at https://www.cssr.news/2017/05/a-mission-that-needs-many-helping-hands/