Sr. Patricia Fox: Personifying Genuine Development Work in the Church

For more than 6 months this year, Sister Patricia Anne Fox has hogged the headlines in the country starting on April 16 when 6 officials of the Bureau of Immigration (BI) arrested her in Quezon City  and culminating in her  dramatic departure for Australia on November 3. 

Sr. Pat first arrived in the Philippines in 1990 as her congregation, the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion envisioned to see the world through the perspective of the poor. She recalls being housed initially at the compound of the Religious of the Good Shepherd (RGS) in Quezon City through the endorsement of the late Sr. Mary Christine Tan.

Sr. Mary Christine Tan lived among the urban poor residents of Leveriza in Pasay City and was the first Filipino to head the Philippine province of the RGS. It is no surprise that many RGS sisters supported Sr. Pat’s fight to remain in the country amidst her deportation on charges of participation in anti-government activities.

Living Amidst the People in Central Luzon

One of Sr. Pat’s first assignments in the country is in the Prelature of Infanta in Quezon Province under the late Bishop Julio Xavier Labayen. At that time, there were few congregations in Infanta and Bp. Labayen invited the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion to undertake their mission there. Sr. Pat immersed herself in development programs that address the issues confronting poor farmers and indigenous peoples.

She was among the religious who also engaged in community-based disaster management (CBDM) through the Central Luzon Disaster Response Network (CLDRN). She also became one of the founders of the Alay Bayan Incorporated (ABI) which was established by CLDRN’s member organizations on April 10, 2000. ABI provides services to calamity survivors. 

Sr. Pat frequently joined relief delivery operations and rehabilitation projects especially in the poorest villages in Central Luzon including those in Real and Aurora where she is well-loved by the people. Much of her charm lies in the fact that she speaks Filipino. “And she is fond of watching Filipino news programs and drama series,” one of the residents of Real town said. “We are never intimidated by her presence. She can speak our language and respects our way of life,” she further explained.

Her congregation has a staff house in Real alongside the national highway and facing the sea. It is a modest building made of local materials where members of a women’s group, KUMARE often meet. Sr. Pat has assisted Sr. Anne, another member from her congregation in ensuring that KUMARE members are provided with the necessary training and capacity building undertakings. The sisters are culturally sensitive and they also value the importance of freeing women from gender stereotypes. KUMARE members are trained to be community leaders, something that is generally denied to rural women. They also have a savings and lending program to improve their economic well-being.

Sr. Pat wanted the KUMARE women to learn proper management so that they can eventually lead and operate their own programs. Giselle Montano, Executive Director of the Management Advancement Systems Association, Inc. (MASAI) said “She really made sure that the women’s organization involved in the project was provided with trainings in project management and participatory evaluation”. In fact, Sr. Pat travelled all the way from Real to the Quezon City office of MASAI which took her about four hours to facilitate a meeting between KUMARE members and MASAI trainers. Sr. Pat and her congregation remain firm in their belief that women’s empowerment through capacity building is far superior than purely welfare and dole-out projects. 

Participatory Leadership at the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP)

By 2000, Sr. Pat has gone from being the Coordinator of RMP in Central Luzon to being its National Coordinator. She encouraged the regular consultations at different levels of leadership in the organization – from the Board to the local implementing committees. Active engagement in the lives and issues of the rural sectors that RMP partners with including the farmers, indigenous peoples (IPs) and fisherfolk also characterized all RMP chapters.

She also launched project management trainings of the RMP chapters in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao from 2002-2007. Many of today’s program staff members in RMP learned the basics in the conceptualization, planning, and implementation of development programs during this time. Other trainees went on to work in people’s organizations. Some of the programs which resulted from these undertakings include literacy and numeracy and agricultural schools for indigenous peoples in Mindanao, sustainable agriculture, and community based health programs in Luzon and Visayas. RMP was also able to solicit books and school supplies for farmers and IP communities.

From 2009-2010, Sr. Pat participated in rehabilitation efforts for the survivors of typhoon Sendong and Pepeng. “We helped people reconstruct homes and rehabilitate their agricultural lands,” she remembers now.

In recent years, she, along with other church and development workers, set up a project for the elderly. “This is for the elderly community workers who have dedicated their lives to bring about social change and now need assistance themselves as they age,” explains Sr. Pat, who also happens to be a former elementary school teacher.

Belief in Active Role of the Church in Genuine Development

Apart from RMP, Sr. Pat was also active as a volunteer of the Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (Union of Agricultural Workers or UMA). “We had pilot farming projects in Hacienda Luisita and health and literacy projects in Negros Occidental,” Sr. Pat proudly recalls. In another organization named Suhay Kanayunan (Support for the Countryside), Sr. Pat and her colleagues implemented agricultural production trainings and alternative marketing in Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac province.

The 72-year old Australian missionary nun has always championed the social teachings of the Church. “The Church is right there in the midst of the struggling people. We share in both their challenges and triumphs,” she opines.

This solidarity with the poor is one of the reasons why she opposed   the deportation order filed by the Philippines’ Bureau of Immigration (BI) against her. As she put it, “I have no illusion that the Philippine will collapse if I leave. What I am fighting for is the principle that one can’t just be thrown out of a country arbitrarily. It’s the principle that foreigners like myself have the right to express our solidarity with the poor without fear. To show our support to people like Rita Espinoza and Ben Quilloy who are denied justice. They have worked for people’s development for most of their lives and they do not deserve to be treated like common criminals”.

Ben and Rita are development workers who were illegally arrested and detained. They are facing trumped-up charges and are currently incarcerated at the Butuan City Jail in Agusan del Norte.

Recognizing that things may seem difficult, Sr. Pat still calls out to church people and to those from other sectors “to always be on the side of what is right and be encouraged by the communities we work with. It takes a lot of courage but we know we are not alone and our perseverance will eventually see the fruits of change. We just need to believe and be assured there is support even from a distance”.

Continuing Mission Despite the Odds

Last June, about two months after Sr. Pat was detained at the BI, the Department of Justice (DOJ) ruled that the BI cannot forfeit Sr. Pat’s missionary visa. “This means that there’s no ground for the BI to cancel her visa. We considered that a victory for Sr. Pat’s fight to remain in the country,” Atty. Maria Sol Taule, Sr. Pat’s legal counsel said.

However, she continues to face a deportation charge. The BI’s Board of Commissioners said that Sr. Pat violated the terms of her visa because she participated in protests against the government. The latter is considered as political activities which foreigners are allegedly prohibited from joining. Prior to this decision, President Rodrigo Duterte himself referred to Sr. Pat’s supposed criticisms of government as “violation of sovereignty”. In a public address he even declared, “Don’t let her in because that nun has no shame”.

On September 3, Sr. Pat filed a petition for review at the Department of Justice (DOJ) to reverse the deportation order against her by the BI. She asserts that the BI failed to address the merits of her case including her constitutional and internationally guaranteed rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion. Her activities including her acts of solidarity with the poor such as participation in fact-finding missions (FFMs) are part of her work for her congregation hence, the grant of her missionary visa.

Reacting to the deportation case against her, Sr. Pat explained, “I was surprised as I had only been carrying out the same activities as I had been doing for the last 28 years that I was in the Philippines. I was disappointed that I was never given a hearing nor did the BI ever answer any of our legal arguments. Finally they had to say in writing that the President wanted me out and they were just implementing his wishes”.

Atty. Taule further explained that Sr. Pat’s activities in helping out the poor and disadvantaged sectors are part of her missionary work. “Hindi puwedeng ihiwalay ang mga activities ni Sr. Pat sa kanyang missionary work”, (Sr. Pat’s activities cannot be separated from her missionary work.) Atty. Taule remarked.

The BI did not extend her temporary visitor’s visa that was to expire on November 3. She was left with no option but to leave the country on that same day. After attending Mass and a press conference, Sr. Pat had an emotional farewell to her many supporters including church leaders, mass leaders and representatives of basic sectors. “I will return”, she promised.

But even as she was about to leave, she still experienced a form of harassment. The tire of her car service was intentionally slashed (about 3 inches long) as she and her supporters were preparing for her departure.

Sr. Pat shares what she has been up to in Australia by saying, “I have been back in Australia for just one month now and still find it hard to realize I can’t go back to the Philippines at least while Duterte is President. I have been busy giving talks, particularly to Filipino communities and Migrante has adopted me here. So at present I have been able to tell the story of what is happening in the Philippines at different forums. But I will miss very much all those I have worked with and stayed with for some time. It is a matter now of reorienting myself to defending human rights from outside the country and supporting those development projects which will help people to live a decent life where they have a say in their own destiny”.

News of more arrests and human rights violations (HRVs) especially among the peasants of Mindanao have reached her and she recounts similar occurrences when she was in the country.  “My experience has been whenever the rural sectors organize to defend and make their lands productive, militarization often increases. Leaders are targeted and many killed or had false charges made against them. I have been on many fact-finding missions, or even medical missions, and many times we have been harassed or stopped by military. The government is pushing mining operations and expansion of plantations and those struggling for genuine agrarian reform or for their ancestral lands are attacked by military and paramilitary groups working for the big landlords or multi-nationals, often leading to displacement”.

However, political repression has failed to prevent Sr. Pat from her belief in continuing the Church mission to be with the marginalized groups. Atty. Taule opined “Sr. Pat is resolute in fighting for her case. She has always said that this case is not about her. This is about the issues of the poor that she wants to be propagated to the public for them to also embrace”.

ASCENT Spokesperson, Bp. Dindo Ranojo of the Iglesia Filipina Indipendiente (IFI), put it in context by saying, “Sr. Pat is a long-time development worker who believes in the people’s capacity to promote and defend their right to development. She is an inspiration to many to continue working for the poor”. #

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AscentPH is a national alliance of development organizations determinedly working for the empowerment of the people through poverty alleviation and promoting and defending the right to development and other fundamental human rights and freedoms.

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