Remedios Chuidian, later known as Sister Mary Consuelo or Sister Elo, was born into a life of privilege. She had her fill of parties and pampering, and she was able to study for a master’s degree abroad. Many were surprised when in 1961 she chose the life of a nun, joining the Religious of the Good Shepherd (RGS).
She surprised many again by volunteering to be assigned to Mindanao. Martial law had been imposed; the Roman Catholic church was actively promoting its social teachings. With these new developments, Chuidian’s lifestyle, priorities, and even the target of her apostolate, were also changing.
As she embraced a life of poverty and sacrifice among the oppressed and marginalized people in Mindanao’s rural areas, the woman with a conservative upbringing turned into an “ibong pumipiglas” – a bird struggling to be free, celebrated in the song “Bayan Ko.” She began attending protest rallies. She started giving awareness seminars. She opened her school facilities to be used for meetings and forums by tribal groups, labor groups, and others who could not afford to rent expensive venues.
Her first assignment as a missionary sister was in Maragusan, Davao del Norte, where upland farmers grew coffee and cacao, and life was very hard. People depended on rain for water. They had no electricity. Landslides hit frequently.
Among the Mansaka, an indigenous community, the nuns started a program to train lay apostolates, “kaabag,” who went out to the villages to hold prayer services and give communion in the absence of a priest. The sisters also trained catechists and organized a social action center. Sister Elo learned to wear bakya or wooden clogs, and to bathe in the creek, like everybody else.
She learned to take these difficulties in stride, in the same way that she remained unfazed by the mistrust shown towards them by government troopers and New People’s Army (NPA) guerrillas both operating in the same area. “You don’t have to shout,” she once told an angry soldier, in a cool tone that distinguished her as a lady from a refined background.
Her next post was in Laac, Davao del Norte, where the people had been forced to relocate from their original communities and regroup in so-called hamlets, so as to remove them from the influence of anti-government guerrilla units. (This was a counterinsurgency tactic used in the Vietnam war.)
The people could not return to their farms, so there was little food and much discontent. The hamlets, under the strict control of the military, had no running water, no toilets, and no bathrooms. Epidemics broke out, and children were getting sick and dying. One Christmas Eve, Sister Elo and another nun had to bring a sick person down a bad road from the hamlet to a hospital in town. The nuns ate the same food as the other people, mostly camote, corn and bagoong. Sister Elo lost a lot of weight. Her letters to her family, however, spoke not of her own difficulties but of military atrocities, corpses, torture, weeping widows, starving children, droughts and ﬂoods.
In 1982, Chuidian moved to Davao City when she was appointed superior of the RGS community there. She was also elected chair of the Women’s Alliance for True Change and coordinator of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines for South Mindanao. She became a leading figure in the Sisters’ Association in Mindanao and the Association of Religious Women of Davao.
These new responsibilities allowed her to help more people suffering from martial law, victims of ambushes needing medical attention, families forced to live in hamlets, activists on the government’s wanted list seeking refuge, rape survivors, and even wounded guerrillas.
Sister Mary Consuelo Chuidian, nicknamed “Rubia” as a child because of her naturally light-colored hair, transformed into the much-loved, ever helpful Sister Elo who lived to serve the poor. She was much admired for her sincere spirit of self-sacrifice. She was one of those who died in 1983 when their ship, the MV Cassandra, sank on their way to a meeting in Cebu. Survivors said the nuns were among those who took care of the children and helped organize the distribution of life vests, not taking any for themselves.