CONTI, Mary Concepcion Lourdes

contiLourdes Conti was born in Batangas and studied there at the St. Bridget’s School, run by the Religious of the Good Shepherd (RGS). In 1973 she joined the Good Shepherd sisters herself, taking the name Sister Mary Concepcion by which she was to become well known and respected as a teacher, missionary and development worker.

“Sister Cons” was one of three nuns sent to Agusan in Mindanao in 1978 to start an RGS community in Agusan. The sisters settled in a town along the river, living with a local family because they did not have their own convent. The place was remote, food was scarce, and transportation difficult. To move around, the women hitched rides on logging trucks, tractors, bulldozers.

They put up a school for the children of the Banwaon Manobo who lived in the area. Logging companies had operated there for years, making the people work for low wages and leaving their natural environment in ruins.

It was Conti’s first assignment out of Luzon. She did not speak Bisaya, the common language in Mindanao, but she adjusted easily to the hard life there because “I have made a vow of poverty and I want to live a simple life.”

In 1980, when Conti was transferred to the RGS community in Davao, she organized and headed the Community-Based Health Program (CBHP) in the diocese of Tagum.

CBHP pioneered a holistic approach to health in the rural areas by helping community members to understand the sociopolitical and economic factors which contributed to their poor health and poverty. It sought to empower the local people by developing health workers from among themselves. Thus, apart from attending to health concerns needing attention, the CBHP program also raised social awareness through training and education seminars.

Because of this, CBHP staffers were regarded with suspicion by the military. Anyone caught with acupuncture needles (used in a common mode of treatment offered under the program) was likely to be detained or interrogated. The risks did not discourage Sister Cons: she continued visiting the barrios and holding seminars for barrio people.

Community health workers found her a great source of comfort. They noted her smile and her willingness to do menial tasks. Her previous teaching experience was a big help and they were able to expand the health program to most parishes in the diocese.

Sr. Mary Concepcion Conti died in 1983 with three other RGS sisters on their way to a meeting in Cebu when their ship, the MV Cassandra, sank. Survivors said the nuns were among those who helped in the evacuation of the passengers, especially the children, disregarding the need to save their own lives.