Sr. Mary Catherine Loreto was born Lucinda Loreto, the child of an army dentist who died missing in action during World War II. His widow raised her two daughters by herself.
Loreto earned two university diplomas, in foreign service and business administration. She worked in a bank, went to parties and wore miniskirts like other young women at the time, the 1960s. Her family was surprised when she decided to become a nun (a Religious of the Good Shepherd, RGS) in 1973. The country was under martial law.
Working in a poor community in Manila brought her face to face with the suffering caused by poverty. Sometimes she would join residents of the slums protesting against the forcible demolition of their homes, like them going through the experience of being hosed down by water cannons.
She was then assigned to Isabela and Cebu, but it was in Bicol where she was exposed to the abuses perpetrated by the military under the dictatorship. She became a defender of human rights.
She joined the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, a group of sisters from different religious orders who undertook development programs in poor rural communities.
In Davao, Loreto volunteered for the field office of the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP) and was soon its coordinator.
Resistance to the Marcos dictatorship was growing in Davao City and adjacent areas. Communities supported legal as well as extra-legal protest actions, and even the New People’s Army and its urban-based Sparrow Units.
Human rights violations continued unabated. TFDP-Davao received countless requests for lawyers, assistance in locating missing persons and so on. Loreto, as the task force coordinator, carried a heavy burden. But she was aware that her status as a religious afforded her some measure of protection. She went about her tasks with great dedication and courage.
She visited detainees in the camps, sought out military officials in searching for missing persons, traveled to remote areas to inform the families of those who had been detained or killed. She escorted relatives to funeral parlors and morgues to identify bodies. Once she secured the baby of an activist couple and temporarily brought it to the convent to be cared for. Resourceful and friendly, she even developed a network of informants – drivers and funeral parlors owners, among others, for locating missing persons. Detainees were particularly thankful for her efforts in organizing visits by friends and in soliciting material assistance for their needs.
On a boat trip to Cebu in 1983, Sr. Catherine Loreto drowned with three other RGS nuns during the sinking of the MV Cassandra. Survivors said it was the nuns who alerted the passengers that the ship was sinking, because the crew refused to admit it. The sisters roused sleeping passengers, gave instructions on survival measures and made sure that the children especially had life vests. The sisters themselves did not take life jackets. Out of more than 600 passengers, less than 200 survived the disaster.