In my younger days, I had been traipsing around Europe, visiting major tourist sights without even thinking of visiting Mama Mary’s shrines that dot Europe. While family and friends attest that I was quite religious during my growing up years, somehow the lure of the material world drew me away from my religious upbringing. As my career in business grew, I had forgotten Mama Mary and all my religious obligations.
I moved to the US in 1984 to escape an oppressive life in the Philippines, thinking that the Marcos dictatorship would continue for many more years. Little did I know that the dictator would be deposed in so short a time, two years later to be exact. By then, I had already grown my roots in the land of milk and honey. But living alone in the US was not a simple cup of tea, despite the milk and the honey. And little by little, I came to realize that Mama Mary had not really forgotten me, although I had forgotten her. My aloneness and my lukewarm faith were my own creations. Just the same, while her call became stronger year in and year out, I did not pay much attention to her until I met Robert, my future husband. Rob’s roots are in Georgia and Illinois, although he was born in Miami, Florida, and calls it his home. He was an unbaptized Christian, and when I finally decided to marry him, I invoked Mama Mary’s help, and I returned to the fold. There must have been much rejoicing in Heaven when we tied the knot on July 20, 1996 at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Westwood, Los Angeles. Here was a prodigal daughter who had returned, bringing along a husband who converted and embraced the Catholic faith knowingly and willingly!
But it took my sister Violeta (Viol) to really bring Rob and me home to Mama Mary. In 2003, she lost her husband, Cesar, after his lingering illness. Then, she suffered a stroke, which slightly impaired her speech, her mind and her body. In our efforts to comfort her and also to help her heal her mind, body and spirit, we suggested a pilgrimage to religious shrines in Portugal, Spain, France and Italy. The trip would take us to Fatima, Avila, Burgos, Lourdes, Rome, San Giovanni Rotondo, and Assisi. In 2005, it had been some 30 years since my last trip to Europe, and I personally prepared for our trip with great excitement and anticipation. A side trip to New York to revisit familiar places and see old friends was planned, as well as another side trip to Brussels to visit my nephew, Jory Buhay, who had lived there for over a decade. As a young woman, I had worked for an American stock brokerage company, the largest in the world at the time, whose domestic main office was in New York, and New York was my Mecca, as was Geneva where the international home office was located; and we were all eager to meet Jory’s Belgian family, especially his two young daughters, Leslie and Maia. All of this made our preparations for the trip hectic but fun.
We arrived in Lisbon from New York in the afternoon of October ll. Our first stop was a visit to St. Anthony’s Church. Despite what might be assumed from his name, St. Anthony was born and grew up in Lisbon. Known as the Patron Saint of lost objects and lost causes, he personally became the patron saint for Rob and me, two lost souls, who found ourselves in many countless ways during this pilgrimage. We also drove to the town of Santarem, one of the oldest cities in the world, walked through its narrow streets to the Church of St. Stephen, site of the oldest recorded Eucharistic miracle. This miraculous relic has been on continuous display since 1269. My sister, whose gait was slow and impaired because of her stroke, was game and did not complain through all this hectic schedule.
From there, we drove to nearby Fatima and arrived in the early evening. We stayed at Hotel Santa Maria Jardim on Rua de Santo Antonio. The hotel appeared to be newly built and, apparently, a favorite hotel for pilgrims. The rooms were comfortable and the staff was very accommodating. Rob and I have been vegetarians for many years, and the staff made sure that our dietary requirements were met.
Our pilgrimage was so planned that we would be in Fatima on the month dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary, and more so, to be in Fatima at an auspicious date, October 13. The greatest modern miracle took place on October 13, 1917 in Fatima. As 70,000 persons watched apprehensively, the sun, whirling like a gigantic fireball plunged at a dizzying speed towards the earth. The miracle of the sun known in the Catholic world as “the day the sun danced” was the finale of a series of mysterious events which had occurred in the then-unknown Portuguese village. Six times, from May 13 to October 13, 1917, the Blessed Mother appeared to three shepherd children — Lucia and her younger cousins, Francisco and Jacinta. In her apparitions, the Blessed Mother predicted World War II, the rise and spread of Communism, and the present world chaos. But even more important than her prophesies were the promises she made — that if her plea to mankind to do penance, and if her other messages were heeded, Russia would be converted and there would be world peace. In short, the Blessed Mother unveiled a “peace plan from heaven .” But, mankind did not listen to her pleas and the rest is history — the devastating World War I (which had started in 1914) in Europe, followed by World War II, the spread of Communism, the rise of materialism and the hopelessness that has engulfed the world since then.
During our visit to Fatima, I remember the night of October 12, 2005 vividly. The moon was bright, despite the fact that it was past half-full; in other words, it was a waxing gibbous moon. The weather was beautiful when we arrived at the shrine plaza for the candle-lit “farewell” procession. The moonlight illuminated the clouds, but we could see the clouds building. I remember Rob saying that it looked like we might get a storm later, but we hoped that the storm would miss us. When we left Los Angeles, we were warned that the weather in Fatima changes fast and we should be prepared with an umbrella and a light raincoat. Indeed, these came in handy as the clouds rapidly built up and the rain poured down as the procession was starting, soaking the thousands of pilgrims from around the world. Our flimsy ponchos kept us from getting totally soaked but didn’t keep us entirely dry. In this pouring rain, with an umbrella on one hand and a rosary on the other, my thoughts were on my 75-year-old sister who was shivering slightly and, somehow, more drenched than we were! Then, out of the vast crowd, a tall middle-aged and good-looking European man came to shelter Viol with a big umbrella until the procession ended in front of the altar. As the procession ended, the rain suddenly stopped and the beautiful moon reappeared in the sky. Just as he had suddenly come, the man also just as suddenly disappeared into the crowd. Although it was mid-October, the rain did not feel terribly cold to either of us, and we dried off remarkably quickly — especially Viol who was more drenched than we were despite the umbrella. We looked around and everyone seemed to have dried off quickly. Was the sudden downpour a divine test for us? Perhaps. Was Viol’s “rescuer” her guardian angel? Perhaps. If so, guardian angels must have been very busy that night taking care of their wards. Did the rain spiritually cleanse all the pilgrims that evening? We can only speak for ourselves, and it sure was healing waters that poured from the heavens! Yes, I would say that rainy “farewell” was very memorable. As if Mama Mary was telling us that she would send bountiful blessings to us and it would pour like the rain that night, as long as we accepted what comes!
We knew that the Shrine at Fatima closes for the winter in mid-October, and we were the last group of pilgrims that year. The next morning, there was Adeus, a final and loving farewell ceremony, and thousands of white handkerchiefs fluttered in the wind as pilgrims waved them lovingly to the statue of Our Lady of Fatima as she exited for the winter break. This was a very touching ceremony, and there were no dry eyes among the pilgrims. To this day, we have kept the hankies that we waved to our Lady, and when the Pilgrim statue of Our Lady of Fatima visits Los Angeles, we use the same hankies to wave our goodbyes.
Just as the three children of Fatima were presented with the “peace plan from heaven,” we, the three pilgrims, took the peace plan to heart, to remain Marian devotees until her Son calls us to our new abode. This recollection of our visit to Fatima is a memorial to my sister, Violeta. She passed away on January 28, 2010 at age 80. It was said that the Spanish soldiers plying the galleon routes to and from the Philippines always sang “Salve Regina” to our Blessed Mother as they prepared for the night. And the strains of “Salve Regina” ring in my ears as I say goodnight to Viol for her eternal sleep.
The article was originally published in Magnificat: Mama Mary's Pilgrim Sites. Collected and Edited by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard. (Manila: Anvil Publishing, 2012)
Linda Nietes Little is a trailblazer, a cultural activist, a yoga enthusiast and a vegetarian for over thirty-five years. When martial law was declared in the Philippines in 1972, she opted to resign from her job as Operations Manager of the Manila office of a big Geneva and NY-based international stock brokerage company. Instead, she reinvented herself and opened Casalinda, her first bookshop located in Forbes Park, Metro Manila. In support of Filipino writers, she opened a home for Filipino writings despite government censorship. In 1984, Linda felt that Filipino and Filipino American writings needed a home in the US. She moved her operations to California and opened Philippine Expressions Bookshop, dedicated to Filipino Americans in search of their roots. It is the first Filipiniana bookshop in American soil and is now located in San Pedro, CA. This essay is her first try at writing.