WASHINGTON D.C. Hundreds came to remember, and to honor former President Corazon Aquino at the historic St. Matthews Cathedral.
Her portrait welcomed churchgoers.
Fil-Ams joined friends and family of Mrs. Aquino who attended the memorial mass. Three cousins of her husband, former Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., live in the area.
The mass was officiated by Msgr. Ronald Jameson and Filipino priest Jose Opalda.
It was the second time mass was being celebrated for a Philippine president in St. Matthews, the seat of the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington DC.
Interestingly, on the day Pres. Aquino succumbed to colon cancer – exactly 65 years ago – the remains of President Manuel L. Quezon was brought to the Cathedral for a funeral mass.
He too fought a losing battle with disease and died from tuberculosis in New York. Quezon’s body was interred at Arlington Cemetery in Virginia, but returned to the Philippines at the end of World War II.
In last Friday’s mass, however, the underlying theme was Pres. Aquino’s deep religiosity, as well as dedication to her country and people.
God, Country, People
“Tita Cory was a woman of faith and selflessness,” declared Fr. Opalda in his homily.
“In her simple ways, she always put God first, and considered the Filipino people and the country as her priorities in whatever decision she makes,” he added.
When former Vice Pres. Emmanuel Pelaez was appointed Philippine ambassador to Washington in 1986, he recruited Adolfo Paglinawan as press attaché.
Margi Paglinawan, Ado’s wife, said her husband mirrored Pelaez’s own reluctance to accept the assignment; the envoy felt he was too old for the post.
“Tito Maning fetched Ado from our home in Mandaluyong and took him to Cojuangco building where Tita Cory temporarily transferred the Office of the President, pending renovation of the Malacanang Guest House,” she recalled.
“He noticed that the tone of the discussion changed from international politics and evangelization. The idea of the US assignment shifted to becoming missionaries to spread the gospel and soliciting for paper for Bibles to be translated not only in the different Philippine dialects, but for China and Far Eastern Muslim and Buddhist countries also,” Paglinawan revealed.
The couple was instrumental for the rapid spread of the Couples for Christ network in the US. In a “very mysterious and unique way”, she said Pres. Aquino was key to their unexpected foray into America.
“Living our faith wherever we may be, to bring about peace, to bring about justice, to bring about a world of love and joy – that is Cory’s legacy and what we are asked to do,” Msgr. Jameson reminded the crowd.
Among the churchgoers was lawyer Diana Negroponte, wife of the former US ambassador to the Philippines. In Manila, she was a familiar face in the social circuit where she occasionally bumped into Mrs. Aquino.
She recounts Pope John Paul II’s visit to Manila in January 1995, nearly three years since Pres. Aquino vacated Malacanang Palace.
“I and my son, who was then 7 years old, were with Mrs. Aquino who then was just member of the public, not asking for privilege, simply sitting in the stands, just asking to be close to the Holy Father,” she remembers.
“Her simplicity came through everything she did,” Mrs. Negroponte averred.
“A great leader in such a simple way,” she added.
Asked what she thought was Mrs. Aquino’s most striking traits, she replied without hesitation, “her love of the Philippine people.”
Cory still uniting pinoys
After the mass, churchgoers walked with lighted candles to the Philippine Embassy, about a block away.
The Philippine’s premier diplomatic post in America was festooned with yellow ribbons and portraits of Mrs. Aquino – the 11th president of the Republic, her first female president and Asia’s icon of democracy.
The Philippine flag was at half staff, barely moving in the breezeless twilight air. But a bright yellow ribbon wrapped around the pole below it, seemed to keep the spirit light.
The gates were thrown wide open and cocktail tables were strewn around the grounds for the open-air reception.
A long queue formed for the condolence book.
In the years covering events at the Philippine Embassy, none appeared as warm and welcoming or well-attended as last Friday’s memorial for Pres. Aquino.
One of Ninoy’s cousin, Di Aquino, recalled how he would fetch Ninoy and Cory whenever they came visiting from Boston in the early 1980s.
After more than seven years as Pres. Ferdinand Marcos’ prisoner, Ninoy Aquino was allowed to get heart surgery in the United States in 1980.
American officials arranged for him to get a fellowship in Harvard. Mrs. Aquino described their years in Boston as her happiest.
Di called Mrs. Aquino “Achi Cory”, which he explained was a sign of respect for Kapampangans.
“Low profile is Achi Cory lagi. In our gatherings, reunions, medyo tahimik siya kasi si Ninoy lagi ang bibo at bumabangka lagi. Siya yung maingay lagi so si Cory hindi masyado nagsasalita,” he explained.
Some people still recognize Tony Lambino as a member of “Smokey Mountain”, a singing group that became famous in the late 1980s for its socially-relevant songs.
He would often go with the Himig Jesuita to Arlegui to help celebrate Christmas Eve mass with Pres. Aquino and her family.
Lambino revealed he was a scholar of the Benigno Aquino Jr. Foundation in college. When he wanted to shift from his psychology major to communication arts, Mrs. Aquino summoned him to ask why.
“I told her that where before the battle for the souls of men and women was the school or the home, Fr. Reuter said that today it is in the mass media. President Aquino turned to Ambassador (Howard) Dee, then said ‘Well, Ninoy was a journalist before he became a politician.’ She said, ‘okay this is a good plan.’ And I was able to finish my communications degree at Ateneo,” Lambino recounted.
He now works for the World Bank but often blogs about political and social ills back home.
“She had a deep sense of integrity and sincerity. She left me inspired. Totoong Filipino, totoong Kristiyano,” he mused.
Even in death, Mrs. Aquino seemed to conjure the “Cory magic”.
The attendance last Friday evening was truly impressive, easily one of the best for an event that didn’t involve a beauty pageant or the ubiquitous “line dancing”.
Some say she was a Filipino phenomenon – a leader able to unite a usually fractious people through example, and an abiding faith in God and in the Filipino, even when they sometimes find it difficult to believe in themselves.