A year after

By Rowena D. Cuanico

About four years ago while I was starting my ministry as Regional Lay Mission Coordinator of the Columban Lay Missionaries - Philippines, a former Columban lay missionary shared to me that, after she ended her commitment with the Columbans, it took her nearly two years to find her feet again.  I was quite surprised by the revelation.  And then I started to count.  She spent about four years with the Columbans, one year in the Orientation Program and three years on overseas mission.  And it took her two years to resettle! At that time, I was already with the Columban Missionaries for nearly nine years, including the Orientation Program. I thought that if it took her two years to resettle, then could it take me at least four years!

I may have counted the years but I never fully understood what all those years meant. I was puzzled why it took her that long to settle in again. There must be a shortcut! I did not really understand the process of settling in again until I had to go through the experience myself.


It took me almost a year to discern whether I would continue or not my commitment with the Columbans Missionaries. On my second year in the Philippines, I realized that my parents were both aging and their needs were not only changing but also increasing. When I joined the Columbans in 1999, I knew fully well that one day I would have to come home to help care for my parents. I don’t have the luxury of numbers as there are only two of us – my brother and me. And my brother has a young family to care for. He has been looking after my parents since I joined the Columbans.
Rowena with Sherryl Lou

I felt that I was accompanied well in my discernment. I am grateful to three Columban priests who helped me in my discernment in so many amazing ways - Frs. Mick Mohally, Jude Genovia, and Mick McGuire. I also sought the guidance of the two people who led me to the Columbans – Bishop Lito Lampon, OMI and Carmelite Sister Baybeth Andaya.

Yet on the day that I had to write the letter to Fr. Pat O’Donoghue, Regional Director of the Columban Missionaries in the Philippines, my heart felt heavy.  I realized that it was much easier for me to leave my job with a UNDP-assisted project and join the Columban Lay Missionaries in 1999 than decide to end my commitment with the Columbans 12 years later. It was a hard decision to make, a painful yet liberating process to go through. When I finally made the decision, deep in my heart, I could only pray that my Lord who is all compassion would understand my decision.

After I turned over the responsibilities to the incoming Lay Mission Coordinator John Din, I went for a retreat at the Cenacle Sisters’ Retreat House. The retreat provided me a sacred space and time to look back at my experiences with the Columban Missionaries. It was a time of grateful and joyful remembering of so many people, places, and events who were part of the journey and who helped me in my becoming.  But there were painful experiences whose wounds were still raw. There were experiences whose scars I could still feel and see.  I had to implore God’s grace for the gift of healing.

During the retreat I was asked to reflect over and over again on how God has been faithful to me all my life. I was invited to recall experiences of God’s love and generosity. I was asked to be aware of, acknowledge and celebrate the work of God in my life. ‘Be not afraid, I am with you always’ were the words that were carved in my heart. These were also the words of consolation and strength that I took with me when I left the Cenacle Retreat House. But one could only really prepare that much.  I quickly realized that there is no such thing as ‘fully prepared’.

About three weeks after I arrived home, my father was brought to the hospital for pneumonia. It was a real encounter with reality. My parents were brought to the hospital on several occasions while I was on mission. But this was going to be the first time that I had to look after my father in the hospital. I was on duty during the day while my brother took the night shift. Even if there are only two of us, we never felt alone because we got a lot of help and support from the ever reliable circle of relatives and friends who are always there for us.

Indeed there was not much time to settle in. There was no reorientation! I barely had time to savor the experiences and catch some fresh air. There were some wounds that need to be healed. There were some disappointments and frustrations that I need to let go of. But here was I - already confronted with the reality that featured prominently in my discernment.

With and despite realities at home, I felt good to be home. Relatives and friends were so welcoming. Most of them were in favor and relieved of my decision. I visited classmates and friends whom I haven’t seen for a long time. It was fiesta time when I arrived home. So I went to fiestas and yes to weddings and birthdays too. After nearly nine years I was finally home for our town’s fiesta celebration.

While I was settling in there were times when I felt overwhelmed by so many things happening at the same time. I discovered that not only my parents’ physical condition has become limited but also their capacity to make decisions. One time I was annoyed when I was asked how would I would like the chicken to be cooked for dinner! When I would feel that I was having enough, the community of the Religious of the Sacred Heart (RSCJ) provided me refuge and encouragement.

A cousin Atty. Lilet Abuel gifted me with a trip to Davao for the first birthday of our cousin - Dr. Victor Dato’s son Zach.  It was a much needed break.  The birthday celebration was during the weekend of Davao City’s Kadayawan Festival. I went with my aunt and cousins. And we enjoyed ourselves during the children’s party and the festivities of the Kadayawan. We feasted on fruits and the famous ‘panga’ or grilled tuna head. It was my first time to be in Davao for the Kadayawan. And I was awed by the colorful celebration and the vibrancy of life that the Kadayawan Festival brings forth.

There was a bonus to the trip. This reunited me with my contemporaries in Australia – Malu Leh who is from Davao and Popen de Guzman who was also visiting. Malu and her family hosted a dinner for me. We spent the evening reminiscing about the wonderful time we had in Canberra. I returned home feeling renewed and recharged.

After the town fiesta in August and as I became more and more concerned about the state of my personal resources, I started to actively seek work. Again the ever reliable network of friends, former colleagues, lay missionaries and contemporaries in Canberra was there for me. My curriculum vitae (CV) travelled far and wide, many thanks to the internet. I submitted my application to about five organizations and these were not even acknowledged! I was losing confidence! I was beginning to doubt my qualifications and experiences. I even thought that my age and being part of a religious community were going against me. I was feeling impatient, anxious and disappointed. My faith in my God was being put to a test. I couldn’t afford to be unemployed for another month. And I was praying that my parents would not get sick!

I was also wrestling with my desire to be in control. Yes, I had to admit that I made some stupid decisions. Maybe I wanted to solve the problems myself and solve these fast. I was trying to be superwoman and even god. And I wasn’t.
Rowena with RP17
My impatience, desperation and anxiety clearly showed. I remember I posted on my Facebook page – ‘Lord, can I now please claim my reward even just partially?’ It was an honest and candid pleading to my God.

When I left the Lay Mission and after deciding that I will my luck in Manila, Beth Briones was generous to offer a spare room in her apartment which she shared with her Mom. This move did not only reunite me with Beth who was a companion in mission in Fiji (our group is PH 9 and our group was assigned to Fiji in 2000) but also with Cynthia Empleo, another member of PH 9, whose apartment is just across the road. PH 9 has moved from Cubao to Makati City!

Then the breakthrough finally came. God must have my heard my prayer and my parents’ prayer too. I had three job interviews in one week! A family friend offered me work in her publishing company. Then a member of the House of Representatives called me for an interview. How my CV reached this member of the House of Representatives is a story by itself. I sent my bio-data to a friend who was my contemporary in Canberra, my friend sent it to her husband, her husband to the congressman’s brother and finally to the Congressman himself! My third interview was with VSO Bahaginan. I sent in my application to VSO Bahaginan through its website.

And then I realized that these job interviews were like re-entry sessions to me. I had to tell my story. I could sense a lot of curiosity in my being a Columban Lay Missionary. In one interview I was asked what innovations I introduced to the financial management system at the Lay Mission. I was even asked how we support ourselves as Columban Lay Missionaries.
Choosing from among the three job opportunities proved to be difficult. Working in a publishing company would further nurture my writing skills. Yet I also believe that I thrive best in community work. I don’t consider myself an office girl! And so I understood well that my heart was inclined to working again in a congressional office and to try to make a difference in people’s lives. VSO Bahaginan’s mission of fighting poverty through volunteerism is also close to my heart.

While these were important considerations in the discernment process, there were other things that were going on in my heart. There was a longing for some sense of security and stability. There was a longing to do something close to being a missionary. It was a delicate balancing act between what my heart desires and what the realities of my life requires.

VSO Bahaginan’s offer came on a Saturday morning but it was conditional pending medical clearance. The opportunity to work in a congressional office came on Sunday evening. When the Congressman mentioned that ‘I had told my father about you’, I felt sad. It was a close call.

Being back in the workforce has been a big learning experience for me. I had to learn a lot of things and unlearn some. I noticed that I took small sometimes tentative steps and even missteps. I had to learn and be familiar with the language used in the world of non-government organizations and in VSO. I thought that collaterals are needed when one obtain a loan or a mortgage. Now I know that collaterals are posters, tarpaulins and bookmarks! My IT skills had to level up! I had to learn how to use VSO’s database, generate reports and respond to e-mails from all over the VSO virtual world which seems like a never-ending job. I had to learn office routine again – observe office hours, fill out leave forms, and study and comply with protocols and procedures. But this is only one side of the picture.

Saying goodbye to 12 years of meaningful experiences with Columban Missionaries has not been easy for me. During my missionary journey, I found community life most challenging. Yet I was missing it! I was missing the spirit of being part of a community with and amidst diversity of cultures, visions, aspirations, ideas and opinions. I was missing the life, strength and inspiration that came from shared moments - from the celebration of the Eucharist, faith sharing, the community meetings, and the personal sharing. I was missing the colors and vitality that the different cultures bring to the community and the many occasions to celebrate these. I was missing individual Columban Missionaries from Fiji, Australia, Peru, Taiwan, Myanmar and in the Philippines who have been inspiration to me. I was missing the neighbors along Rosario Drive, Cubao - students at the Columban House of Formation and the Columban Sisters. I was missing the staff at the Lay Mission House in Cubao and co-workers in various Columban Houses from Fiji, Melbourne, and the Philippines whom I had the privilege to work with, especially those who have cared for me.

I was missing the seemingly endless sharing at the dining table at the Lay Mission House in Cubao which often times would last longer than the actual meal time. We would often joke among ourselves– if these tables could only talk!

Memories of those wonderful mission experiences in Fiji – of people, places and events would occasionally flash across my mind. The people, events, places and experiences remain so clear and vivid in my heart. I feel humbled and blessed for that amazing opportunity to journey with so many people – fellow Columban Missionaries, co-workers, benefactors, mission partners, indigenous peoples, people from different cultural backgrounds, Muslims, Hindus, Anglicans, Methodists, and the Filipino community in Fiji. They have brought so much color, richness and meaning to my life.

I really did not know how much I have become part of the community until I left. And I soon discovered as I ventured ‘back into the world’, that the Columban Missionaries in the Philippines were there to cheer and lift me up during difficult moments. I remember when I went to the Lay Mission House for a mission-sending ceremony. A Columban priest asked me, ‘have you got a job?’ And with relief and pride, I said ‘yes’. Then he asked, ‘are you paid well?’ ‘It is a good start’, I replied. And we both laughed.


Over a year has passed since I ended my commitment with the Columban Missionaries. Have I found my feet again? Not yet. I am still in this amazing and fascinating transition, with all its opportunities and challenges, its joys and pains. My heart is trying to savor the experiences and at the same time trying to welcome a new beginning. My heart is still grieving while it is trying to heal the wounds. My heart is trying to be present to the moment while trying to be hopeful and excited for the future. I am still finding my rhythm, trying to keep my pace with the very rhythm of our God. I am still in this sometimes bewildering discovery of God’s will for me. This makes me feel anxious about what the future holds for me. This makes me restless because I want to see what God has in store for me. I need to be reminded over and over again to ‘Be still’ and to believe strongly in the very words of my God – ‘I am with you always.’
                                                                                                                                                                        

Rowena Dato Cuanico was a Columban Lay Missionary from 2000-2011. She spent eight years in the Fiji Islands (2000-2008). She served in two Columban Parishes and has worked with the Mission Awareness Team. She also served as JPIC Coordinator of the Columban Missionaries in Fiji. She returned to the Philippines in 2008 and served until May 2011 as Regional Lay Mission Coordinator of the Columban Lay Missionaries in the Philippines. She worked with VSO Bahaginan until January 2013.

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