Cotabato (AsiaNews) Despite myriad troubles experienced over the years, the Oblates of Notre Dame "are happy to serve both Muslims and Christians in Mindanao", where they are "joyfully celebrating" their Golden Jubilee. Mindanao is an archipelago in the southern Philippines that has been torn apart by clashes between the army and Islamic separatists for more than 50 years.
During festivities marking the anniversary, under way in Cotabato, Sr Rose Susan Montejo, Mother General of the congregation, said: "These 50 long years have been trying at times but very fruitful. We can say that during the tormented times of Mindanao, we managed to perform our work, serving the poor and promoting peace."
One of the most significant works undertaken by the sisters involves the formation of basic ecclesial communities, which "seek to attend to the needs of farmers, fisher folk, 'lumados' (indigenous peoples) and other marginalized groups".
The sisters are also in the forefront of peace-building projects reaching out to local Muslims and Christians, as well as youth education and local health services. "Although we are not many, our efforts go ahead," said Fr Montejo.
The congregation was founded in the early fifties by two Oblates of Mary Immaculate. These priests were sent to the southern Philippines, where they started literacy projects for local youth, setting up a chain of schools called Notre Dame.
One of the priests, Fr George Dion, contacted two retired teachers working as spiritual counsellors in the area and suggested the establishment of an institute of lay consecrated people to help educate Mindanao's youth: the two accepted to help him and the new institution was set up with the blessing of the then-bishop of Cotabato, Mgr Gerard Mongeau.
Dion, who would later become bishop of Jolo, is considered to be the founder, while Mgr Mongeau, later archbishop, is the canonical founder. On 10 November 1956, the first woman arrived: Sr Estrella Adre. This event marked the official birth of the institute.
At the time, the institute had mostly lay people who took temporary vows but shortly afterward, many consecrated themselves to religious life, taking perennial vows.
The early work of the Oblate sisters was focused on parish catechism, but they soon threw themselves into social services too, like education and local administration programmes, the formation of diocesan catechists and ministry among the indigenous peoples and women of Mindanao.
Sr Montejo said: "With the advent of liberation theology in the 1970s, we launched a foundation aimed at supporting initiatives of inter-religious dialogue and peace between Christians and Muslims. With time, this became our main mission."
From the archipelago, the sisters branched out elsewhere in the Philippines and later to Papua New Guinea and the United States. Even throughout the long and bitter war, the sisters remained on the frontline, alongside the missionaries of Mary Immaculate, seeking to help the needy, both Christians and Muslims.
Today, the Congregation counts 168 sisters: gathered in Cotabato, the sisters are "recalling the past and planning for the future. We are happy that we have helped many young worthy women to become sisters to help those in need."