Many years ago when I lived in Mindoro, I had a friend who was actually from Palawan, and as it turned out, from a well-known family here. She was from the Fernandez family, one of a set of twins.
We talked about Palawan a lot, and then, through some connection, I no longer remember, we talked about Culion and the leper colony there. Imelda knew the priest there – he was a Jesuit – and some of the Sisters of St Paul. And she had a book written by an American soldier from the Fil-American war who had lived with a Visayan family for some time during the war and become very attached to them. Many years after he got back to the U.S., he was discovered to have leprosy, and he asked to be sent to Culion. There he found several members of the family with whom he had lived!!
I read the book and was hooked. I immediately drew up a proposal for a Peace Corps summer project in Culion and sent it off to Manila. Peace Corps was a bit doubtful especially about security problems or emergency evacuation for illness and such, but when they finally reluctantly okayed the project, it was largely because of the U.S. Coast Guard station nearby which could presumably evacuate someone. However, we had no health emergencies or security concerns!
In fact, we felt very secure and well cared for, especially by the Sisters of St Paul, who lived in a lovely convent on the side of a hill, overlooking the sea. They ran the orphanage for the children of patients. (This was 1964 and children still had to be separated from infected parents from birth until the age of five.) They also ran the school, and one of their members, Sister Lutgard, who taught music, had been found to have leprosy once she was there, and so they had fixed her up in a very cute apartment in the school – the school was in the restricted area but the convent was not.
Things were good in Culion during those years, at least so they seemed to me. It was beautiful and unspoiled and moved at a slow relaxed pace. I was not of course dealing with the stigma of having leprosy myself, and of not wanting anyone in the rest of the country to know where I had come from. Life was low key – there were two or three vehicles on the island, so people just walked.
There didn’t seem to be much competition for anything like money, power, clothes, electronic gadgets, etc. A throw-back to earlier times in the world. I taught children swimming, and did some teaching in the Leprosy wards. I remember one particular man there who was fairly well educated but had nothing to read – except one very old Readers’ Digest, which he wanted to share with me. Did I know the ten signs of alcoholism? Etc. Peace Corps had sent a whole bookshelf of books to each volunteer, so when I got back to San Jose I was well able to share.
But Culion and her inhabitants have been through many hardships. When the island was first established as a home for patients of Hansen’s disease, by the American government in 1906 in the name of ensuring the public health of the Philippines, patients were forcibly moved in. Leprosy patients had received “Humanitarian Aid” from the friars in other parts of the country, but they had not been separated from family or quarantined – or relocated. Naturally, there was resistance to this. Doctors made cursory examinations of people who showed the remotest signs of leprosy, without the benefit of bacteriological tests, and condemned them to separation from their families and communities probably forever. It may also be true that some of those sent to Culion did not have leprosy at all but had simply been “suggested” to the medical authorities by people who did not like them. This whole affair was a nightmare in terms of human rights violations and stark brutal human suffering.
Later, when leprosy could be controlled, it was possible for people to leave Culion and travel to other parts of the country. But if the disease had progressed to the point of breakdown of the cartilage of their noses, earlobes, fingers, and toes, they could be quickly identified as lepers and stigmatized in a tradition as old as the Bible. It requires long exposure and generally run down condition to ‘catch’ leprosy from anyone – you certainly don’t get it from a simple social or financial exchange. Nevertheless special Leprosarium coinage was issued in 1913.
During World War II, when the Japanese invaded the Philippines, they of course stayed away from Culion out of fear. But since sea-based transportation was cut or at least curtailed during the war, food deliveries were interrupted and people did indeed go hungry.
Post war, with Hansen’s Disease under control, Culion began to come into its own. The island was declared leprosy free only in 2006 and people who wished to leave could do so. Patients who had nowhere to go often stayed in the self sufficient barangays set aside for the cured. In the sixties when I was there, the children of patients often left to study in Manila. Back in Manila I visited one such girl in Holy Trinity, but had been forewarned not to mention the name of Culion. But slowly other people began to drift into Culion and set up commercial interests.
In 2014, the National Historical Commission of the Philippines unveiled a historical marker there, renaming the hospital the Culion Sanitarium and General Hospital and opening the Culion Museum and Archives within.
And just last week a beautiful movie, Culion, was launched in Puerto Princesa City by iOptions Ventures. This is the story of three women patients in Culion in the 1940’s as they struggle with their roles as women, wives, friends living with one of the most stigmatized diseases in history. It was produced by Gellie and Peter Sing, and the screen play was written by Ricky Lee and directed by Alvin Yapan. Hopefully this film will be selected for one of the last four slots of the Metro Manila Film Festival of 2019. But Peter Sing declared at the end of the launch that whether or not it was chosen for the Film Festival, it was sure to be shown all over the world!